Jul 05, 2023 8:00 PM
The prestigious Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club (SBPRC) in Carpinteria, California, recently witnessed an electric Pacific Coast Circuit Intra-Circuit Cup championship victory by Farmers & Merchants Bank (FMB), led by Matt Walker. Steeped in his family's rich history with the sport, Walker’s passion for polo has been engrained since childhood, having been introduced to the game by his father, Danny, and his grandfather, Kenneth.
The Walker family's strong connection to SBPRC spans multiple generations, with Kenneth being one of the club's founders. Despite Danny's absence in the Pacific Coast Circuit Intra-Circuit Cup final due to injury, FMB (Finn Secunda, Juan “Juancho” Guerrero, Lucas Criado Sr.) showcased their resilience and determination, emerging triumphant over Dundas II (Cable Magness, Paquito de Narvaez Jr., Cody Ellis*, Robertito Zedda) 12-10.
“Every time we talked as a team regarding strategy it would always end with let’s win this for Danny! My approach really changed as my focus began to be on playing the absolute best I could in every moment and leaving the field knowing my play made him proud regardless of the outcome.” – Matt Walker
An intense match, hailed as one of the season's best, encapsulated the spirit of polo and the unwavering link between FMB and the club. In this interview with CLICKPOLOUSA, Walker reflects on his polo journey, the special bond between his team and Santa Barbara, the significance of playing alongside his father, and the thrilling victory that unfolded on the heralded polo grounds.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey with polo and how you got involved in the sport?
“Polo has been a lifelong journey for me. I am the fourth generation of my family to play and do not have a memory without a horse in it. Some of the best memories I have are with my family (mom – Linda, dad – Danny, sister – Christine), breeding and raising our own polo ponies from our home in Orange [California]. I learned how to care for mares and foals, how to doctor many unique injuries and even how to handle a stallion.
As a young boy, it was always one of two things… school and/or Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club. SBPRC was amazing… that meant running around the club, building hay forts, pony races, and seeing all my friends (Joe Wayne Berry, Laura Linfoot and JW Hall). Naturally, all my friends played and therefore I didn’t want to be left out, so I played too. I started by practicing on the stick-and-ball field by playing keep away from my dad, uncle and grandfather. Due to their kind-hearted and gentle nature, I was never successful… I will still never forget playing on Field 3 at SBPRC when all four generations played in a chukker together.
I would say my true passion for playing came in my late teens. I had a better understanding of the game and was playing with my family. Dad was the captain playing the number three position at a goal rating of 5, Henry, my uncle, playing two at a rating of 3, my grandfather Ken playing four with a rating of 3 and me at number one with a rating of 1.
I have played sports my entire life. I appreciate the ability to be competitive and enjoy striving to play at the highest level I can… what better way to do that than to play polo!”
FMB has a special connection with Santa Barbara. What’s the story of the team?
“Our team actually began as Long Beach… our family business, Farmers & Merchants Bank, is located there. That is where most of the family lived when we first began polo in the 1950s. We took great pride in breeding, raising and playing our own stock (a lost art form in today’s world in the U.S.). As a family we ride hard and play hard… we push till the very last bell regardless of if we were winning by six or losing by six.
FMB started back in 2011 when Danny initially hired Lucas Criado, a 9-goaler at that time. Danny had a vision and desire to play and win as a family. Lucas was the missing element, he took our family from an average winning team to a team that now has its name etched on the west coast crown jewel, the Pacific Coast Open [2018, 2019]. Like many, the desire to repeat as champion is what drives us. Lucas has been instrumental in pushing Danny and me to improve our games, our horses and our enjoyment of the sport. Our relationship with the Criado family is truly cherished.”
“Like many, the desire to repeat as champion is what drives us. Lucas has been instrumental in pushing Danny and me to improve our games, our horses and our enjoyment of the sport. Our relationship with the Criado family is truly cherished.” – Matt Walker
It's unfortunate that your father couldn't play due to his injury, but we're glad to hear he's recovering well. What does it mean to play alongside him as part of the same team?
“Playing alongside my father is a dream come true. You can never replace those memories… I look forward to playing alongside my kids in the same way. When Danny went down on May 28th, the team came very close to pulling out for the season. Ultimately, we asked ourselves – what would Danny want us to do… his love for this game and the people who play is tremendous. Lucas and I both agreed that he would want us to continue.
Every time we talked as a team regarding strategy it would always end with let’s win this for Danny! My approach really changed as my focus began to be on playing the absolute best I could in every moment and leaving the field knowing my play made him proud regardless of the outcome. Winning is never guaranteed, I am just asking for a chance to fight for it.”
The Walker family has a significant history and connection with SBPRC. Could you share some insights into the relationship between your family and the club?
“The original trustees of SBPRC (Ken Walker, Glen Holden, Norm Ringer) were instrumental in saving SBPRC from financial collapse. These gentlemen are the only reason we can enjoy polo at this club today.
“This club has become an extension of our family, a legacy for future generations to enjoy. I see this as the dream of all the current trustees and polo-playing members of SBPRC.” – Matt Walker
My family continues to support the SBPRC by entering teams in both the 12-goal and the high-goal along with aiding in the operations through board member positions. This club has become an extension of our family, a legacy for future generations to enjoy. I see this as the dream of all the current trustees and polo-playing members of SBPRC.
