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BOB MCMURTRY: SHAPING THE FUTURE OF CHICAGOLAND

Nov 18, 2019 2:36 PM

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Bob McMurtry and his granddaughter
Bob McMurtry pictured with his granddaughter Emily Catton.

Hooked on polo after only six weeks of lessons, USPA Central Circuit Governor Bob McMurtry’s passion has led him to play a key role in shaping the trajectory of the game in his hometown. A visionary for the highly-successful Chicago Polo Association (which grew out of similar regional cooperation efforts in the Southwestern Circuit), McMurtry has worked tirelessly for two years to fuel substantial growth and increased participation, his efforts drawing players both locally and nationally to the flourishing regional hub. Receiving his Bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Northern Illinois University, McMurtry relocated to Dallas, Texas, to work for Texas Instruments on classified military radar programs, infra-red night vision systems and missile guidance. Seeking to advance his career, McMurtry pursued law school, moving his family to Austin where he graduated with honors from the University of Texas School of Law.

Returning to the Windy City where he has remained for the past 28 years, McMurtry’s affinity for polo is evident on the Chicago-based Windridge Farm hunter/jumper facility run by his daughter Taylor and her mother Jennifer. In addition to the hunter/jumper facilities, Windridge Farm features a polo field, indoor polo arena and a 58-stall polo barn. Dedicated to the service of polo through multiple committees, he was recently appointed as Polo Development Initiative Chairman, tasked with carrying on the legacy that Denny Geiler established with over a decade in the position. A family-man at heart, McMurtry maintains a close relationship with his daughters Erin and Taylor, living with his oldest daughter Erin and her family and encouraging Taylor in her career in professional show jumping. Sitting down with McMurtry during the Board of Governors and Annual Member Meeting, he recounted the story of his unexpected entrance into the polo community which transformed his life and lead him to the USPA.

Bob McMurtry playing polo
©Judith Coleman

“I was told that I would meet great people, develop lifelong friendships, hear interesting stories and learn about the work of the USPA. Since joining I’ve found what they told me to be incredibly true.”  – Bob McMurtry

What is your equestrian background and how did you become involved in polo?

“I had little to no equestrian background 15 years ago when I began playing polo, but my daughter and her mother, Jennifer, are both equestrians. Jennifer has been riding since she was a child and our youngest daughter, Taylor, knew she wanted to be a professional show jumper at 10 years old. We homeschooled her all through high school so she could compete year-round and she had the opportunity to work with and for many top trainers including several Olympic medalists. She even spent a year in Belgium. Jennifer manages Windridge Farm and Taylor is head trainer and continues to compete at the Grand Prix level.

In 2004, I happened to be with Jennifer and Taylor shopping at a tack store. Looking for something to do, I was reading the bulletin board and I saw an ad that said if you can sit on a horse we can teach you to play polo for free. I jokingly said to Jennifer this was something she could get me for Father’s Day that wouldn’t cost me a penny.

Unbeknownst to me she took down the number, signed me up for lessons and six weeks later I was hooked! Excited for the next step, I asked the polo instructor at the Barrington Hills Polo Club school how to continue and was told if I wanted to play I would need to buy a horse. Just two weeks later I found myself in Florida where I bought three polo ponies and shipped them home. At the time, I didn’t have a truck and trailer so someone would pick me and my horses up and take me to polo each time I wanted to play. I progressed from club chukkers to the 8-goal and 12-goal leagues in three years, still playing two of those first three horses I bought.”

Bob McMurtry races down the field.
Bob McMurtry races down the field with a defender in pursuit.

Tell us more about the three horses that started your polo career.

“I was very much a beginner when I bought my first horses, having only taken six weeks of polo lessons. I purchased an old mare named Coca that had played everything and was a fantastic teacher. Not only did I learn to play on her, but my daughter and son-in-law did as well. The only stipulation when I bought her was that when I was finished playing her, she had to be returned to her original owner so she could retire at the farm.

I bought another horse named Angus at the same time, which I rapidly outgrew in that first year. The third horse, Don, was well above my riding ability. But, Jennifer and Colleen Smith, Don’s owner, said take him home for the summer and at the end if I liked him I could buy him and if not I could ship him back. I ended up loving Don and I played him in the 8-goal for years, retiring him in Aiken.”

What attracted you to the role of Circuit Governor?

“I was attracted to the role because I am passionate about polo and growing the sport. Former Central Circuit Governor Britt Baker asked if I would be interested in the position and I spoke to Chuck Weaver and others about the role. I was told that I would meet great people, develop lifelong friendships, hear interesting stories and learn about the work of the USPA, which I was not very familiar with when I first accepted the role.

