Every Sunday through mid-October, you can have a front row seat as horses and riders engage in "the Sport of Kings," better known as polo, at Bethpage State Park on Long Island. Just $5 gets you in.
For anyone who thrills watching horses galloping at top speed around Belmont racetrack, Polo is all of that but so much more.
Horses and riders seem to be an extension of one another, racing down at 30 mph, stopping short, turning on a dime, while the rider wields a long mallet to swipe at a small white ball, sending it to a teammate or down the field, ultimately to get it through the goal post.
A match-up of Polo team captains at Bethpage State Park: Country Farms' Bob Ceparano and Mercedes' Alessandro Bazzoni © 2012 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Polo has the speed of racing and the skill and control of dressage. This is the original "Xtreme" sport.
It is rare to be so close to the action for a sport at this level and intensity -- absolutely thrilling.
Announcer Jerry Napp, who has been playing Polo for 50 years (he's 71), explains the game and introduces the players -- teams of four -- and gives the play by play.
In some respect, Polo is still a sport of kings - or at least someone who has a king's ransom. It is expensive to maintain the stable of horses and pay the professionals.
The teams are sponsored by a patron, and polo is unique among team sports in that amateur players, often the team patrons, routinely hire and play alongside the sport's top professionals.
Our home team is Country Farms, of Medford, which stables and trains horses and riders, which is led by Bob Ceparano. He sponsors the team, is a player, and hosts Polo at the Park.
Today's game pits Country Farms against the Mercedes Team, led by its sponsor, Alessandro Bazzoni.
We watch enthralled through six chukkers (like periods) of seven minutes each.
The riders and their mounts tear down the field at full gallop - at times, all four hoofs of the horse are off the ground. they make a mad scramble for the ball, striking from the side, propelling it forward or backward, passing or sending it hurling down the field.
At the end of each chukker, spectators come out onto the field to help replace the divots. The riders change horses.
Napp talks about some of the players -- a couple are renowned professionals from Argentina, like Naco Taverna, and we see their prowess on the field in today's play.
Naco Taverna, who also trains polo ponies, comes out onto the field ahead of the other players, and while he waits for the rest, and gives inadvertently, it seems, gives us a bit of a demonstration of maneuvering the horse through sharp turns, right lead to left lead to circle,
I am surprised to learn that there are about a half-dozen women who are on the teams.
The game of Polo originated in Persia, and has been played in the United States since 1876.
The Polo Grounds at Bethpage State Park, built in 1934, offers a 900 ft x 400 ft field with bleacher seating. Bethpage State Park hosted the 1994 finals of the US Open Polo Championship.
The sport more readily associated with royals and aristocrats probably came to Long Island because of August Belmont, one of the "founding fathers" of American Polo (and the namesake of Belmont Racetrack). Belmont, along with H.L Herbert and James Gordon Bennett financed the original New York Polo Grounds. (In Great Neck, Polo Road used to be where they played Polo.) Another figure in American Polo playing was Harry Payne Whitney (the Whitneys also had Long Island associations), who in the early part of the 20th century, changed the way Polo was played in the US to a high-speed sport, using the fast break, sending long passes downfield to riders who had broken away from the pack at a full gallop.
That style of play is on view today at Bethpage Polo Field.
You quickly appreciate how dangerous this game can be because of the speed, the sheer weight and force of the horses and the way the mallets are swung and the ball flies, sometimes ricocheting or mis-hit.
Jerry Napp explains that every care is taken to protect the horses and riders - this isn't like hockey or basketball where there are intentional hits and fouls.
The rules were created and are enforced to ensure the welfare of players and their horses. The "line of the ball" changes each time the ball changes direction. The player who hit the ball generally has the right of way, and other players cannot cross the line of the ball in front of that player. As players approach the ball, they ride on either side of the line of the ball giving each access to the ball. A player can cross the line of the ball when it does not create a dangerous situation.
It comes down to the last few seconds, a dash down the field, a strike and ...... g-o-a-l. Mercedes wins 7-6.
After the game, we can go over and chat with the riders and see the ponies close up. Try to do that at Belmont or at Citifield.
Country Farms, which hosts Polo at the Park, has a 14 acre-facility with housing for up to 70 horses, an 80 x 220 indoor riding arena, mirrored, with 22 stalls attached, and a new football-field sized equestrian events arena, also hosts a summer camp for children to teach riding skills (four two-week sessions, 4 days a week, from July through August). Country Farms Equestrian Center, 200 Bellport Avenue, Medford New York 11763, Phone 631-345-9585, www.country-farms.com.
You can see Polo at Bethpage State Park every Sunday from June 5 through October 15. Vehicle parking is $8 per vehicle (this is a State charge). Gates open at 1pm for food concession and seating. V.I.P. Pavilion by invitation only. V.I.P. field side tailgate, tenting and food service available for additional fees. Half time shows when available. (The game is cancelled when there are thunder storms).
© 2012 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit Karen Rubin's Examiner.com site for more information.