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Polo Stories

Polo Ponies

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Polo Ponies by Andrea Damewood

From champion-level players to devoted amateurs, the marriage of a rider and his horse in polo is a bond unrivaled in sports. Memo Gracida, perhaps the best polo player in the world, checks on them before he sleeps. Pablo Llorente, president of the Argentina Polo Players Association and a top breeder, says that a good pony makes all the difference in competition.

Elite players are so attached to their best ponies—bred for speed, agility and demeanor—that today they’re willing to pay upwards of $100,000 to harness new technology and clone their most beloved horses. Spearheaded by the cloning of renowned Argentina player Adolfo Cambiaso’s star stallion Aiken Cura, the practice of creating replica ponies for play has been growing steadily over the last five years.

Daniel Juarez, a head pro and former breeder based in West Linn, Ore., calls it “probably the most interesting and exciting thing” happening in the polo world. He pointed to the recent US Open in Florida, where Cambiaso played two clone horses. Llorente says that the best horse he’s ever seen play is Cambiaso’s mare Cuartetera. She’s been cloned as well, with her offspring playing in matches today.“It’s awesome to see four or five clones of one ‘crack’ playing together in a match,” Llorente says.

The cloned horse, created from the cells of a top equestrian athlete, will resemble its predecessor right down to the markings—which may not be exact, but will certainly be in the same place. Players have found that despite being raised at a different time or in a different environment, these “children” of the original pony will have the same athletic ability, temperament and disposition.

But the high cost of cloning means the majority of polo ponies are still being bred via embryos carried in a surrogate mare, as they have been for the last couple of decades, Juarez explains. That allows the top mare to continue playing in matches while the colt spends the four or five years it needs to be fully trained under the care of another mother.

And no matter how the pony is born, players—many of whom can own dozens of horses and play nine different ponies in a game—are looking for specific characteristics. Historically, polo horses were about 14 hands tall; today, they range in the 15 to 16 hand range. Juarez says his top mare, Dairy Queen, is just over 15 hands.

“She’s the complete package,” he says. “She’s compact, powerfully built, she’s got speed, and she’s got the ability to change directions without even thinking about it. I don’t even have to think about what I do, I just do it.”

Training, veterinary care and nutrition have all improved tremendously, players say. Former Governor of the USPA Pacific Coast Circuit, Glen Holden, says, “The biggest change in polo in the last ten years has been the quality of the horses. In the early days of American polo, many of the ponies resulted from the breeding of ranch mares to Thoroughbred stallions. In contrast, many of the polo ponies today are Thoroughbreds from the racetrack.

A well-built horse of a player’s dreams includes physical characteristics—known as a pony’s conformation—including large muscling in the hindquarters, strong, clean legs and a supple neck. A good feature is a close-coupled back, which allows for those critical tight turns during play.

Training is also key. Experienced breeders know that even if the pony has the best athletic ability, it still has to have its skills harnessed and broken to the demands of polo play. Those early years are spent training and conditioning a horse to “accelerate to full speed, change direction or slow down to zero in the shortest distance,” Gracida has said.

The horse must also be able to act as one with its rider, and must be conditioned to “have patience and perseverance and to play and play and play,” Llorente says.

Horses are brought on slowly: players will put four-year-olds into club chukker matches and really immerse them in tournament play at six. A pony isn’t considered “made,” or completely trained, until it has has two full seasons of polo. The time and effort of training and care mean starting with a well-bred pony that has success in its very genes is of utmost importance.

“The horses are paramount,” Juarez says. “They’re the most important thing. You can overcome a lot of deficiencies in other parts of your game if you’ve got top horses.”

Pacific Coast Arena League Welcomes Over 45 Polo Players to San Diego

By | News, Player's Corner, Polo Stories, Tournament Recap | One Comment

On Saturday, July 23rd, arena polo players from all over California came to San Diego to participate in the Pacific Coast Arena League Tournament, attracting over 45 players in just one day.  The Pacific Coast Arena Polo League is a summer polo competition. Players have the opportunity to compete throughout the season at five different clubs for points. Those points tally, and high points earn season-end awards. It’s a fun way for all of the arena players in southern California to get together for a full day of polo. From our Interscholastic teenaged players to our best A-rated players, the day was action packed with some of the most amazing arena polo you’ll ever see.  Some of the other clubs represented were OC Polo, Central Coast Polo, California Polo Club, Lakeside Polo and Poway Polo.

