Polo is a dangerous sport. When horses packing a ton of muscle are chasing a ball up and down a 300-yard-long field, it would get hairy if there were not rules keeping them from crashing into each other. The basic precept is that a struck ball follows a line that defines a right of way that should not be crossed.
The same principle, without the ball, applied to the Kentucky Derby last May. Coming into the homestretch, the charging horses each had a line, some following others. Maximum Security veered off his line into the path of War of Will, nearly causing the latter to go down, which might have precipitated a disastrous pileup.
Maximum Security crossed the finish line first but was disqualified. Controversy raged over the decision because never before in history had the first finisher of the Derby been denied the winner’s blanket of roses. Andy Busch, who retired as a professional polo player after 30 years, agreed with the verdict. “It was a dangerous move,” Busch said. “Just because it hasn’t been called in the past, that doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate call. It’s the same in polo; the same in bicycle racing. If you’re riding a bicycle, and you hit the back tire in front of you, you eat it. It’s life and death.”
Polo has been life for Danny Walker, who leads a team sponsored by the family business, Farmers & Merchants Bank (FMB), in summer tournaments at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club. “I’m the third generation,” the 54-year-old Walker said. “In 1990, we had four generations here in the Wickenden Cup. My grandfather Gus was 90, my father Ben 63, I was 36, and my son Matt was 14 or 15.”
Matt Walker set up his father’s winning goal on June 23 when FMB won the championship of the Lucchese Bootmaker USPA Intra-Circuit by a score of 11-10 over BenSoleimani.com. It was the last of a series of 12-goal tournaments at the club. Coming up are the 16-goal tournaments, the best on the West Coast.
The level of play was excellent in the Intra-Circuit final. It was juiced by a $50,000 purse — $10,000 to the winning team, and a skins game awarding $5,000 to the winner of each chukker (the 7 ½-minute periods of the match, six in all). FMB was the high scorer in just two chukkers, allowing BenSoleimani.com to come away with an equal prize of $20,000.
The result brought a slightly pained smile to the face of Ben Soleimani, the namesake and patron of the runner-up squad. He sustained the only injury of the day, a swollen right cheek when a hard-driven ball hit him in the face during the fifth chukker. Fortunately, the plastic balls are softer and lighter than baseballs.
Felipe Vercellino of Bensoleimani.com was the high scorer in the championship match, but it was FMB’s Felipe Marquez who was named the Most Valuable Player. Vercellino did ride the Best Playing Pony, Barbarita, a 13-year-old mare he imported from his native Chile.
In high-level polo, each player has a string of up to 10 horses to choose from, changing mounts between chukkers and sometimes during a period. Barbarita carried Vercellino through most of the first chukker and all of the sixth.
Polo partisans are conscious of the health and safety of the horses, the lifeblood of the sport, especially when people are turning a critical eye toward Thoroughbred racing in the wake of 30 fatalities during training and racing at Santa Anita from January to June. Polo ponies are at risk of catastrophic injuries — as are athletes in every high-speed contact sport, although humans like Kevin Durant can live to tell about it — but they are very well cared for.
For one thing, horses do not play high-goal polo before they are fully mature. “I started playing Barbarita when she was 5 years old,” Vercellino said. He described the horses’ impact on the game as “70 percent, sometimes more.” While their speed is an asset, “it’s more important that you have good control. You have to stop and turn quickly. [Barbarita] is very good.”
Danny Walker said, “The breeding of the horses is better than ever. They come from New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, and a lot of Kentucky-bred horses here as well. The commitment of the patrons [team sponsors] brings in good horses.”
The 16-goal season at the Santa Barbara club will begin on Sunday, July 7, with exhibition matches. Here is the schedule of tournaments, with games every Friday and Sunday:
• Belmond El Encanto Robert Skene Trophy (July 12-21): “Hurricane Bob” Skene was a fabulous polo player from Australia. He made Santa Barbara his home club in 1960, in the midst of his 17-year career holding a supreme 10-goal rating. The Lucchese polo team won the Skene title in 2018 and returns with a pair of six-goal players, Facundo Obregon of Argentina and Carpinteria native Jeff Hall.
• Farmers & Merchants Bank USPA America Cup (July 26-Aug. 11): Ben Soleimani’s Restoration Hardware won this tournament last year. He has renamed the team after his website. His seven-goal Argentine player is named Iñaki Laprida.
• Silver Air USPA Pacific Coast Open (Aug. 15-Sept. 1): The West’s most prestigious polo competition, dating back more than a century, was won last year by Klentner Ranch. Leading the team is six-goaler Jesse Bray, who was raised in Indio and named after his father’s polo pony, Jessica.
Four other teams will be vying for the trophies. Danny Walker’s FMB, which won the Pacific Coast crown in 2017, will include Vercellino, a six-goaler, and Argentine seven-goaler Lucas Criado. Felipe Marquez has taken his six-goal rating to FMB Too!, a team helmed by Danny’s brother Henry Walker. Other squads are Santa Clara, with six-goaler Mariano Obregon; and Sol de Agosto, with longtime Santa Barbara favorite Paco de Narvaez, a seven-goaler.