With their bamboo mallets poised to strike the white ball, 14 riders tear down the polo field at WestWorld of Scottsdale. About 1,300 pounds of flesh hurtle at 30 mph toward Bob Cowie, but the 83-year-old wouldn’t have it any other way.
"There’s an element of danger about it all that really gets my blood flowing," said the Scottsdale resident, a polo player for 40 years.
Cowie and other members of the coed North Scottsdale Polo Club will face off for charity on Sunday in the Molina "Red, White and Blue" Polo Classic. Proceeds will benefit Crisis Nursery, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing child abuse and neglect.
Sponsored by Alfredo J. Molina, president of Molina Fine Jewelers, the match will be open to the public and free of charge for the first time in the event’s six-year history — indicating that the polo field, the exclusive domain of princes and captains of industry for at least two millennia, may be up for a bit of democratization.
"Polo is such a great thing," said Randy Sullivan, president of Polo America. "A lot of people have the wrong idea about it. You know, that it’s an elitist sport."
The world’s first mallet and ball game was created 2,500 years ago on the steppes of central Asia by Mongolian tribes infamous for their riding skills. Although it wasn’t considered a game in the modern sense of the word, it was considered training for warriors and princes. Polo quickly spread to Persia where it acquired its name and caught the attention of Alexander the Great, who was once quoted as having said "the ball is the earth and I am the mallet."
Polo’s modern incarnation owes much to Joseph Sherer, a British lieutenant attached to the Bengali army. Sherer, considered the father of British polo, introduced the game to army regiments stationed in India. Today’s polo players often wear white pants, a tradition inspired by the British army. By 1869, the first polo match ever played on British soil took place.
Since then, only two things have changed in polo: "Velcro and canned beer," said Bill Clark, president of the North Scottsdale Polo Club.
Despite the polo mystique created by designer Ralph Lauren, the game will never enjoy the widespread popularity of football or basketball.
"It’s a very esoteric sport," said Clark, who’s played for the past eight years. "If you’ve only got a three-minute attention span, polo probably isn’t for you. But the first time you go out with seven other players and start flying down the field, it’s the most exciting thing in the world."
Each "chukker" lasts about seven minutes; players change horses in between, giving polo its stop-and-go pace. There are no cheerleaders or halftime shows to entertain the spectators.
But Sunday’s polo match is a little different. Hats are a tradition at a polo match, and prizes will be awarded for the most humorous, elegant and original hats. There’s also the traditional "stomping of the divots," when spectators race out onto the field and smooth over the torn-up earth.
Another feature new to the event is the Polo Village, which will feature vendors from Molina Fine Jewelers, Davinci, Motorsports of Scottsdale, Dana Buchman and others. For $4 per plate, spectators can sample dishes from some of the Valley’s best restaurants during the "Desert Taste Testing."
Clark’s advice to polo newcomers: "Wear comfortable clothing, a nice hat and bring an appetite."