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The day started off with an A-flight round robin between Moonshine Polo Team (Julie Empey, Jeff Trout, Jennifer Alexy), Poway/OC (Skyler Dale, Ian Schnoebelen, Forest Smith), and Justice League (Ali Mobtaker, Niki Mobtaker, Andrew Scott). Final score: Justice League 6, Poway/OC 5 and Moonshine 1. Sportsmanship went to Julie Empey, MVP to Skyler Dale and Best Playing Pony to Ian Schnoebelen’s horse Secret.

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Next up was the B-Flight round robin between Ludwig Polo (Sri Mummaneni, Dawson Ludwig, Troy Crumley), CCPC (Alyssa Garcia, Hannah Heitzig, Megan Judge) and Top View (Chuck Stanislowski, Lovive Laverdure, Alenya Chekhova). Final Score: CCPC 14, Top View 10, Ludwig Polo 9. Sportsmanship went to Chuck Stanislowski, MVP to Megan Judge, and Best Playing Pony to Lovive Laverdure’s horse Secret.

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In the afternoon, the B Flight match up between OC Polo (Mila Herrera, Shelley Geiler, Heather Perkins, Kelli Newton) and CPC (JP Coghill, Katty Wong, Kirsten Ludwig) was a high scoring match. CPC won the match 12 to 8. Sportsmanship went to Shelley Geiler, MVP to Kirsten Ludwig, and Best Playing Pony to Kelli Newton’s horse Zenardi.

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The C Flight Team Mystical Moose (Jack Empey, Drew Hobscheid, Kylie Kufahl and Paige Kufahl) played CPC 2 (Sonia Couling, Frances Bryson, Barry Nadell and substitute JP Coghill). After a minor injury, Nadell stepped out and JP Coghill subbed in his place. Mystical Moose scored 13, with just 1 for CPC2. Sportsmanship went to Sonia Couling, MVP to Drew Hobscheid (with 10 goals!), and Best Playing Pony to Paige Kufahl’s horse Bella.

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Three’s Comany (Matt Davis, Lauren Helpern, Kelly Davis, Colleen Newton) and Poway/San Diego (Gillian Young, Larry VanderPloeg, Bryan Treusch) battled it out in the 4:00pm C Flight. Three’s Company won 8 to 5. Sportsmanship went to Larry VanderPloeg, MVP to Matt Davis, and Best Playing Pony to Bryan Treusch’s horse Coneja.

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The last match of the evening was a C Flight match between OC/San Diego (Leo Diaz, Emma Hobscheid, Miriam Ellis, Jack Gaon, Hudson Sirjani) and Rebel Polo (Mikayla Chapman, Shayna Chapman, Gwenyth Bennett, Nicole Johnson, Michael Proulx). Keep in mind, some of these players were splitting positions and we always play 3 on 3. OC/San Diego won 13 to 3. Sportsmanship went to Shayna Chapman, MVP to Leo Diaz and Best Playing Pony to Nicole Johnson’s third chukker horse.

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Arena polo is often mistaken as less exciting and more condensed than grass polo.  If you take just one quick moment to watch some chukkers of some A rated players, you’ll very quickly realize how scrappy, exciting, action packed and different Arena polo is from grass polo.  It’s amazing just how different the entire game can be within the 100×50 yard field.  You can often use the wall or boards of the arena as a “4th man” in your chukkers, using it for your team, or against the other team.  You can smack the ball against the boards at an angle to change the line of the ball to pass to a teammate, something you can’t really do in grass unless you hit it low enough to bounce it off the red boards on the ground.  The close contact in the arena is extremely exciting, sometimes looking more like a demolition derby instead of Formula One racing.  Most of the same rules still apply in either game – grass or arena – but the strategy tends to be much different.

2016-PCAL-San-Diego-Megan-Judge2016-PCAL-San-Diego-Mythical-Moose-Drew-HobscheidWhile hitting and carrying the ball tends to be much easier on the grass, since most people prefer to play golf on the green instead of the sand pits, imagine just how much more skill you might need to “play golf in the sand pits” all the time?  The arena ball tends to glance off mounds of sand or mud, or get stuck in hoof holes created by the galloping horses.  But to develop enough skill to work around that and STILL be a dynamite polo player, I’d say that’s a mission worth trying, and a feat often underestimated and overlooked. With the deck stacked against you in getting the ball to move anywhere in a straight line, you might argue that arena polo is harder.

