St. Louis club introduces polo for the masses

Monday, August 11, 2008

DEFIANCE, Mo. -- At the Blue Heron Polo Club, eight riders blaze down the field, their horses' hooves thundering beneath them.

In a game that's been compared to hockey on horseback, riders from two teams guide their 1,000-pound mounts in quick and physical play. Mallets poised to strike, they twist over the animals to drive a 4 1/2-ounce ball through posts at either end of a playing area the size of nine football fields. The ball flies through the air toward its target -- GOAL!

"Ten more of those, and we'll win. Come on!" a player shouts to his teammates as his horse gallops past a small crowd of applauding spectators. Many are seeing a polo match for the first time.

This summer, the St. Louis Polo Club is bringing polo to the masses. It's been tried elsewhere but this effort has a certain Midwestern down-home sensibility.

Spectators are paying $10 a carload to watch Sunday afternoon matches at polo grounds in Defiance owned by Billy Busch, whose great-grandfather founded the Anheuser-Busch brewery. Beginners can also take lessons at a nearby property -- on borrowed horses -- for $75 a class.

Polo for everyone

St. Louis Polo Club co-captains Busch and Jason Rauschelbach, chief executive officer of a home lender company called The Mortgage Store, said the club wanted to introduce more people to the sport its members are enthusiastic about, hoping to boost club membership and improve opportunities for play in the region.

Polo can be expensive. Ponies, which are often thoroughbred horses, cost thousands of dollars each. The average household income of polo players according to one survey is $459,000. Average net worth: $4.7 million.

But beginners need not have been born with silver spoons in their mouths.

"It's like boating. Some people have a canoe. Some people have a Chris Craft," Rauschelbach said, referring to the American manufacturer known for its mahogany-hulled powerboats.

The St. Louis club wants to do away with perceptions that the sport is for only a select few by making it more accessible to the public. "I think they'll realize it's a whole lot more than high society sitting around drinking tea or champagne," Busch said. "It's very fast, athletic."

And first timers will tell you it's not for the faint of heart.

At a beginners' lesson on property near Blue Heron where the teams often play, St. Louis Polo Club manager Scott Lancaster explains the basic rules, including those that relate to rights of way and safety on the field. He outlines basic shots.

Riders are dressed casually in jeans, workout wear and riding helmets. They're on horses referred to as "bombproof" -- they're unlikely to injure a rider.

Early on, it's apparent the animals know this fast-paced game better than the riders. The horses walk through the plays, making the rookies look like they're playing in slow motion. As riders become more skilled, they'll learn how they can bump into one another within rules of play and how to score more goals than their opponents during six chukkers, or time periods.

Figuring it out

Faces are aglow with perspiration on a sweltering morning as players learn about different types of shots and offensive versus defensive plays.

David Beech, a 34-year-old recent MBA graduate from the St. Louis suburb of Arnold, took riding lessons and read about the history of polo before trying the beginner class.

"I would say it was a lot of fun, also a lot of work," he said afterward.

For the uninitiated, riding and swinging a mallet requires coordination many haven't yet mastered. But there is the occasional smile, the sense that if this isn't all fun yet, it could be -- once they figure out what they're doing.

"You can't stop," Lancaster told a newbie.

"I can't stop?" she wonders aloud.

"And you certainly can't back up," he added.

A match to support a charity, held at Blue Heron, drew a diverse crowd of spectators -- from folks in the usual shorts and T-shirts to ladies in designer sundresses and Chanel sunglasses and men in seersucker pants and the occasional needlepoint belt.

During a break in the benefit game, some adults sipped glasses of champagne while they took part in the polo tradition of stomping down the divots, which the horses kick up during the game. But the more commonly spotted drink of choice was Budweiser, as befitted the location.

Spectators snacked on everything from cheese plates and shrimp cocktail to chips and soda.

The next day, one of the first games open to the public, is a much quieter event. Those who turn out admit they don't know much about polo, but enjoy seeing something new.

"I noticed there's no goalie," said Rob Schroer, though who'd want the job of blocking a horse? And he is pleased about the $10 entry fee for he and his two sons.

"It costs more than that to go to the movies," he said.

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