Polo grounds raise more than a good time

Polo grounds raise more than a good time
The game of polo has a repuation for being a ‘snooty’ sport, but many say that it isn’t so. The San Diego Polo Club, which hosts matches every Sunday through September also helps to raise funds for those in need. Photo by Daniel Knighton

RANCHO SANTA FE — Polo has a reputation as a snooty sport. 

All that many people know about polo is that it is played by royalty and they remember the scene in the movie “Pretty Woman,” where the beautiful people dress to the nines and sip champagne while replacing divots the horses have kicked up on the field.

That is our biggest misconception, said Steve Lewandowski, a former player who is now the longtime announcer at the polo grounds in Rancho Santa Fe.

Yes, people do sip champagne while replacing divots, but that is where the similarities end.

“How snooty can a sport be when half the athletes wear no clothing and poop right in front of you?” he laughs.

Lindsey Chronert, creative director of the San Diego Club that is based in Rancho Santa Fe, agreed there are a lot of misconceptions about the sport and the people involved.

“Our members are just regular people who have a passion for horses,” she said. “They are very normal people who are at the barn feeding their horses or cleaning up after them.

They love their horses and they love being here.”

She said the core demographic is horse lovers or people who have an interest in horse sports.

Chronert said that polo is “family friendly.”

“A lot of people bring their kids,” she said.

There is an area with activities especially for children.

The club also raises a lot of money for a lot of good causes.

“We have made $37,000 for Prince Harry’s favorite charity, Sentebale,” she said.

It concentrates on orphans in Lesotho, a land-locked country in South Africa.

Another favorite charity for the group is Awakenings Heart Institute, which works with older people who have had a stroke or injury.

On closing day on Sept. 30 there will be a fundraiser for TERI, which supports those with autism or other developmental or learning disabilities.

A game of polo takes about 1 ? hours. Usually during intermission there is a fashion show or some kind of horse sport entertainment like a dressage demonstration.

There is a champagne divot stomp during halftime of the feature match.

“We get out there and stomp divots kicked up by the horses and it is really good for the field,” she said. “It’s a chance to socialize with friends. A lot of people like to go out and chat.”

And if a person does wish to imbibe, there are two full bars.

Polo is a rough sport.

“It’s like hockey on horseback,” she said. “Women play too. People shake hands afterwards and there are no hard feelings, but there are a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It’s not a game for sissies.”

She said the people who play the game are athletes.

And when the chips are down, they have the backs of other horse lovers.

In 2007, the Witch Creek Fire changed direction so abruptly that many people were taken by surprise and were hard-pressed to evacuate their horses. Many people were not at home at the time and could not get back to save their horses.

Members of the polo club went to work evacuating as many horses as possible.

“They rallied to do what they could to help the animals,” said Lewandowski.

“It was like a blur — like any tragedy,” he said. “All of a sudden it happens and you’re dealing with it in real time. A lot of people were coming off Del Dios Highway with nowhere to put their animals except the polo grounds.”

“We had 700 horses at one time,” he said. “We got filled up like ‘bang!”

He said many anonymous donors ordered hay and had it brought to the polo grounds to feed the horses.

The 25-year lease to the polo grounds has ended and after the polo season ends the city of San Diego will put out a call for bids to help determine who will get the next lease.

“We have been good stewards,” he said. “We have paid $650,000 in taxes and have raised more than $20 million for charity.”

In the off season, soccer, lacrosse and cricket are played there.

There has been talk of turning it into a city park or of a private enterprise using it for concerts and other public events, he said.

Lewankowski said the polo club will be chosen again so they can continue polo in San Diego for its 107th year.

There will be polo matches each Sunday for the rest of the month. The polo grounds are at 14555 El Camino Real in Rancho Santa Fe. To learn more, visit sandiegopolo.com or call (858) 481-9217.

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