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New players may rush themselves through Arena as their end game or end goal might be to play on the grass.  Take one look at an arena tournament and you are in for one hell of a ride. You can see Everything right up close, you can hear the grunts of the horses, hear the clanking of stirrups during a ride off, see all the action up close from wherever you’re standing – it’s easier to see every detail.   Get ready to duck out of the way of a ball flying out of bounds!

The next time you hear about an arena tournament at SD Polo, come on down and check it out.  It’s really an amazing display of expertise horsemanship, and expert ball-mallet handling, turning in tight circles, dribbling the ball to keep it away from a fast approaching opponent.  It has non-stop ride-offs, precision maneuvers within the small space… it is a RUSH!

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Thank you to USPA third man umpire Rick Sears, Julie Empey, Stacy Egusa, Lindsey Chronert, Tim Empey, Ashton Wolf and the entire San Diego Polo team for putting together a fun tournament. Another big thank you to everyone who came out to the polo fields to play and support our arena programs! We love hosting visitors and opening our doors to different players of all levels. We hope you enjoyed your time at SD Polo, its picturesque setting, and hopefully you made it down to watch our Sunday Matches!

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The Life of Willis Allen

By | Polo History, Polo Stories | No Comments

Willis M. Allen – Willis Allen, 93 years of age, passed away on June 13, 2004 at his home in La Jolla, California.  Willis Allen, the son and grandson of rear admirals, was born in Philadelphia.  He was married to Ruth Annable, who also shared his passion for polo ponies.

As a youth in Connecticut, he became enamored with polo, a sport he would play up to two weeks before his death.  His last game being played at Lakeside Polo Club with seven other members of his family, including two daughters, two grandkids, two great grandchildren and his son-in-law (4 generations).  Willis may have been the oldest active polo player in the history of the game at age 93.

At age 19, he accompanied some friends in driving from Greenwich, Connecticut to San Diego where he found work at Stables in Mission Valley.  He later sold automobiles, schooled polo ponies and competed in an arena on the old show grounds in Coronado.

In the 1930’s he purchased half interest in the College Riding Academy at 70th and El Cajon Boulevard, renting horses for 1 cent per minute.  They had a local polo club using the best of the rental horses and had only four mallets, so when switching players they had to share mallets.  From this start, Willis Allen ventured in other business interests, selling insurance policies, real estate and eventually establishing separate mortgage and insurance firms to compliment his real estate business.  His real estate firm became one of the largest independently owned companies in San Diego County.

Willis went overseas in the Navy during World War II, serving in the Pacific and left the Navy as a Lieutenant Commander. He loved to talk about Polo in the South Pacific and Hawaii during and after the war years.  His stories about the old days, playing polo on the beach at La Jolla Shores during low tide and Mission Valley were truly amazing.

Willis had a love for polo that took him too many parts of the United States and several countries around the world.  He was the recipient of the first annual sportsmanship award presented by the United States Polo Association.  He played in the U.S. Polo Nationals in Oakbrook, Illinois.  He represented the USA on a 1960’s team that included Bob Skeen and others in New Zealand and Australia.  He played in England and numerous other countries.

At age 70, Willis played on the Winning Team in the Eldorado Polo Club Senior’s Tournament.

Willis was a Founding Member of San Diego and Eldorado Polo Clubs and a long time member of Lakeside Polo Club.  Willis also indulged an interest in recreational flying. He was more than an Eldorado Polo founder he actually discovered the acreage by searching in his private plane.  Later the games on several fields would pause while he landed his plane and until Willis could taxied clear of the action.

Willis was a great supporter of youth polo, generously donating his time and money to help the young and upcoming players. He felt that the young players needed special recognition and came up with the San Diego Polo Club Willis Allen award to be presented annually to a young player exhibiting all the elements of a true sportsman.  The elements are, gamesmanship, mallet work, sportsmanship but most importantly horsemanship.

Willis was honored by the Polo Hall of Fame in 2003, being presented with the Iglehart Award.  Willis served a USPA Pacific Coast Circuit Governor from 1969 – 1974.

Willis has many polo friends all over the world, written about in several books and won many polo games but the thing he valued most was the friends he made playing polo.

