For First-Timers, Match is a Lesson in Polo 101

The British and U.S. teams gallop into the inaugural America's Cup of Polo at Morven Park. The Brits won, 7-3.
The British and U.S. teams gallop into the inaugural America's Cup of Polo at Morven Park. The Brits won, 7-3. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 13, 2007

Thousands of polo neophytes clipped price tags off new hats, dusted off seersucker suits and gathered around the field at Morven Park in Leesburg yesterday to watch the first America's Cup of Polo.

The Ritz-Carlton British Polo Team prevailed over the Cartier-sponsored U.S. team 7-3. The game, attended by more than 4,000 people, was organized by Fauquier County winery owner Tareq Salahi to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America at Jamestown.

But if all works as planned, the Leesburg-based America's Cup will become a signature event that will draw a team from a different country each year and inspire a new generation of polo fans.

"This is our first game," said Shelley H. Husband of Manassas as she enjoyed a bluegrass version of "Sweet Virginia" with her daughter before the game. She pored over a cheat sheet full of polo lingo to help her out: A "chukker," she learned, is a period, and a "throw-in" is the way each period begins as the ball is tossed onto the field.

Nearby, U.S. team member Michael E. Hoffman gave a rough summary of the sport from a rider's perspective: You are five feet off the ground, on a horse galloping at full speed around a field, holding a 52-inch-long stick and trying to hit a ball three inches in diameter. "And there are four other guys that are all trying to prevent you from doing it," he added.

Hoffman spent his pregame hour in the Cartier tent, with its white tablecloths, red roses, America's Cup china and bottle of champagne on ice. His teammate, David King, called it "the locker room" for the U.S. team.

Sipping a cool drink nearby was Qubad Talabani, son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who ventured to the game from Washington. A newcomer to the sport, he said he wasn't sure what to wear. "So I went to a store called Polo, and said, 'What do you have to wear to a polo match?' " he said. He left the Ralph Lauren store outfitted in a tan cotton blazer and creamy button-down shirt.

Afghan Ambassador Said Jawad said he was very familiar with the sport that originated in his part of the world. But in his country, he said, it's not nearly as popular as another game played on horseback, called buzkashi, in which riders vie for a dead calf.

The eclectic pregame entertainment yesterday might have left first-timers confused about the authenticity of the event showcasing a game usually played on private fields surrounded by wealthy estates. The Urban Nation hip-hop choir took the stage, along with Native American dancers and a K-9 demonstration by U.S. Park Police.

A dramatic performance by the Blackwater USA Parachute Team silenced the crowd, as the jumpers lingered in the sky with huge American and British flags while Journey played a Jimi Hendrix-esque version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." On one side of the field, people with VIP passes stayed out of the sun and dined on crabcakes and grilled salmon in white tents sponsored by Ritz-Carlton and SunTrust. Across the way, people spread blankets on the lawn and stood in long lines for sandwiches.

Neil Valis, "a native Virginian and a Leesburgian," said he paid $75 per ticket for the day. "That's for the poor guy to get in," he said. It was his first game, but his wife, "a 4-H girl who loves horses," was going to instruct him on how it's played, he said.

Stretched out on a blanket, Tommy Chambers of Falls Church and his mother-in-law, Ann Marie Morreale, were unraveling their many questions about the sport, starting with the ball.

"We were wondering, how big is it? What is it called?" said Morreale, who came from New York for the weekend.

Chambers asked, "Do they really have a divot stomp? And do we have to watch out for the steaming divots?"

As the game unfolded, they learned that the ball is just a ball. And while the crowd filed onto the field at halftime to dance while a British rock band played, there were few divots, steaming or otherwise.

On another blanket nearby, Angela Marinich, 41, of Hamilton played with her toddler Zachary. She said that it was her first game but that it wouldn't be her last. "Hopefully we'll come every year," she said.

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