Shrouded in black burkas, chasing a ball that was illuminated by an internal candle, woman once played polo in secret by the light of the moon. But women have come a long way in this 2,000-year-old Asiatic sport, and last weekend they were out in full force at the Santa Barbara Polo Club for the Women’s Championship Tournament qualifier.
Once the dominion of men only, the United States Polo Association’s membership is now 38 percent female — the fastest growing segment of the USPA. This year, the Santa Barbara Polo Club celebrates its centennial and the First Annual Ladies WCT Qualifier. Eight teams of women from as far away as Florida, Texas, and Argentina came to compete in the event to benefit Girls Inc.
Polo is a co-ed sport, but in 2005, America’s highest ranking female professional polo player — Sunny Hale — created the Women’s Championship Tournament to showcase women’s talent. Qualifying matches are held around the country, and the finals are played during the spring in Florida. In women’s polo, you don’t see the testosterone-bursting grand shots that can sail halfway down the field, but women do bring impeccable riding skills, extremely accurate ball placement, and great teamwork to the sport.
The women didn’t only play hard — they partied hard too. It all started with the Calcutta at the Polo Club house on Thursday night where the draw was done for the eight teams of women to compete in two flights of games. Team Tresor de Vintage, with members Paige Beard, Sunny Hale, Natascha Baecher, and Claudia Uretz, topped the Calcutta at $800.
Friday morning was the first round of matches held at the Summerland Field. There, Tresor de Vintage beat El Dorado Polo Club 6-1, and Los Banditos topped Jaeger LeCoultre 10-5 in the Player Level, which is for women with handicaps of 0 and higher.
At noon, a local news crew filmed a polo demonstration with Sunny Hale for the girls who attended Girls Inc. summer camps in Carpinteria and Santa Barbara. The girls entered through the “Members Only” door of the clubhouse and were given the opportunity to try Go Girl Energy drink (one of the event sponsors).
They then sat in the stands and listened to Hale and Paige Beard explain the basics of polo with the assistance of a gray thoroughbred named Cowgirl. All went smoothly until a little girl asked how you tell the difference between a boy horse and a girl horse. Hale and Beard only missed half a beat and then moved back to more important things — like polo! Many of the girls proved to be naturals when given a walking mallet and ball. All wore smiles when they walked out the front door of the polo club with their WCT/Girls Inc. pink T-shirts.
The evening wrapped up with a barbeque at Bella Vista, the polo ranch of Pat Nesbit — secretary of the United States Polo Association — and his bride, Ursula. Paige Beard and Kate Weber organized a game of Polo Jeopardy where the men played against the women. The event was attended by club members, participants in the tournament, and representatives of Girls Inc.
Saturday morning, during the Entry Level first round matches, Team Cone won over Holiday Inn Express 7-2, and Blanco Film Finance beat Oldman Cooley.
The best communicator in polo, Sunny Hale, did a clinic in the afternoon for those who could still stand up after the rigor of the competition. The first half of the clinic was mounted on the Summerland Field with hitting drills and instruction on correct form. After they moved down the street to the club house, Sunny let the women diagram scenarios from their most difficult games on a wipe board, and she expertly told them how their plays should have gone.
Just before sunset, the women on horseback hit the beach with photographer Dave Lominska, who follows polo across the country. That night, The Nugget Restaurant in Summerland was hit by the storm of polo-playing women meeting for cocktails and dinner.
In the finals for the entry level, Team Cone (Ashley Cone, Gabby Questal, Daisy Gabbard, and Danielle Travis) beat Blanco Texas/Film Finance (Chloe Bourgeois, Connell Erb, Kerstie Allen, and Michelle Myers) 9-6. Chloe Bourgeois was awarded MVP and her horse Fiona won Best Playing Pony. Ashley Cone, team sponsor, won the Best Sportsman award.
At the Sunday finals, models in the grandstands wore clothing by the online vintage clothing company Tresor de Vintage, while on the field the Los Banditos team (Roxy Keyfauver, Erica Gandomcar, Carla Garichotte, and Abby Riggs) was bra-burning fast but not quick enough to beat Tresor de Vintage (Paige Beard, Sunny Hale, Natascha Baecher, and Claudia Uretz) who brought home the bacon and fried it up in a pan in a four chukker game that ended 7-6. MVP of the game was Abby Riggs who received a watch from Jaeger LeCoultre. Paige Beard’s horse, McGee, was best playing pony. Claudia Uretz won Best Sportsman.
Paige Beard, tournament director — and the woman who roared and made the event happen — handed out the awards and a check to Girls Inc. of Santa Barbara. During the 3 p.m. finals, the women enjoyed high tea in the patron’s tent while watching the men play high goal polo.