He taught that the competition itself was not important; it was how you played the game. Any young player that he could impact, he jumped at the opportunity to share his infinite wisdom with.  He had a warm smile and kind word for everyone but was feisty to the bone out on the polo field. His love of the sport has inspired many to be a better polo player and his love of life is something we should strive to emulate.

Willis leaves a memory of many years of polo going back to before 1940. He will be missed by his many friends worldwide.

The first time I saw him was about 1980 and he was sitting on a horse in Indio. I thought he was an old cowboy from West Texas or the foothills of Colorado. Willis looked just like many of those hard and as tough as rawhide. He had a glint in his eye that said "try me young feller. Make my day." Little did I know he was rich, famous and the most important man in Southern California Polo. Willis was the tick behind the clock in making Eldorado the biggest club in the U.S. and he was the Godfather of San Diego Polo Club. He made it happen and I think that's the way he was. Willis made it happen. He knew horses, people and power. Willis never used these things for anything else, only to improve someone or something he liked. I do not know if he ever used it for anything he did not like because it would be gone and you would never know it. My son, Jason, won the Willis Allen award a few years ago and he thought that was the coolest thing because he really liked to ask him questions so he could hear Willis talk. He did talk just enough to make you really enjoy that sparkle in his eye and he leaves polo for the big one in the sky. Guess what Artie and Big Gee & Eric Friden? You now have a boss up there. Our thoughts are with his family.

The Crowder Family

I will always remember Willis Allen for his good humor, love of polo and as a good friend to everyone. I first met Willis at Lakeside Polo Club when I took my grandkids, Shane & Danika Rice to some kids polo chukkers. When Willis saw how much they loved Polo, he told me the only way they were going to get to be good polo players was to have a horse that already knew polo. He sent us to his ranch in Julian to pick up “Cookie” a great polo pony he had purchased from Tommy Wayman, played and then retired her to pasture. He said when the kids are done with her, take her back to the Ranch & we will do the same for my great grandkids when they are ready. Cookie never made it back to the ranch as she won the hearts of all my grandkids, teaching them not only polo but how to love and care for horses. Willis knew what the kids needed and made sure they got what they needed because to him all polo players were family.

I also had the pleasure of sharing a special game of Polo at San Diego Polo Club with Willis and his family playing my family in a two chukker pre-game match. Four generations on his side and three on mine, we were all winners for knowing Willis. Willis was a great supporter of youth polo, generously donating his time and money to help the young and upcoming players. He felt that the young players needed special recognition and came up with the Willis Allen award to be presented annually to young players exhibiting good sportsmanship, playing ability but most importantly horsemanship. He was always there to make sure the local Interscholastic Polo Team had what they needed to be able to travel to the National Finals for the last six years. It was super for him and Harry to share with the Chris Collins family young Chris playing in the Interscholastic National Championship game this last April. It was neat for Great Grandpa, Grandpa and family to travel to Texas for some special time together during this tournament.

Willis was honored by the Polo Hall of Fame in 2003, being presented with the Iglehart Award. Both he and Joe Rizzo received the award in 2003 and both pasted away this year. Willis has many Polo friends all over the world, written about in several books and won many polo games but the thing he valued most was the friends he made playing polo.

We will miss you Willis but you will always remain with us in all the fond memories you provided. Keep the polo fields green up there and the ponies ready – we will see you again."

Russ SheldonGrandfather of Poway Polo Club

Willis Allen has helped my family so much with polo that words can not come close to expressing my gratitude. He gave us the best gift of a horse named "Cookie". Many of you saw Shane, Danika, Jared and many other children getting their start playing polo on that horse. To this day, the best polo I have ever played was with Willis at Lakeside Polo Club. We all would be laughing during the chukkers, having the best time and telling me I reminded him of his grandaughter. I will cherish the memories of playing with him along with his family. The video of the Allen/Collins 4 generations playing the 3 generations of Sheldons will be one of my most valued treasures. His sponsorship of the Willis Allen Award at the San Diego Polo Club to promote sportsmanship along with playing ability for the young players hopefully will live on. Willis, I hope you and Cookie are now playing polo in heaven together. Look for those special polo balls that are marked with yours and Cookie's names.

