Aug 09, 2016 7:38 PM

Oak Brook Polo Club Logo

Any person with a connection to polo has most likely heard of the Oak Brook Polo Club. The club has a rich history, full of royalty, prestigious tournaments and has seen many famous players and horses compete on its fields. Founded in 1922, and registered with the USPA in 1924, Oak Brook Polo Club has played a large role in the cultivation and continuation of international and high-goal polo tournaments.

Built by Paul Butler, the vast grounds were managed by his family for many years. The property was called “Oak Brook” and stretched thousands of acres, with several farms. The property not only hosted polo tournaments, but golf, foxhunting, tennis and shooting sports—all conveniently located just outside of Chicago, Illinois. Renting out areas of the property to traveling polo players helped to create a social scene. The polo club was very large in its day, with 13 polo fields, stabling for 400 horses and a showground. Butler knew when he established the club that he had a prime location for polo, with his grounds situated in the middle of the country. Many players and teams traveled from around the country to experience Oak Brook. Celebrities and royalty routinely visited, all enjoying the great experience the club provided.

Oak Brook became the home of the U.S. Open Polo Championship® for several years, with the Oak Brook Polo Team competing for and winning the coveted trophy several times. In 1954, the USPA Butler Handicap, named in honor of Paul Butler, was established, and he later was also recognized by the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame for his accomplishments and dedication to polo.

Oak Brook was successful for many decades, entertaining a wide group of guests and players. Eventually, private family issues resulted in relinquishing control of the property from the Butler family to the Village of Oak Brook. Polo unfortunately took a back seat in recent years as housing developments and the popularity of golf and other recreational activities took precedence. The fields that once welcomed the likes of Prince Charles and Cecil Smith, now served golf and non-equestrian related activities. Oak Brook still held polo matches, but polo was on the decline.

Oak Brook Polo Club Butler Handicap Jorie Butler

Although the club could not boast the size of past years, there was still a dedicated following of players and supporters that faithfully played each year. This community and lovers of the sport wanted to see great polo and large crowds at Oak Brook again and a decision was made to revitalize the operation. In 2015, the Oak Brook Polo Club privatized polo operations with the help of Jim Drury, Managing Director of Oak Brook Polo Club. Drury witnessed the sport for the first time over 30 years ago at Oak Brook Polo Club. He loved the sport and athleticism of the horses and players and decided to give it a try. Drury eventually became an avid player at Oak Brook competing with his own team. He played low- and medium-goal polo with success for many years. After the 2008 recession, he noticed Oak Brook had switched management several times without prospering. The Village of Oak Brook had taken over the fields and needed guidance. According to Drury, “I always enjoyed playing there and had the opportunity to do so through owning my own business. I wanted to see Oak Brook the way I knew it in the beginning, so I formed Pine Oak Partners.” Drury’s new company privatized polo operations at Oak Brook last year.

Now, operating in conjunction with golfing activities on the property, many of the fields are used as driving ranges during the week. As a result, the club take pristine care of the fields stated Drury, “The fields are probably the best they have ever looked, even when the Butlers owned them!” Polo and golf share the financial responsibility for the fields creating a unique way of operating that has helped Oak Brook tremendously. Drury credits Dan O’Leary and Angela Baker with Oak Brook's recent success. Both have been at the forefront of the revitalization. O’Leary has extensive experience in business including several years working with the USPA and now helps to manage club operations. Baker’s experience in marketing boosts club exposure by ensuring the Chicago area knows the merits of visiting Oak Brook Polo Club. This team provides a wealth of business and polo related experience that has propelled the club forward.

Oak Brook Polo Club Trophy Photo Jorie Butler Jason Wates
Oak Brook Polo Team Winning the Commanders Cup with Reute Butler and Jorie Butler

O’Leary acknowledges many dedicated individuals for the recent success and renaissance of the club. A change to the structure of operations includes a partnership between Oak Brook and nearby Arranmore Polo Club, located just west of Naperville, Illinois. Together, the two polo clubs share resources and have created a platform to showcase polo in the area, while also promoting each other’s respective events. Chicago Polo, the umbrella term for the two clubs, has become a polo powerhouse in a short period of time. Chicago Polo Magazine, listed here, features a wonderful tribute to the success these clubs have found by working together.

Oak Brook Polo Club is back on track to return to past glory, this success and revitalization is due, in large part, to sponsorship at the club, such as the Drake Hotel. The hotel and polo club have come together to create an amazing polo experience for guests. The hotel offers parking, shuttle services, VIP experiences such as the Michigan Avenue Polo Lounge and brunch options to guests. Furthermore, the hotel has title sponsored the “USPA Drake Challenge Cup,” a tournament established in the 1960s. Played this past weekend, Oak Brook welcomed the New Delhi Polo Team to the club to compete for the gold and brass trophy. The event showcased the great relationship between the two teams as well as the partnership with The Drake Hotel. Many other club sponsors also play a role including, Tiffany and Co., Veuve Clicquot, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, and James Drury Partners, among others.

Culver Academy Color Guard at the Commanders Cup
Culver Academy Color Guard at the Commanders Cup

Sunday polo games have also changed for the better. According to O’Leary, “We wanted to get away from theme days done in the past. We want our audience to know what is going on inside the boards. Focus on the sport, the tournaments, the players. Exhibition games are fun, but don’t give justice to the sport; we want polo to be the focus again.” Located just 15 miles west of Chicago, many of their guests are from the Chicago area. “We want this experience to be available to all,” said O’Leary, “It is great for families, we have new food trucks at the field this year, and children under 13 get in for free.” Oak Brook has also lowered ticket prices to meet the industry average. Now anyone can experience the history and fun of Oak Brook without paying a large ticket price. “We want to play the safest polo we can, while still providing a wonderful experience,” stated Drury. It is not uncommon to interact with your favorite player at Oak Brook, as they all interact with guests before and after the games, taking photos and signing polo balls. Many activities in between chukkers also involve guests, such as foot mallet competitions. This new approach to polo has proved to be successful for Oak Brook. More than 500 spectators typically attend a Sunday polo game each week and numbers are increasing.

Oak Brook Polo Club Polo Players Jason Wates Tomas Obregon
Oak Brook Polo Team at Horses & Horsepower Jim Drury, Tony Sekura, Jason Wates, Tomas Obregon

Future plans for the club aim for games to be played on the Cecil Smith Field again. Unfortunately, the historic field is currently being used as a driving range. The field has a prime location that provides a better area for guests. Some of the first games were played on the Cecil Smith Field, and Oak Brook management is eager for fans to experience its greatness once again. Continuing their already amazing relationship with sponsors and Chicago Polo is another future goal of the club. Cross marketing has been mutually beneficial for the club and its sponsors, and there are plans to continue these relationships for many polo seasons to come.

Guests at the 2016 Oak Brook Polo Season

Oak Brook has revitalized their program in ways that have seen incredible growth. Oak Brook can serve as an example to other polo programs that may be struggling, proving that passion for the sport can go a long way. It is this passion from the club management and surrounding community that is ensuring that Oak Brook will continue to provide amazing polo to the greater Chicago area. To learn more about Oak Brook Polo Club, visit their website, and follow them on Facebook and Instagram.