Polo comes home: The sport is reborn in Colorado Springs, where it once thrived

Cynthia Leonard has been sifting through yellowed pages of brochures, reading the fading ink of newspapers and collecting grainy photos — all of it helping to paint the picture of a sport’s heyday in Colorado Springs.

Here in the 1920s, some of the nation’s top polo players and horses gathered for games on grass courses larger than football fields.

The Broadmoor served as a western headquarters for polo, Leonard has learned. She’s the hotel’s historian, working in an office space today that formerly housed stables.

One snag in her recent investigation: “I could not figure out where the polo fields were,” she said.

The Broadmoor’s visionary, Spencer Penrose, saw grandstands erected in 1928, Leonard gathered. She determined the sporting land was eventually sold for houses to be built. As for that precise location, she found clues in street names around the neighborhood today: Polo Drive, Polo Pony Drive and Polo Circle.

Learning the history has been like a puzzle, Leonard said. “And putting the pieces together has been really interesting.”

The resulting picture: “Polo was a big deal here,” Leonard said.

One hundred years later, it’s coming back.

For a second year, The Broadmoor and Colorado Springs Sports Corp. are presenting the Winter Polo Classic at the Norris Penrose Event Center. (The Broadmoor is owned by the Denver-based Anschutz Corp., whose Clarity Media Group owns The Gazette.)

On Feb. 24, a small group of horsemen and women will return to the rodeo grounds for another show aimed at entertaining and reintroducing a city to a sport core to its heritage. It’s a sport widely unfamiliar now.

”Field hockey on a horse,” is how Nicholas Francoeur describes it.

The former Space Force officer based in the Springs is among ball-slinging, horse-riding players expected back for the Winter Polo Classic. Francoeur was integral to the event coming together.

He got hooked on the sport while at the Air Force Academy for four years through 2018, going on to link up with the well-established Denver Polo Club. He pondered why Colorado Springs lacked such a presence — especially as he came to understand the history at The Broadmoor.

”I just wanted to put people on to the sport,” Francoeur said.

So he reached out to The Broadmoor, whose people liked his pitch enough to reach out to the event-managing Colorado Springs Sports Corp.

”It was a no-brainer for us,” said Davis Tutt, the organization’s director of sports tourism.

It would be “something new,” Tutt said — something niche inside polo’s niche world.

Beyond Aspen and St. Moritz in Switzerland, you don’t hear much about wintertime polo. Beyond Palm Beach, Fla., and the Hamptons and other high-class enclaves spotting the East Coast and Europe, you don’t hear much about polo in general.

The reason is obvious, said Francoeur, who promotes the sport inside the U.S. Polo Association.

”Horses in many ways have fallen out of vogue with culture,” he said. “And it seems like (polo) is relegated to a select few, the higher echelons of society. But that doesn’t have to be the case.”

Polo is easily associated with British royalty. But organizers say the price of admission to the Winter Polo Classic ($35) reflects the broader audience they seek — an audience, perhaps, like those early crowds in the Springs.

Yes, socialites in their Sunday best were out “en masse” for polo’s opening day in the summer of 1913, according to The Gazette. As were others who parked their Oldsmobiles around the action at the Cheyenne Mountain Country Club.

People “left their machines for canvas chairs on the grass at the edge of the field,” the paper reported, “and between the two games they strolled back and forth to and from the club house, chatting here and there with friends.”

The Cheyenne Mountain Country Club team transitioned to The Broadmoor Polo Association, incorporated in 1924. That was as the sport’s national association organized circuits. The Broadmoor positioned itself as the center of the western circuit including surrounding states — the site of the coveted Penrose Polo Park Cup. (Winning names returned to the cup after last year’s Winter Polo Classic.)

In that silver cup could be seen another pride of The Broadmoor’s leading man, Spencer Penrose.

Mr. Penrose, as Tutt endearingly calls him, “built The Broadmoor to be the finest hotel in the West,” just as he built the road up Pikes Peak, acquired the cog railway up the summit and established Cheyenne Mountain Zoo — all to turn the nation’s eye to a city rising out of a gold rush.

”Polo was another one of those things,” Tutt said. “It put Colorado Springs on the map.”

And yes, polo was of personal interest to Penrose. Tutt would know. He is of another prominent name in local history: Tutt’s great-great grandfather was childhood friends of Penrose’s, becoming a key business partner to the empire they grew in Colorado Springs. The Tutts went on to oversee Penrose’s charitable trust, El Pomar.

”Mr. Penrose had quite an affinity for polo,” Tutt said. “My dad is the one that has documentation for this. … It’s fairly well-known that Mr. Penrose had a glass eye, and for years the story was (he was injured) in a boating accident. We do know it was actually when he was at Harvard, he lost it in a polo accident.”

Clearly, he maintained a love for the sport. The Broadmoor teams carried “Spencer Penrose’s color, canary and blue,” The Gazette reported.

For opening day in 1925, the paper chronicled top players descending on The Broadmoor. Many were Army officers; polo’s American roots are traced to the cavalry.

Opening day, the paper reported that year, “will gather many hundreds of the rapidly growing number of polo enthusiasts of the region and hundreds of tourists, who are manifesting more and more interest in the royal sport.”

There was no grander place for it than the Pikes Peak region, according to local brochures from the day — “for the reason,” one read in 1925, “that the happy combination of mountains and plains make every moment of the ride scenically attractive.” The Springs was home to rodeos, horse shows, “endurance rides” and more.

Penrose sought a prestigious horse reputation for the town. In 1926, with the help of J.H. Bradley — brother to Col. E.H. Bradley, the breeder behind Kentucky Derby winners of the day — Penrose brought noble-blooded stallions and mares to his Turkey Creek Farm to convert the cattle operation there. This, The Gazette reported, was “in a systemic effort to make Colorado Springs the center of fine horse breeding and equestrian sports in the entire West.”

It was never meant to be.

Penrose died in 1939. That was toward the end of the Great Depression, a period that Leonard, The Broadmoor historian, marks as a downturn for local and national polo interest. World War II did not carry with it the same prominent role for horses during World War I, Leonard also notes — spelling a break to the pipeline of American players.

”You don’t see as much military involvement in the sport today,” Francoeur said.

But the Air Force man still connects with military aspects of the sport: courage and valor, he said, and strategy and teamwork beyond fellow players. “You’re working with an animal,” Francoeur said. “It’s very intimate. It’s a big connection you have to have with the horse.”

He aims to inspire that connection on the Armed Forces Committee of the U.S. Polo Association. And what better place, he figured, than in the military-focused city he called home?

The Winter Polo Classic, he said, “is really about bringing this historic sport to the military community in a fresh way.”

A fresh way that recalls a slice of the past in town.

Leonard has enjoyed seeing polo’s full-circle return 100 years later. In her Broadmoor office, this space once occupied by stables, she can’t help but wonder of other returns.

Horses are found at other resort properties, the mountain camp and ranch. As for the hotel grounds, “we don’t have stables currently,” Leonard said. “I have a feeling we will eventually.”

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