Sherry SheldonPoway Polo Club

If there was ever a story of a life that is to be celebrated as opposed to mourning, that would be the story of Willis Allen. My heart goes out to all of the family for their tremendous loss, but at the same time, how fortunate we all have been to know the man.

I have always admired his love of horses and his genuine interest of young players in the game of polo. Several years back, Willis agreed to have a trophy named after him, that would honor a young player who possessed all the elements of a true sportsman. The elements were horsemanship, gamemanship, malletwork, and above all, sportsmanship.

I was also gifted to have played at Lakeside this past year along with Willis. It was the first opportunity that I had to witness the routine Willis had to continue to participate in the sport that he so loved in his golden years. I sat and listened to his wonderful stories at his tackroom, and then witnessed his ceremony of mounting up onto his thoroughbred pony. Horse placed appropriately for ease of mount, and the mallet hanging on a well placed nail on route to the arena.

In the chukker, I tried to get the ball to Willis, only to have Willis immediately set me back up for a run to goal. It was an honor to receive an assist from a living legend.

I was so touched to hear the story of Willis's dream to be a polo pro, but then realized if he were to capture the heart of his long time wife and partner, Ruth, he was going to have to get a better paying job. The rest is history. A wonderful history, that the families will be able to cherish.

I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to know Willis-he always had kind words and wonderful stories."

Tom GoodspeedPrevious General Manager of San Diego Polo

A man we will never forget. We will always remember the stories and advice in between the chukkers. If you ever got to play with him at Lakeside Polo Club or anywhere you could always tell how much he loved the game. Truly he looked better on a horse than he did walking around. He was never afraid to go into a play at 93. I remember going down the field about a month ago and I was going full out down the field and he was right there next to me trying to ride me off. It scared the crap out of me, but he always knew that he knew what he was doing. At Lakeside also before every chukker he would ride up to me and say "you have to tell me where the ball is because I cant see it as well anymore." And always before a big game right when is was starting to play in like the four goal he would always ask "Now how many times have you gone to the bathroom." Then he would tell me that when he was younger and just starting out that he was so nervous he would have to go to the bathroom. I don't know just one of those stories. Another thing that I will never forget is his tail. He could always get you the ball if he was hitting a tailshot. I know that the people that knew him will never forget him and his funny stories even if you heard them 3 or 4 times. We will always love you Willis and you are not going to be forgotten.

Chris Collins Jr.

My husband and I have had the honor on many occasions to play with Willis in Lakeside. I personally enjoyed Willis’s great humor and spirit! When I first met Willis it was out in Lakeside. After a brief conversation, I mentioned to him that my Great Grandfather donated the trophy for the Spreckels Cup. He then mentioned to me that he had met my Great Grandfather many years back. I was completely taken back that I was, “actually talking to someone that had met my grandfather.” Willis mentioned that he was in his teens at the time. He played polo in front of the Hotel Del Coronado and that is how they met. I feel truly honored to have had a friendship with Willis.

Jessica Spreckels Burch

Willis was my Dad’s best friend. They played polo together for the better parts of six decades, from the 30’s through the 80’s. Willis, Jess Mc Millin, and my father Bud Hering played their infamous “low tide” matches in front of the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club in 1940.

In retrospect, I think Willis was everybody’s best friend. There was never an unimportant person in his life. He made us all feel special. He loved the Lakeside Polo Club and we loved him. He would ride up to a prospective new member or visitor before the first chukker and tell them quietly “ this is a friendly club, we play hard and have fun but we don’t holler, we only give encouragement”. He always had a kind word and a bit of wisdom to share, like “remember, you can pass the ball faster than your horse can run”.

We will miss his wisdom, his friendly encouragement and most of all the sincerity of his friendship. So long Ol’ Buddy, we’ll try to carry on in the spirit and tradition that you instilled in us.

Kip HeringLakeside Polo Club

The Sport of Queens

By | 30th Anniversary Season, Just For Fun, Polo History, Polo Stories | No Comments

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The Sport of Queens by Andrea Damewood

Nowadays, the sight of a woman charging down a polo pitch at breakneck speed, her legs thrown on each side of her pony as she flies after the ball is a gloriously common one—especially as female riders make up the fastest-growing segment in US Polo today.

In 1908? Not so much.

