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By Dan Woog
Polo, the Sport of Queens
Polo has been called “the sport of kings.” It’s now also the sport of queens.
In Southern California, the Gay Polo League (GPL) is thriving. It doesn’t matter if you can’t tell a mallet’s head from its shaft, or even if you’ve never mounted a horse. All comers are welcome.
At first glance, polo seems poles apart from gay life. One of the oldest horse sports in the world, it originated in China. It moved to India, where the British discovered it. Today it is primarily played by two types of people: professionals and their “patrons” (pronounced “patrones”), wealthy benefactors who sponsor pros in return for playing alongside them. In places like Argentina, where polo is particularly popular, it is considered a very macho sport.
Polo is expensive. Games consist of six “chukkers” (periods), each seven and a half minutes long. Ponies run full tilt throughout each chukker, requiring a new one for each period. It costs $50,000 a year to care for, groom, and play six ponies. Multiply that by four players, add the care and maintenance of a grass field, and you’re talking at least $200,000 per team.
But gay men find a way to get their hands on everything. Two years ago Chip McKenney, a lawyer working as chief operating officer of a broadcast design studio, wanted a way to meet other gay men outside of bars and gyms. He’d never played polo, but had been around horses ever since his childhood in Maine.
“I realized polo could be a great activity for gay guys,” McKenney, 50, recalls. “There’s the camaraderie and social element of a team sport. Polo is played all over the world, so it involves travel. And it appeals to all ages and skill levels.”
McKenney – who had never been on an organized sports team – contacted John Westley, resident coach at the Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club, who was enthusiastic. Soon, largely through word of mouth, nearly 40 players were learning the game, and loving it.
The youngest is 26; the oldest, 54. Most had never ridden a horse before, though marketing guru and author (“Never Eat Alone”) Keith Ferruzzi played polo at Yale University.
All are successful professionals. Many are in entertainment – hey, this “is” L.A. – while others are bankers and business executives. The common denominator is that they are “adventurous people interested in experiencing new and different things,” says McKenney.
Despite polo’s elitist, manly image, coaches and members of three organizations – Santa Barbara; the California Polo Club in Los Angeles; and Indio’s El Dorado Polo Club, east of Palm Springs – have been extremely helpful. The California Polo Club has helped promote Wednesday “Gay Polo Nights.” Santa Barbara allows the gay players into its clubhouse, even though they are not members. All three groups help the GPL arrange games, and they welcome players’ partners.
“If you’re an athlete, opponents respect you,” McKenney says. For example, “the California Polo Club has a Christian team. They think ‘the Christians versus the gays’ is hysterical.” However, he observes, “We haven’t competed at the highest level yet. That may be a problem. If it is, we’ll just have to outride and outplay whoever it is.”
So how gay is gay polo? “Well, we have designer shirts!” laughs McKenney.
Turning serious, he says, “As gay people, our lives are different, so we bring a different sensibility to everything we do. Some of our players are in polo for the social aspect, some for competition, but both groups mix easily. That’s different from straight polo, which is more about skill level and what you bring to the team.”
The GPL has only one lesbian (“we want more,” notes McKenney). At post-event tailgates, the absence of women and children is noticeable.
In just two years, the GPL has come a long way. One Sunday each month. two groups -advanced and less advanced – meet in Santa Barbara. Westley provides instruction on mallet skills, strategy, and horsemanship. The GPL offers weekend-long clinics for particularly avid players. Off the field, there are cocktail parties, dinners, and other social events.
Looking ahead, McKenney plans to recruit new players through booths at Pride festivals and gay rodeos. San Diego is fertile territory for expansion. “I have a national vision for this,” McKenney says. “It’s such an appropriate sport for gays. Polo has a majesty, a beauty, a uniqueness that other sports may not share.” Eventually, he hopes polo becomes a Gay Games sport.
In the meantime, the GPL plans a trip to Argentina, to watch the big leagues in action.
“You don’t have to have skills. Polo is learnable by anyone,” McKenney concludes. “And you don’t need your own horse. That would disqualify everyone on our club.”
For more information, visit http://www.gaypolo.org, or contact Chip McKenney: firstname.lastname@example.org.