Since joining I’ve found what they told me to be incredibly true. The Association is made up of an amazing group of people and it’s unbelievable how much the USPA does. I had no idea until I went to my first Board of Governors and Annual Member Meeting and heard about all the work that the committees and volunteers do. It’s an honor to be part of our organization.”

Bob McMurtry with his family
Back row L to R - Bob McMurtry, Jennifer McMurtry, Taylor McMurtry (daughter), Nick Granat (Taylor's fiance), Erin Catton (daughter), Drew Catton (son-in-law). Front row L to R - Emily Catton, Whittaker Catton, Gwyneth Catton (grandchildren).

What have you accomplished for the Central Circuit that you are the most proud of?

“In 2018 after several years of planning and lobbying the local clubs we formed the Chicago Polo Association (CPA) which includes six USPA Member Clubs, 14 polo fields and private facilities, and seven arenas, five of which are covered year-round facilities. What we are really trying to do is revive polo in the greater Chicagoland area. We have over 130 members in the Chicago area, but prior to the CPA, they were isolated within their own clubs and there wasn’t a lot of interaction. The goal of the CPA is to bring all those players together to offer a variety of polo options. Currently we have two polo schools (North and South), a 0- to 3-goal, four chukker league and in 2019, we formed the Chicago Polo 8-goal League that hosted five tournaments featuring four to five teams each and as many as eight to 10 pros.

We also had 12-goal match games, three USPA women’s tournaments and five USPA arena tournaments. The CPA’s goal is to continue to bring all those players together, organize practices, take advantage of all the great fields and arenas available to us and make sure there are options so that the members can play where, when and at whatever level they want. Like most of the USPA, our player demographic includes men, women, young and old players. One challenge we face is many of our sponsors currently carrying the burden of the 8- and 12-goal leagues are getting older and we need to bring more new people into the sport to make polo sustainable – both by increasing the number of players and bringing in younger players.

We also have a great venue in Oak Brook Polo Club [Oak Brook, Illinois], which attracts a large, regular spectator base on Sundays and is doing a great job with marketing and social media. We need to keep drawing people out to that venue and the other public venues to get more exposure to the sport and bring in new players. We have several new sponsors this year and we have new players that bought horses in year one. They are going for it and jumping in with both feet.”

We have an exciting plan for the 2020 CPA season. We will be offering both 12 goal and 8 goal league play. We will have multiple women’s tournaments, arena tournaments, a low-goal four chukker league, youth polo and multiple polo schools. And, we will be hosting the 2020 National Youth Tournament Series (NYTS) Championships with the finals being played at the historic Oak Brook Polo Club.”

Waiting on caption from photographer
2018 Wine Down Wednesday Cup winners - Windridge Farm/Morgan Creek/Luxe Polo combo team (L to R) Del Walton, Dean Kleronomos, Bob McMurtry and Charles Todd. ©Judith Coleman

What plans do you have to improve your service to the Central Circuit?

“I haven’t done a great job of traveling within the circuit to visit member clubs due to the fairly significant time commitment dedicated to getting the Chicago Polo Association going in 2018 and 2019. I have played in Milwaukee [Wisconsin], Minnesota and Peoria [Illinois], but I don’t travel as much as I should. I have a new Lieutenant Governor, Randy Caldwell, who I’ve tasked with visiting clubs to get the USPA word out. He’s a relatively new player, playing for a few years in Chicago at the lower levels, but he’s enthusiastic about his role within the Association.”

Why are you so passionate about polo?

“When I discovered polo 15 years ago I gave up all my other hobbies. I think what drew me first to polo was the adrenaline rush and the thrill factor of the sport. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced player, the adrenaline rush is still there every time you step onto the field. Once you become involved you find out that it’s a sport of continual learning. The better you get, the more strategy you can put into your play and your horse selection. The horses are such an important part of the experience that you can’t help but to be passionate about them.

For me the most important thing, aside from the adrenaline rush, is the social aspect of the game. Polo is also about the people you meet and the comradery you build before and after the game. If I just showed up to the field, played and jumped into the car and went home, I wouldn’t love it as much as playing then hanging out afterwards for an asado and a beer while talking with people about polo and their lives. It’s the comradery and friendship you get from the sport that makes it the lifestyle that it is.”

If you would like to contact Bob about your club he can be reached at bobmcm21@gmail.com.

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