That didn’t stop Eleonora Randolph Sears of Boston. As sugar magnate John D. Spreckels built up the storied polo fields and stables on Coronado Island in the early 1900s, players from all over the United States and the world were drawn to the top notch play—including Miss Sears. The renowned athlete was among the glitterati who spent warm winters taking in tournaments near the Hotel del Coronado, according to research by the Coronado Historical Society.

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Sears, a national tennis champion and early advocate for women in sports, visited Coronado annually from 1908 to 1917, and spent each trip advocating for women’s tournaments—an effect that is felt by the ever-growing ranks of female polo players more than 100 years later.

“Miss Sears, who has attracted considerable attention at the Hotel del Coronado during the recent tournament by her mannish riding costume and fearless riding is enthusiastic over the proposition” of women’s polo teams, the Union wrote in April 1909.

And while she was never successful in organizing an all-women’s event in Southern California, she did blaze trails by playing in a coed match in Coronado in March 1915, playing with two women on each side with a man deployed as defensive back. It marked her the first woman to play polo on a men’s team.

Eleanor Sears

Her brash flaunting of gender norms guaranteed her enraptured newspaper coverage: Such as the fact Miss Sears rode astride instead of side saddle—and she did it wearing pants. “Mounted in costume Miss Eleonora Sears appeared on the polo fields of the Coronado Country Club yesterday afternoon and promptly became the center of interest,” the Tribune reported on February 19, 1915. “Dressed in polo boots and breeches, a great polo coat reaching to her boot tops and a large black slouch covering her hair, Miss Sears is with difficulty distinguished from the men polo players.”

And perhaps that was Miss Sears’ point all along, say the ladies who play the sport of kings today.

“Once you step in the arena, we become equal and only your merit and ability matters,” says Julie Empey, an arena player with a rating of one. “There is something beautiful about standing around a group of men that may normally intimidate me hearing them say that they are scared of me in the arena!”
Nicole DeBerg, a San Diego player, says the face of polo in America is changing. “Just like enrollment of women in colleges, the number of women playing polo is steadily increasing,” DeBerg says. “At the San Diego Polo Club for example, membership of women last year exceeded 40 percent.”

Along with the competition and constant challenge of growing as a player, Sue Landis says that she also has relished the opportunity to build vast networks across the globe through polo. Landis, a United Kingdom Women’s Open Polo and the Women’s World Polo Championship winner says that lifestyle element along with the sport is what keeps her coming back.
“As a woman, I love the family focus in polo – it’s great when my daughter can join me at a game, either behind the scenes, or at the après polo celebrations,” says Landis, who lives in San Diego and will play with the Hollywood Girls Polo Team this year.

Empey says the most intense games she has ever played were women’s tournaments. “I think when women go out and play, they are so used to giving it all—just trying to make it in a man’s world,” Empey says. “We are serious and we want to be taken seriously. We know if we work hard, we can be respected as an athlete.”

It’s a future that Miss Sears, who died in 1968 at age 86, would have been delighted to see. “What the suffrage leaders did for the political status of women, the Boston maid has done for women in the realm of sports, rescuing them from stupid age-old fetters of tradition,” a publication noted.

And despite the long way women polo players have come since the days Miss Sears played, current riders say they can’t wait to see what the coming decades hold.

“If the current trend continues, maybe someday the sport of the kings will also be referred to as the sport of the kings and queens,” says DeBerg, “As in my mind, any woman competing out there in a sport as tough and dangerous as polo, royalty or not, deserves the title.”

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Sweet Reunion

By | Just For Fun, Polo Stories | No Comments

In the hands of an experienced rider, the mallet becomes an acrobat, says 15-year-old Maya Tantuwaya, who has never forgotten her first.

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Around January, our growling Ford pickup crunches through the dirt road beyond field five of the San Diego Polo Club and pulls to a stop in front of our eight-horse trailer, lonely from six months’ abandonment. Dad and I forget our differences to jump out of the truck, and he fumbles with the key to the built-in tack room. I explain my hollow ambitions to keep an accurate inventory of our jungle of English saddles, intricate bridles, and the bouquet of polo mallets fanning out of a red water bucket like dry spaghetti. I make the same vow every year but never follow through. Ignoring me, Dad turns around to engage a passing horse groom in polite conversation, using his clumsy Spanish, as he reins in his cluster of six horses. He pretends to have known the groom all his life, even though I’m the one who spent an entire summer out riding with him in the mornings. Raymundo and I have become close friends, despite the language barrier.

