Apr 18, 2017 8:08 PM
Newport, Rhode Island, is a fascinating New England seaside town with a rich history dating back to the colonial era. The city is home to stunning architecture, a vibrant waterfront downtown and one of the oldest polo clubs in the United States. The Westchester Polo Club (managed by Newport Polo Club), formed in 1876 by James Gordon Bennett, has a lustrous past full of summer polo retreats and international rivalries, including the famous Westchester Cup between England and the United States.
The club became popular throughout the early 1900s among wealthy east coast families. With the onset of World War I however, the club and surrounding economy suffered, marking an end to the popular summer polo destination for several years. Although the club was shut down for several decades, the love of the sport was not forgotten. In 1990, the club was reborn. Thanks to husband and wife duo Dan and Agnes Keating, in the 27 years since its rebirth, the club has developed well beyond its original purpose as a playground for the affluent. Newport Polo welcomes and hosts thousands of spectators, players and international neighbors and is once again considered one of the most popular summer polo destinations on the East Coast.
Newport Polo has a small core staff led by president and founder Dan Keating who manages and serves as Westchester Polo Club delegate, and also serves as the resident USPA Certified Polo Instructor teaching lessons and playing. Prior to becoming involved in polo, Dan Keating competed at the Olympic level in luge. He loved the goodwill and comraderie of international competition and came up with the idea for the Newport International Polo Series in 1992. The highlight of the Newport season, 2017 will mark the twenty-sixth consecutive year of the series. “The international teams are the highlight of our enterprise,” said Agnes affectionately. “It is remarkable that a team would travel from so far away to play polo. We embrace the whole spirit of it. We play the visiting country’s anthem and music and organize some of their food to serve after the event and try to make a cultural festival atmosphere around it.” Newport has flags from every country that has visited on one side of the field that gives the area a multi-cultural flair. Last year Morocco made its first appearance, this year Peru will make its debut as the thirty-third country participating in the series since its inception. “That is one of the unique things about our sport,” said Agnes. “It is played around the world and so this series is a great way to communicate the message about how widespread and globally significant the sport is."
“That is one of the unique things about our sport, It is played around the world and so this series is a great way to communicate the message how widespread and globally significant the sport is.” – Agnes Keating
It is the immense and loyal fan base at Newport Polo that rivals many other clubs in the United States. Several thousand people visit a typical Saturday game during the summer. Gates open four hours before the game even begins. According to Agnes, “people will come and play on the field and bring games, balls and kites and just hang out. We have reserved tailgate spaces and people put a lot of effort into setting up special furniture and picnics. Every week, we do a tailgate contest and spectators will decorate their tailgate to correspond with the international team.”
Another unique feature at Newport Polo are the pony parades at the beginning of many games throughout the season. The grooms and players from the featured match will bring their entire string out on the field and walk them around for everyone to see. A Newport Polo tradition, at the end of every match the crowd rushes to the boards to hold out their hands, players then ride around and high-five spectators. “A Spanish team many years ago did that, they circled the field and waved and expressed their gratitude to the audience,” explained Agnes. Ever since then, people stand and wait before the game even ends to get a chance to interact with the players and horses."
Today, the club extends over three locations and offers a variety of polo playing opportunities for every type of player. According to Agnes Keating, “we manage three different properties just a couple of miles apart and there are plans for a fourth property this season. Each location has one or more grass fields and one has a regulation size arena. We rotate the use of the fields so that they are always fresh and have time to recover.” The summer grass season runs from May through September and is flanked by Spring and Fall arena seasons, making for a nine to 10 month yearly playing schedule. The off season is not completely devoid of polo however, as polo on the beach takes center stage at the Newport Winter Festival. Held each February, the club uses the festival as a platform to introduce newcomers to the sport with fun exhibition matches.
Newport has been consistently expanding their arena polo program each year and are now getting more participants than ever before. The arena began with lessons then it grew to incorporate Intercollegiate and Interscholastic players and now hosts practice chukkers for members. “Players in the region that are looking for fun on the weekends will sometimes drift in and participate,” said Agnes. “I think that is something that is unique about our club, we are very open to people coming and visiting us and participating in grass or arena chukkers as guests. We do not charge anything to participate, just the horse leasing fee. There can be someone from another country or from another club who might be around for a week and they join our ranks and participate—that makes it fun for our members too. We try to make our arena program better each year so that people can extend their playing season and not be limited to just playing five months out of the year."
“When you get to play arena in the spring and get your horses ready, you end up enjoying the summer season that much more.” – Agnes Keating
The club has recently been in the national spotlight as home to 2017 National Men’s Intercollegiate Champions Roger Williams University. “We are so proud of them; they are such a tight group of buddies from such different backgrounds. It has been really great to see them come together as a team,” said Agnes. “It has also been great for our club to have a team that we have seen improve each week make it so far in a national competition. It has drawn media attention to the sport and been great for everyone.” Newport hosts home games and practices for the champion team and the players regularly play at Newport Polo. Roger Williams University Coach Ted Torrey teaches regular lessons at the club as well.
Dan and Agnes’ daughter Minnie Keating is also an instructor along with John Wigdahl. “The lessons always end with a scrimmage, “Agnes stated. “Horsemanship is taught along with drills, they are always learning something new, but it always ends with a scrimmage. That’s what makes it fun and keeps people wanting to come back for more.” Devoted to their members, Newport Polo hosts year end awards that celebrate the player who exhibits the best sportsmanship and the most improved as well as a best groom award to highlight the hard workers behind the scenes. “We send out the roster of all of the players to each of the members with voting instructions. We usually get a one hundred percent response rate! The players win a perpetual award that their name gets engraved on and we have a fun awards party at the end of each year,” boasted Agnes.
Charitable initiatives are taken seriously at Newport Polo. For the 2017 season, Newport Polo will also host two charity days. “Instead of one match for a single charity, we designate the day as charity day and invite as many charities as are willing to participate,” Agnes reported. “Each charity can then take advantage of a larger audience if they want to keep fundraising with a silent auction or get their message out to more people. It is a really harmonious experience and a successful way of giving back to the community.”
Last spring, Newport Polo was approached by a team of documentarians who wanted to showcase the unique sport of polo by highlighting the international series. The team filmed on location at the club throughout the summer and recently released the documentary titled “Sacred Ground.” A premier screening was hosted in February at Newport's main art house movie theatre and the documentary aired on television several times. A great opportunity to showcase the sport to a larger audience, the club and staff enjoyed sharing their experiences at Newport Polo for many to see.
With so much happening at Newport Polo each year, one may wonder how they get so many people interested in the sport of polo. “I think all of our components working together is what works for us,” said Agnes. “You have to bombard people with your message in order for them to take action. We bring polo to people in so many ways. I think the more times you can make an impression on someone and make them aware of polo, eventually your message sinks in and draws them to the sport.”
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