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Polo Ponies Are Everything

Summer's the Time for Horse-Riding Action at the Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club

Santiago Wulff's mare Maxima collapsed after a blow from another horse at the S.B. Polo & Racquet Club, and a relieved crowd applauded when she arose okay.
Paul Wellman

When polo player Santiago Wulff‘s horse collapsed beneath him, help was on the way immediately. Several grooms were the first to reach the fallen animal, a mare named Maxima. “I thought she was having a heart attack,” said Anita Wulff, the rider’s wife, who happens to be a veterinarian in Argentina.

Fortunately, it was not that serious. Maxima had apparently been stunned by a blow to the head from the jaw of another horse, according to Dan Walker, one of the players. “It was like a sucker punch,” he said. When she fell, she hit the ground hard. Attendants removed her saddle and straps and calmed her down. After a few minutes, she regained her faculties and bounded to her feet. The crowd at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club last Sunday applauded heartily.

“The horses are everything in polo,” Anita Wulff said. “They are a part of your family. They are a way of living.”

Santiago Wulff's mare Maxima collapsed after a blow from another horse at the S.B. Polo & Racquet Club, and a relieved crowd applauded when she arose okay.
Paul Wellman

The efforts of the horses are considered 80 percent of the game of polo. They provide the mobility and power behind the world’s fastest ball game. The late Buddy Linfoot, a magnate of hometown polo, put it this way: “If you can’t get to the ball, you can’t hit it. Put an Indianapolis 500 driver in a VW, and he can’t do anything.”

The advent of summer means that top-flight competition is coming to the polo club fields in Carpinteria. Eight teams are committed to the 20-goal season, a series of tournaments beginning with the Mayor’s Trophy (July 9-19) and culminating in the prestigious Bombardier Pacific Coast Open (Aug. 19-Sept. 6).

The 20-goal designation is regarded as “high” in polo terms. Every player in the world has been assigned a handicap according to his or her ability. The range is minus-2 to 10. Only a small percentage of players are rated at 5 goals or above. Santa Barbara’s upcoming tournaments will feature 21 such players, including four with a rating of 9. Each team consists of four players with a combined rating of 20.

A 12-goal tournament, the USPA Intracircuit, is currently under way. It will conclude Sunday (June 28) with the consolation match at 1 p.m. and the championship at 3 p.m. The gates to the club are open to the public Sundays with a $10 admission charge. For the price of a baseball bleacher seat, you can watch the fast-paced action along with high-society types who chat about their wine cellars (“My friend’s house wine is Haut-Brion!”). There is a milieu of privilege and wealth around a sport that existed for centuries as a diversion for monarchs and generals.

The Santa Barbara Polo Club is the third oldest in the United States and the premier site for polo on the West Coast. It will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2011. It has survived tough times, perhaps because the bond between horse and man, the essence of polo, is so strong.

Their very lives depend on following the rules of the game, which are designed to ensure safety while eight players are steering their 1,200-pound mounts at 30 miles per hour. Side-by-side contact between opponents in pursuit of the ball is allowed, while any threat of a direct collision is dealt with by penalty.

But accidents happen, and often the polo ponies-so called because they are generally more compact than racehorses-get the worst of it. They are hit by balls and mallets, and risk bone and tendon injuries. Off the playing field, there was a horrific incident at the U.S. Open tournament in Florida last April, when 21 polo ponies were killed, apparently because of a mix-up in a vitamin prescription.

The well-being of the horses is a primary concern of responsible polo people. A healthy pony will perform for many years. “They’re at their prime when they turn seven or eight, their mind is more settled, and they enjoy the game,” said Dan Walker, whose family has played polo in Santa Barbara for 50 years. “A few special ones play until they’re 20 or 21 years old.”

It is no small wonder that Maxima received applause Sunday. She deserved it.

GAMES OF THE WEEK: The National Baseball Congress champion Santa Barbara Foresters begin a stretch of nine home games in 11 days this evening (Thu., June 25, 5pm) against the Palm Springs Power at UCSB, followed by the SLO Rattlers (Fri. and Sat., 5pm, and Sun., 1pm). On the Fourth of July, the ‘Sters will play their annual game at Pershing Park against the San Jose Seals.

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