This article was originally published on April 26, 2018. It’s part of the Bay Curious series “A Very Curious Walking Tour of Golden Gate Park.”
The Golden Gate Park Polo Field and Stadium in San Francisco is probably best known as the home to music festivals like Outside Lands.
Bay Curious listener Cliff Bargar has been to Outside Lands, and he likes to bike and run on the track around the polo field, but he’s never seen an actual polo match there.
“If polo was happening I would probably check it out at least once,” Cliff says.
Which raises the question: Is polo still played at the polo field?
‘Like the Coliseum in Rome’
The Stadium (as it was originally called) opened to the public in 1906, just after the massive earthquake and fire that ravaged the city.
“People probably needed some celebration after all of the calamitous things that had happened,” says Christopher Pollock, historian-in-residence for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.
Pollock says it looks pretty much the same today as it did back then. It’s a big, grassy oval field a few hundred yards long with some bleachers on either side and a bike track around the perimeter.
There were big plans back then for what The Stadium would be.
“The grand vision was that this would become a stadium in the biggest imaginable sense, like the Coliseum in Rome,” Pollock says.
The plan was for The Stadium to be a major site of the 1915 World’s Fair being held in San Francisco. It would be surrounded by bleachers with room for thousands of spectators. An arcade of arches would surround the field, and grand portals would act as entrances to the field itself.
But the World’s Fair was relocated to the Marina District, and a lack of easy parking near The Stadium ended any chance of realizing that grand vision.
The polo field
Instead, polo became The Stadium’s main attraction. In 1931, it was designated an official municipal polo field and, somewhere along the way, the name stuck: It became known as just “the polo field.”
For the next three decades, polo matches were a regular sight on the field, and the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department hosted matches nearly every week into the early 1960s.
But polo isn’t a cheap sport to play or host. Horses are expensive to keep, and a polo field requires constant maintenance to repair the turf after horses have galloped all over it.
By the 1970s, rugby had replaced polo as the primary sport on the field.
“It died out gradually,” Pollock says of polo at the field. “It wasn’t one of these things that just dropped off all of a sudden. It happened over a very gradual amount of time as the sport really became less popular.”
There are still a couple of clubs in the North Bay and on the Peninsula where you can find old-fashioned polo matches, but there’s nothing in San Francisco. The polo field is the only place that could realistically host a match, but outside of the rare tournament or charity event, it’s all concerts and recreational soccer games there now.
You don’t have to ride a horse to play polo
About five miles east of Golden Gate Park is Dolores Park, where bike polo matches happen almost every night.
The rule book is 17 pages long, but the basics are pretty simple: Teams of three play against each other, and the first team to score five goals wins.
The game looks more like hockey than it does polo. For instance, in polo, players aren’t allowed to cut off someone who has the ball because it would be dangerous for both the rider and the horse. But that’s fair game in bike polo.
Bike polo has its origins in Ireland from the late 19th century, where it was played on a grass field. In 1908, it was featured as an exhibition sport in the London Olympics.
Hard-court bike polo, like what’s played in Dolores Park, got its start in Seattle in the late 20th century and quickly spread from there. The Dolores Park court was built in 2015 specifically for sports like hard-court bike polo.
So should we expect to see our question-asker, Cliff Bargar, pedaling into a game anytime soon?
“I find this a lot more interesting than horse polo, to be honest,” he said, “[but] I’m not sure yet if I’ll be back with my own bike … but I’ll definitely consider it.”