For me, the challenge is now how to further SBPRC. To keep polo thriving in a fun and competitive environment that attracts newcomers and keeps our existing patrons coming back year after year. SBPRC is our home… the love for this sport drives our passion to ensure it succeeds."
The final match of the Pacific Coast Circuit Intra-Circuit Cup was highly regarded as one of the best of the season. Can you take us through the match, highlight key moments, and describe the team's strategy for securing the victory?
“It is hard for me to recall being in a better game than the one we played against Dundas II. A truly tough and hard-nosed playing polo team, for which I have the utmost respect. We knew they have the ability to come back on us if we let our focus down for even a second. Our game plan was simple, keep the game open! Back the ball and just hit it. Combine that with lots of talk and try to keep Cody [Ellis] and Paquito [de Narvaez] from getting breakaways and I think you have the game plan for both teams!
The first half was a great back-and-forth battle, leaving the score 7-5 in our favor. We all said the cliché phrases… there’s still a lot of game left, the score is 0-0, and keep pushing and grab a man! We maintained our 2-goal lead until Lucas [Criado Sr.] received his second yellow card based on a foul I committed for crossing after the hit. Dundas quickly grabbed an easy goal and was awarded a center hit. [Robertito] Zedda crushed a huge ball to Cable Magness taking advantage of their numbers who then converted the goal tying the score at 8-8. From there it was a bit of back and forth until finally Lucas returned to play.
Midway through the sixth, Juan Guerrero gets his second yellow card sitting him now for two minutes. I Can’t remember another game where anyone has lost two different players due to yellow cards and been successful. FMB was calm, cool, and collected despite this fact. Dundas II being the true competitors they are, came roaring right back and tied the score again at 10-10. With 1:45 left in the sixth, FMB wins the lineup and Criado scoring to make it 11-10 with 0:58 seconds left. We knew we just had to win one more lineup!
The ball is thrown in and both teams are at a frantic pace after it. [Cody] Ellis is hooked, and Guerrero overrides the play with Criado grabbing the line and racing Zedda for the ball. Zedda, threading the needle, ended up crossing the line resulting in a spot hit for FMB with 0:27 seconds remaining in regulation. With enough time for Dundas to tie the game, we told Lucas to hit it to the goal! We all broke looking for an opening, but it was the shot of all shots. Criado scored from center field to win the game 12-10. An amazing win for FMB and tears of emotion came from everyone. The win for Danny and the end of the 12-goal season, life just doesn’t get any better!"
What can you say about the 2023 season at Santa Barbara thus far?
“The 2023 season at SBPRC has become the swan song for FMB. Danny’s future as a player is still yet to be determined but his involvement in the sport will remain for many years to come.
The 12-goal season in SBPRC is not one for the faint of heart. We boasted nine teams in a 12-goal that would rival the play of most 16-goal leagues. Of course, I am biased… the fields, horses and players make the polo extremely enjoyable. It’s no easy win out of the nine… our tournaments were all won by different teams, showcasing true parity. The 20-goal season will host six teams, all of which are able to hoist the Pacific Coast Open at the end. It will be a battle each step of the way for the victor.”
“For me, the challenge is now how to further SBPRC. To keep polo thriving in a fun and competitive environment that attracts newcomers and keeps our existing patrons coming back year after year. SBPRC is our home… the love for this sport drives our passion to ensure it succeeds.” – Matt Walker
Looking forward, what are your future goals and aspirations?
"The future for me is an easy one… My wife (Wendy) and I have three children that we will get to watch grow into amazing young people. Our daughter, Cassie (20) and son, Johnny (18) will be attending college along with working in the family business. Our youngest, AJ (13) is a sports enthusiast to the nth degree, playing football, basketball, baseball, and polo.
I will have to take my loving wife, Wendy, on a vacation down in Argentina, as she loves to travel and hasn’t had a chance for us to take one due to me always playing polo. However, I hear November and December would be a great time to travel there. Upon our return, it will be back to planning teams and visiting with players to get ready for another chance at polo immortality. Life is just too short to ride bad polo ponies.”
*Cody Ellis is Team USPA alumnus. Team USPA is a USPA program designed to enhance and grow the sport of polo in the United States by identifying young, talented American players and providing mentored training and playing opportunities leading to a pool of higher rated amateur and pro players and the resultant giveback to the sport of polo.
All photos courtesy of ©David Lominska.
Effective Date: Saturday, May 16, 2020
The suspension of USPA Tournaments and Events will be lifted for USPA Member Clubs in locales where hosting polo matches and tournaments is permitted under applicable state and local laws, executive orders and similar decrees. The USPA Member Clubs in these locales are encouraged to follow all such requirements of their state and local authorities with respect to polo operations. In addition, we also encourage all USPA Member Clubs to take the precautions recommended by the CDC. We are preparing a detailed list of best practices for USPA Member Clubs as they return to hosting USPA Tournaments and Events and plan to circulate these guidelines within the next week. We will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation closely and will notify you if we determine a different course of action is necessary.Read More