Organizing the mix-up of mallets, my hand catches the woven cream hand loop of one of them. Up and out comes my very first mallet, separated from the tangle of chapped leather and spray bottles quarter-filled with the syrupy remains of what used to be fly spray. The threadbare rubber wrap on the grip still bears the unsavory whiff of sweaty palm, but there is bliss in curling my hand around the mallet’s end. Fencers and tennis players think of their foils and rackets as an extended arm, while the polo player’s weapon of choice harmonizes the momentum of man and horse into a scything stroke that sends the ball sailing tens of meters over the cropped-grass pitch. The wedged mallet head is clumsy, and its fine cracks and scratches are masked by duct tape, but its bruises bless it with the beauty of something from a (civilized) battle. The bony grip provides no leverage – that all comes from the player’s arm and hips in the swing. The cane itself, a 52in shaft of manau palm wood with a honeyed glint, stands dormant and straight. In the hand of an experienced horseman, it’s an acrobat – flipping to a 90-degree angle when hooked by another mallet and flicking with the fluidity of a dancer into backbends. Balanced upon the slender stalk is the mallet head – worn and covered in vein-like cracks and grass smudges. It still grasps the cane with snug stability. I covered the smooth wood with checkered tape and two skinny bands, but even the tape is frayed at the edges. The head, cigar-shaped with a diagonal wedge cut out of one end, was the pride and joy of my 11-year-old self. In stamped print, the initials MT, decorated with forest-green paint on the ends, declared my presence on the playing field. To swing it was to boast a coat of arms with the prowess of a cavalier. How I’d catapult across the fields, adrenaline clenching my stomach while I inhaled the essence of leather and dewy grass. Or at least that’s what I would fantasize.

The graceful lance is stiff with sleep, stained with memory of play some years before, when I could hardly manage to hit the uneven, plastic ball at a benign canter. Bouncing on the back of my short-legged bay, I’d shrug my heavy helmet into place, only to feel the front visor fall over my brow once more. The mallet would twirl, wild with the combination of the force of the horse and the languid noodle of my arm controlling it. Grazing the tender blades of grass or clunking my pony’s forearm with the mallet, I’d focus really hard until a solid clunk reverberated off the sweet spot, propelling the dented hunk of a ball forward. Well-balanced and dependable, the polished mallet soon became an acquaintance of mine. But the progression of time dulls all glory into a jejune bronze plaque inscribed with memory. Time to rebel against the accumulating dust and leave behind the nostalgia. Dad, meanwhile, is still stammering in Spanish, and Raymundo seems slightly amused by it. I twist the loop of the initialed mallet around my thumb and adjust my right hand. Even after years of inaction, it is usable – so long as I replace the tacky and frayed duct tape on the head.

Written by 15-year old Maya Tantuwaya and printed in Hurlingham Polo Magazine’s Winter Issue. Maya and her father, Lokesh have played at the San Diego Polo Club for many years. Photo by Siegel Thurston Photography.

More information about Hurlingham Polo Magazine, visit them online at hurlinghampolo.com

Willis Allen Memorial: Polo player and real estate mogul generous with his wealth

By | Polo History, Polo Stories | No Comments

Original Article posted in San Diego U-T on June 16, 2001.

By Jack Williams

1912 WILLIS M. ALLEN SR. 2004

He raised and rode exquisite polo ponies. He shared his wealth generously and without fanfare. And he oversaw the growth of his real estate company into a luxury-housing leader.

Willis M. Allen Sr. did it all, it seemed, with a breezy informality and accessibility that endeared him to everybody from the poorest ranch hands to captains of industry.

“He had a sense of humor and sense of style that made people feel very comfortable around him,” said Andrew E. Nelson, who bought the remaining shares of the Willis Allen Co. real estate firm in 1995. “He treated everybody equally, and people who met him loved him.”

Mr. Allen, who had a hand in the operation of the real estate business that bears his name for 55 years, died Sunday at his La Jolla home. He was 91. The cause of death was cancer of the throat, said daughter Louise Knowles.

Mr. Allen’s holdings included three ranches in Baja California, where he raised polo ponies and cattle, Crystal Pier and Cottages in Pacific Beach and a share of La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla.

