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White House crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi hold polo event on the Mall

By Neely Tucker
Sunday, June 13, 2010; C05

The America's Polo Cup featured a match between the United States and India Saturday on the Mall, although neither government participated in the event. The event's Web site listed its key sponsor as Kingfisher Beer, whose chief executive said the company was not a sponsor. The advertising for the event promised sponsors that it was the "best sporting experience . . . in the United States and considered the best in the world by the highest standards of polo."

It seemed controversial business as usual for the event's promoters, Tareq and Michaele Salahi. On federally owned turf, beneath a Washington sky, eight months after they crashed the Obamas' first White House state dinner, the embattled Virginia socialites found a way to put on what has become their signature event.

They remain under federal investigation for their November White House visit, and Virginia is investigating America's Polo Cup for past claims to have been a charitable fundraiser.

But on Saturday, the sun shone, the ponies ran, and the wine and beer flowed -- for a crowd of perhaps 250. The event's advertising put admission at $95 per person.

(Photos from the Salahi polo event)

"I saw an ad for it on a bus, so I brought my friend for his birthday present," said D.C. resident Blaire Jones, sitting at a table under the big white tent near the polo field and fanning away the afternoon heat. Her 27-year-old companion declined to give his name. "I don't know anything about polo, but it's nice," she said.

Stephanie Bosch, another District resident who brought her boyfriend to the event, was also a first-timer at a polo match. "It's entertaining -- it's something to do on a weekend in Washington," she said. "But I did buy the tickets before I realized it was run by the Salahis."

The event, held in West Potomac Park, featured food from vendors including Tandoori Nights and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. There was a silent auction offering dozens of signed photographs, sports jerseys, and musical instruments from entertainers and musicians -- a guitar listed as being autographed by Paul McCartney had a minimum bid of $1,050 -- but three hours after the gates opened, it appeared that no bids had been placed on any of the items.

In years past, the Salahi-run event has featured matches between a team of U.S. players and another team from elsewhere. England was the first, then Italy and Australia. Sponsors such as Land Rover and Cartier flocked to the first event. But as news of the couple's troubles with vendors and dozens of lawsuits began accumulating across the region, sponsors became fewer.

India's embassy signed on as an official sponsor last year. But after the couple attended the White House state dinner for the Indian prime minister without an official invitation, turning the event into a national scandal, the embassy withdrew.

The "Government of India/Embassy of India are not associated with the America's Polo Cup event in any manner," Rahul Chhabra, spokesman for the Indian Embassy, wrote in an e-mail Friday.

Yashpal Singh, president and chief executive of Mendocino Brewing Company, the parent company of Kingfisher, said Friday that his company also dropped out of the event at that time. He said the Salahis persisted in using Kingfisher's name and logo in advertising.

"We are not sponsoring this event and have informed the people managing this event of that," Singh said Friday. "We have sent legal notices to this effect, and he keeps on advertising us as a sponsor. I don't know what world he's living in."

The event did have a sponsor -- the Washington Times, according to Sam Dealey, editor of the paper.

"We have had a successful partnership for three years, and the America's Polo Cup has always met its obligations to the Washington Times and vice versa," he said Friday. "We anticipate another great sponsorship."

Bill Line, a spokesman for the National Park Service, said the Salahis had been granted a permit to host the event on the Mall two weeks ago, after "many, many meetings and conversations." Like nearly all of the thousands of people who hold events on the Mall each year, the couple was required to post an insurance bond -- $3 million in this case.

"They have been informed that if there is damage to that field, we are going to be tapping that bond," Line said.

Business concerns were not an issue for Saturday's crowd. Tareq Salahi told the crowd that Costa Rica had "won the bid" to challenge at next year's event, beating out France, New Zealand and South Africa. There was a round of cheers, and then the match started.

Perched at the side of the field in director's chairs were trophy presenters Sarah Keys and Priscilla Noel, models who said they are also players for the Baltimore Charm of the Lingerie Football League. Dressed for the afternoon in a summer dress, heels and a black hat, Noel said she did not know much about polo but was loving the afternoon.

"There's a trophy in there worth $20,000," she said, gesturing toward the tent behind her. "I just don't want anyone to hit it with a polo stick when I'm holding it."

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