Mar 14, 2017 8:16 PM
As blizzards approach the northeast with inches upon inches of projected snowfall, the timing could not be more appropriate to introduce the stunning Sarasota Polo Club (SPC). Located on the gorgeous and often overlooked Gulf Coast of Florida in the community of Lakewood Ranch, SPC offers a club built on a foundation of comradery and sportsmanship in a warmer climate where both you and your horses can escape. Sarasota Polo Club provides an alternative to the high-goal, high-pressure and high-stakes polo that Florida is famous for, in fact they take pride in their 4- to 12-goal competitive polo, with great fields and even better people.
Sarasota Polo Club is synonymous with the Uihlein family. The Uihleins procured a 28,000-acre property in 1922, which developed over the years from a timber farm to a conglomerate of agricultural businesses known as the Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, Inc. (SMR). While the club was not developed until 1991, a ranch-style “cowboy polo” played in a former cow pasture near the SMR Headquarters, involving both ranchers and SMR executives, set the precedent for the sport. When plans were approved to develop a portion of the land into the Lakewood Ranch community, the polo club served as the centerpiece. Many would agree that the casual, family-friendly atmosphere of today’s club is a reflection of polo’s humble beginnings in the area.
“We have such a great group of people here at this club. People cheer and encourage each other. It’s somewhere where you can get better, you can feel like you’re in a safe, comfortable environment, yet still play competitive polo.” – Kristen Galvan, SPC Polo Operations Manager
Evoking polo establishments of the past, Sarasota Polo Club delivers a true polo community experience. The club boasts nine world-class polo fields surrounded by thirty-five private ranches, ranging from five to 40 acres. A lovely clubhouse, complete with a wrap around front porch along with the field-side Pavilion function as the focal point of the club. Both offer casual seating with great views of the playing fields, as well as a gathering place for their myriad club festivities. “Every homeowner is a member of the Sarasota Polo Club, no matter their equine discipline of choice, if any,” said Kristen Galvan, SPC Polo Operations Manager. “If you own a ranch in the club, you are invited to participate in our member events, parties and any other activities.”
Season highlights include an annual kid’s tournament, monthly junior “Gymkhana” and the highly-coveted SMR Cup. A staple for equine-minded youth, gymkhanas consist of speed pattern racing and timed games for riders on horses. Orchestrated by Amy Redman, this SPC tradition has endured for six years and counting. “The kids accrue points. They can compete at all different levels—there ends up being an advanced division, beginner, even lead-line classes,” said SPC Member Kelly Beck. “There are teams that are a mix of the advanced and lead-line kids. Everyone gets a shot at glory and getting an award. The little kids look up to the big kids, they see these kids who are only a little bigger than they are and they think ‘Wow, we can do that too,’” Beck continued.
Meanwhile, the SMR Cup, competed for since the club’s inception, offers friendly competition off the polo field. Fun for all ages, albeit primarily adults, the SMR Cup features an entire weekend of events. “Friday night we have a kick-off party and we put teams together consisting of polo players, homeowners and our local cowboys,” said Galvan. “Saturday they start with fishing and then go to shooting. In the afternoon they do team penning and roping. Sunday morning is cowboy polo and at halftime of the Sunday game there is a horse race, which is the final event.”
All these activities serve to bring not only the club but the entire community together with an exemplary focus on inclusion and diversity. “We have a family that lives here that doesn’t play polo and never has,” said Beck. “They are integral, they are always out there keeping score, drawing the names, helping out in any way. It’s a real cross-community feel with the gymkhana and all our events. They pull people together."
The main event however, are their remarkably well-attended Sunday matches boasting upwards of 4,000 spectators. Contrary to popular belief, Lakewood Ranch is not a retirement community, but home to a large group of young working families. Emerging from this demographic is an incredibly loyal fan base. “We do themed tailgate contests and novelty charity events such as ‘Ponies for Pups.’ Sunday polo is so popular we have a five-year waitlist for a tailgate spot. We just cleared somebody this season for a tailgate spot from 2012. It’s like getting a New York apartment!” Galvan joked.
Spectators are invited to stomp divots at halftime with the option to take a ride in a wagon pulled by a team of Budweiser-esque Clydesdales or try out hitting a polo ball off the wooden horse. After the final horn, players take a victory lap high-fiving spectators, who are then encouraged to approach players after the award ceremony for conversation and autographs. Not to mention their ever-expanding gift shop complete with SPC branded apparel, water bottles, chairs, totes, cozies, even baby bibs! This emphasis on spectator engagement ensures repeat visits but also a chance to draw in new players.
A one-stop shop, it is no surprise that Sarasota Polo Club is home to a notable polo school under the direction of Certified Polo Instructor (CPI) Stuart Campbell and aspiring CPI Juan Martinez Baez. Both successful polo professionals in their own right, the polo school is the gateway for an ever-expanding membership. Kelly Beck from Tallahassee, Florida, has been an SPC member for over 14 years, along with her husband and children. Winner of the recent Sarasota Women’s Challenge, competing against a team captained by her daughter Anneke, a passerby might presume she hails from an established polo lineage, when in fact Beck got her start in the SPC Polo School.
“Family is sort of the reason that we ended up getting into polo,” Beck recounted. “We had a serious three-day eventing barn and my son, who at that point was 14, said ‘Mom, I don’t like this crowd of people, it’s all girls.’ So I took him to a polo match here, I thought maybe that would be something that would appeal to him.’” Her plan worked, and it was not long before he was taking lessons and competing on the grass. “I have six children, so it was nice,” Beck continued. “I don’t want to have to do one activity here, one activity there. This was something everyone could do and it worked! One by one, everyone got hooked.”
“It’s like a big family reunion that goes on for four months, with polo at all levels and something for everyone. My kids have always said it’s the best part of the year!” – Kelly Beck, Sarasota Polo Club Member
Other SPC members, such as Mark Mulligan, journey south every winter. A club owner himself, he leaves his beloved Barefield Polo Club in Frenchtown, New Jersey, behind along with the cold temperatures to enjoy quality polo in a positive atmosphere. Drawn by the cosmopolitan culture of Sarasota and an excellent school system for his two daughters, Mulligan insists that his primary reason for traveling to SPC are the people. “I’m back and forth, I commute from New Jersey where I work three days a week and then I am down there for four. It’s just nice, you show up, and it’s like you never left, even though you’ve been gone for three days. Everyone is in a good mood, there are parties, entertainment—it’s well run."
The SPC tournament season officially kicks-off every January and continues through April. Practices and polo school begin as early as November. The USPA National Inter-Circuit Championship 12-goal, featuring their highest-rated competition of the season, begins this week. For all the naysayers, who insist that Sarasota is too far off the beaten path, Galvan has this to say, “We are in a great location. We are ten minutes from a major airport, we’re 20 minutes from the best beach in the United States. There is so much to do in this area, yet we have our own little, quiet, peaceful corner,” and well worth the visit. For more information on Sarasota Polo Club, visit www.sarasotapoloclub.com and “Like” them on Facebook for up-to-date schedules of tournaments and events.
* Herndon Radcliff and Josh Shelton are Team USPA members. 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 Eric Nalpas Photography.
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