POLO, the sport of princes, is played on the people's turf in Washington and it's free for the watching on Sundays through October. The players ride some of the area's roughest and readiest horses at Lincoln Memorial Field.
The hometown boys -- the Lincoln Mall Polo Club -- will cross mallets with a touring team from the Dominican Republic this Saturday and Sunday at 3. The goodwill exchange matches add a Latin flair to this weekly pageantry in a postcard setting. Get set for high-spirited equestrian action. At the call "Riders up, please," eight helmeted horsemen in white britches begin to line up at the center of polo grounds the length of nine football fields. The mounted umpire bowls the ball, and the riders are off, mallets swinging and eyes flashing.
Bright-stockinged horses weighing 900 pounds-plus thunder past at up to 30 mph. Players lean perilously over the flanks of animals with braided tails to thwack a 3 1/2-inch white ball with a long-handled bamboo mallet (and you thought golf was frustrating). Then, out of the melee of thumping, bumping and sideswiping, a player whacks the ball between the goalposts. That's a point for his side, team directions are reversed, and they go at it again.
The announcer in the red-white-and-blue-draped box keeps you posted: "Ball takes a bad hop." "Gary Leonard getting there with a bank shot." And if that sounds exotic, don't worry -- you'll catch on quickly.
Four to six 7 1/2-minute chukkers or periods make up the game. At four-minute breaks between chukkers, panting athletes turn their sweating steeds over to grooms and get fresh mounts. Play follows the "line of the ball," and any player who crosses that imaginary line in front of an opposing player -- if not at a safe distance -- commits a foul. Team members wear numbered jerseys identifying positions: Nos. 1 and 2 offensive, No. 3 (or pivot) both offensive and defensive, and No. 4 defensive.
Each player is handicapped from minus 1 to 10 with the combined handicap equalling the team rating. Teams slated for this weekend carry ratings of from nine to 12 goals, quite respectable in a sport where most amateurs rarely exceed a 2.
This month the hometown team, the National Capital Polo Association, enters its 20th year of play on the field between Independence Avenue and Ohio Drive just west of the Tidal Basin (near where Generals Patton and Wainwright played on the eve of World War II, when the Army still had horses). Lincoln Mall Polo Club, recognized by the United States Polo Association, sports a special brand of downtown polo, co-sponsored by the National Capital Parks. It's free, public, and casual so you can forget about your Ralph Lauren attire.
Binoculars, on the other hand, might peg you as a seasoned spectator. (Remember those nine football fields.) You can watch the action from one of a hundred or so folding chairs provided, or simply park your blanket wherever you're comfortable. Bring a picnic if you choose; soft drinks are available. Come early if you want to park reasonably close.
Lincoln Mall polo matches continue on Sundays through October. In case of questionable weather, call the Park Service at 426-6841.
About divots: During the 15-minute halftime break, the announcer will ask you to go onto the field and "do some divots," to stomp down the clumps of sod kicked up by the horses.
But take heed: Some aren't divots.