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Friday, June 14, 2019

Mark the Polo!

From the Vault Dept.: Saratoga Polo is about to begin its season, a tradition that begin there in the first year of the 20th century. Thanks to a search through the Saratogian’s clip files (this was back in the filing-cabinet days) and a piece in a 1902 Harper’s Weekly, I assembled the story below. The photo came from Harper’s, too, but the Gazette never returned the original – what you see is a scan of a clipping. For information about the current season, check out the association’s website.


RACING ALWAYS STEALS AUGUST’S ATTENTION, but the ancient sport of polo is again attracting notice in Saratoga Springs. When it was introduced here, 88 years ago, it was front-page news. Ten years ago it returned after a break of almost 45 years, and it is again bringing the world’s best players to a small, lavishly-maintained lawn just over the city line in Greenfield.

From left: Kingdon Gould, Jay Gould, Benjamin Nicoll,
and George Jay Gould. Photographed in
Saratoga Springs, July 1902.
In the very early days of the sport, a player simply assaulted an opponent with his horse or anything else that was handy, but dignity and skill replaced brute power as the game evolved. It’s not surprising to realize how little polo has changed throughout the century; what is surprising is to see how little its social aspect has altered. The millionaires and royalty may not take to the field so much, but the air of glamor remains.

William Collins Whitney furnished the original field, near a popular golf club, in 1901. For the first season, professional teams competed for the Hitchcock, Ballston, and Sanford Cups. A year later, over 200 polo ponies arrived in Saratoga during August.

Harper’s Weekly described financier George Jay Gould in 1902 as one who “makes no pretense of giving, but his service to his fellows is in many ways greater than that of many who do. If he keeps on working, as he surely will, there is no telling what his position in the financial and commercial world may be 15 years hence.”

It only took five years. The then-44-year-old had inherited his father’s railroads and unscrupulousness (the elder Gould’s gold greed contributed to the 1869 “Black Friday” panic), but his attempts to assemble his own transcontinental railroad system crashed in the panic of 1907.

The hard-working Gould also was known as a hard player, and, like so many other kings of business, he took his leisure in Saratoga Springs in August. Unlike his peers, he didn’t sit back: he battled on the polo field, with his two sons alongside him.

A portrait of his polo team shows him alongside 16-year-old son Kingdon and 14-year-old Jay. They played in what should have been the opening match on July 28, 1902 against the Rockaway team for the junior championship, but early on Kingdon suffered what a newspaper described as “a crack on the nose,” which put him out of the game and effectively canceled play. Kingdon left the field to nurse his injury and then declared himself ready to go on, but his mother forcibly dragged him to the car. A list of observers’ names fills a six-inch column of tiny type in the following day’s Saratogian.

Although the Goulds’ team lost to Rockaway the next day, the senior Lakewood quartet took the first game of the championship by winning the William Waldorf Astor cup on Aug. 4, 1902. “In many ways the game itself was a brilliant one,” reports the Saratogian, “but it was surpassed in that regard by the audience that watched the stirring play. Represented on the clubhouse veranda and along the western side of the field were the first families of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and other large cities of the East. Members of the smart set were driven to the field in whizzing automobiles or behind high-stepping thoroughbreds ... A more distinguished gathering has rarely been seen in Saratoga and one was prone to wonder if there is anyone of any consequence this year at Newport or any other summer resort.”

One of the stars of the game was Harry Payne Whitney, with the game’s highest rating of a 10 goal handicap, who also took it upon himself to maintain the field. “Mr. Whitney plays a very clever game of polo,” the Saratogian reporter wrote. “He plays with his head, figuratively speaking, all the time and he is cool, collected and careful ... He rarely fails of good distance and accurate direction and he follows the ball perfectly.”

Like George Gould’s railroad holdings, polo in Saratoga Springs fell victim to economic severity. It was dormant in the early 1920s but returned in 1926 under the aegis of W. Averill Harriman (eight goals), who played during the 1927 season. By 1935 it was forgotten and the lawn became a cornfield.

Its rediscovery was attributable to luck and determination, principally on the part of Skidmore College student Leighton Jordan. In 1978, determined to rediscover the field, he assembled the people who would form the Saratoga Polo Association.

One of them is Peter Brant, who bought the field and is a mainstay of the sport both in Saratoga and Greenwich, Conn. A six-goal handicap rates him as one of the best amateur players and, following the game’s familial tradition, he has introduced his son, Ryan, to the sport.

He shares a team – White Birch – with Gonzalo Pieres (10 goals), considered by many the top polo player in the world. He and his brother Alfonso (10 goals) have provided much of the excitement in recent seasons.

This year’s season is scheduled to begin at 6 tonight. The listing that follows is subject to change, and readers are urged to check with the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce for updated information.

Aug. 4: Keeler Cup (6 p.m.)
Aug. 8: Palamountain Cup (game at 3 p.m. after an invitation-only luncheon).
Aug. 12: Kentucky Cup (6 p.m., with a display of antique carriages).
Aug. 13: Dell Carroll Memorial Cup (6 p.m.)
Aug. 15: Vista Cup (6 p.m., featuring the tailgate picnic competition. Winning picnic-maker receives a 3-foot-tall bottle of Mumm’s Cordon Rouge Champagne).
Aug. 18: Pimm’s Cup (6 p.m., with a parade of antique automobiles to herald the proceedings).
Aug. 20: Calumet Cup (5:30 p.m., to accommodate waning daylight.)
Aug. 22: DePaula Cup (3 p.m.)
Aug. 25: Thomas B. Glynn Cup (5:30 P.M.)

The final game salutes one of Saratoga’s polo mainstays: Tommy Glynn is one of the few whose association with local polo spans the entire era. He traces his involvement back to 1923, and has been with the new regime from its beginning.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 2 August 1989

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