His philanthropy, estimated to be in the millions, benefited such institutions as the San Diego Humane Society, the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park, the San Diego Aerospace Museum and a variety of Scripps Health entities, including the McDonald Center for alcohol and drug abuse treatment.

He created the Allen Field sports complex in La Jolla and he bought property in Ramona for the Pemarro center, a long-term drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility operated by Group Conscience Inc.

“He paid for scholarships anonymously and supported orphanages in Baja California,” his son, Willis Jr., said. “If you wanted to call somebody for money, you called Willis.”

Although his Willis Allen Co. became synonymous with multi-million-dollar coastal properties, Mr. Allen started in business on a much more modest scale.

With a loan from his grandfather in the 1930s, he bought a half interest in the College Riding Academy at 70th Street and El Cajon Boulevard.

“They rented horses to ride for 1 cent per minute,” his son said.

A few years later, he sold insurance policies for $16 a week. After joining a La Jolla real estate firm founded in 1914, Mr. Allen would settle for a $1 commission on a rental property, Nelson said.

In 1940, Mr. Allen and three others bought the firm, known then as Cooper Co. Mr. Allen bought his partners out within a year.

When he went overseas in the Navy during World War II his wife, Ruth, took over the reins.

Mr. Allen left the Navy as a lieutenant commander after serving in the Pacific and expanded his company during the postwar housing boom.

Offering a range of services, Mr. Allen established separate mortgage and insurance firms as he built up the business. “He knocked on doors to sell insurance and founded a mobile mortgage company in a Volkswagen van, going to people’s homes to set up their loans,” Nelson said.

In 1949, Mr. Allen sold an expansive parcel of land that today encompasses Clairemont and University City. As his client base expanded, he opened a second office in Rancho Santa Fe in 1952, a third office in 1973 in Del Mar and a fourth in Point Loma in 1988.

In 1980, Mr. Allen’s firm recorded its first million-dollar sale, closing a deal on a physician’s home on El Camino del Teatro in La Jolla for $1.6 million.

By 1981, the company was reporting $60 million in annual business. In 1989, it did $300 million in sales, making it the largest and most profitable independently owned real estate firm in the county, according to a 1989 article in San Diego Home and Garden magazine.

In his office on Wall Street in La Jolla, Mr. Allen often preferred jeans to more traditional business attire.

“When I met Willis, he was wearing Levi’s with a tie and button-down shirt, in days when you didn’t do that,” Nelson said. “There was an informality, warmth and openness in his office. He had a way of making people feel good about themselves.”

Mr. Allen, the son and grandson of rear admirals, was born in Philadelphia.

As a youth in Connecticut, he became enamored of polo, a sport he would play until weeks before his death.

At 19, he accompanied some friends in driving from Greenwich, Conn., to San Diego, where he found work at stables in Mission Valley.

Later, he sold Chevrolet automobiles, schooled polo ponies and competed in polo matches in an arena on the old show grounds in Coronado.

In 1934, he married Ruth Annable, who shared his passion for polo ponies.

For many years, the Allens raised horses, cattle and hay on a Sorrento Valley ranch that later became El Camino Memorial Park.

Mr. Allen polished his polo skills in the late 1930s in matches conducted at low tide at La Jolla Shores.

In 1987, he helped found the Rancho Santa Fe Polo Club on land developed by his son-in-law, Harry Collins. The grounds became a popular site for charity fund-raisers over the years, beginning with a match to benefit the San Diego chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

At age 70, Mr. Allen rode on a four-man team that won the seniors tournament at El Dorado Polo Club, which he helped found in Indio.

“He knew how to pick horses, whether they were $500 or $5,000,” his son said. “They trusted him and he made the sport fun for them.”

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Mr. Allen also indulged an interest in recreational flying, logging about 3,000 hours in private aircraft.

“He was involved in everything from flying down to Baja to chase goats and shoot rattlesnakes to going to black-tie events,” his son said.

For every black-tie event, though, there was a casual get-together at his home in Pottery Canyon that exemplified the diversity of his friendships.

“It didn’t matter to Dad if you were a kid from Mexico or Prince Philip,” his son said.

Mr. Allen’s wife died two years ago. Survivors include his daughters, Louise Knowles of La Jolla and Judy Collins of Rancho Santa Fe; son, Willis Jr. of Mount Helix; 14 grandchildren; and 27 great-grandchildren.

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