DATELINE: STE-MARTHE, QUE.

A game for all classes

BRUCE WALLACE October 12 1987
DATELINE: STE-MARTHE, QUE.

A game for all classes

BRUCE WALLACE October 12 1987

A game for all classes

DATELINE: STE-MARTHE, QUE.

His team is trailing two goals to one when Steve Shutt breaks away from a defender and heads for the opposition’s goal. During his 12 years as a member of the Montreal Canadiens hockey team Shutt became one of the highest scoring left wingers in National Hockey League history. But on a humid Sunday afternoon in early September, on a groomed field in the Quebec town of SteMarthe, 60 km west of Montreal, Shutt is not on skates—but poised atop a spirited thoroughbred. And when he drives a backhand shot across the goal line, a second before he and his mount crash into and dislodge the 10-foothigh red-and-white-striped goal post, it is with a wooden polo mallet, not a hockey stick. Since retiring from professional hockey in 1985 Shutt has become one of the growing number of Canadian polo players who are reviving a sport once thought the preserve of royalty and the wealthy. Said the former NHL star: “Pro hockey players miss the speed, competition and danger when they retire from the game. Polo gives me a taste of all three.” Shutt is not alone. The Montreal Polo Club, revived in 1980 by eight polo fans, now has 23 playing members—with a policeman and a veterinarian among them—who compete three times a week on the regulation 300-by160-yard field in Ste-Marthe. And the infant Canadian Polo Association administers 10 other clubs in varying stages of development in five provinces,

with an estimated total of 300 players. Once deemed to be a pastime only for the idle rich, polo is now shedding the image of champagne, caviar and white britches so long associated with it, as aficionados try to establish it as a mainstream sport. “When Prince Charles falls on his ass and makes front-page news, the public is led to believe polo is the prerogative of the wealthy,” said Michael Sifton Sr., president of the 50-member Toronto Polo Club.“That is unfair to the majority of polo players, who are athletes trying to master a sweaty, dangerous sport.”

Polo’s public renaissance comes after spending decades as a hobby of dedicated horsemen. First recorded in first-century Persia, polo was brought to India by invaders in the 13th century. By 1870 British army officers had brought it home to England, where it quickly flourished among the aristocracy. Although popular in the West among Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen, the game’s first official Canadian tournament was held in Toronto in 1903. Polo faltered after the Second World War, however, although the sport continued to be played in Western Canada. It was 1980 before regular pickup polo games in the Ste-Marthe area spawned the new Montreal Polo Club.

Despite attempts to broaden the player base, polo remains a game accessible only to people of certain means. Serious competitors typically use a fresh horse in each of a game’s four to six chukkers—7 V2-minute peri-

ods—although most club members alternate between two mounts. The polo “ponies,” often retired race horses, can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000, in addition to boarding costs. Said Shutt, now an executive with Torontobased Dominion Fashion Group, who owns four mounts: “Polo is the socalled yuppie sport, and everybody’s getting into it. That drives the price of horses way up.” And the sheer size of the polo grounds—the Ste-Marthe playing field is seeded with a special mix of bluegrass—means that most polo clubs must maintain a costly piece of real estate. Said Donald Pennycook, a vice-president with Toronto-based clothing company Chaps Ralph Lauren, who owns one of the Montreal club’s two fields: “Polo is an addiction that only poverty or death can cure.”

It is also a sport for the brave. Tragedies are not unknown in the game, and last year the United States Polo Association reported two fatal game accidents. There are few players who have not suffered injuries. Last August Montreal Canadiens defenceman Larry Robinson broke his right leg when it was crushed between his horse and a competitor’s during a SteMarthe game—an injury that will keep him out of hockey action until at least December. “When two 1,200-pound animals collide at 30 miles per hour,” said Pennycook, “something has to give.”

But it is precisely its speed and danger that makes weil-played polo an exciting spectator sport. On Labor Day weekend 5,000 spectators, among them many young families with children, gathered at the Montreal Polo Club for its third annual Polo For Heart Tournament, which raised $40,000 for the Que-

bee Heart Foundation. “Polo is exciting to watch because it is hockey on horseback,” observed Peter Cullen, a Montreal entertainer who moved to Hollywood in the 1970s. Added Cullen, who does play-by-play announcing for the 3,000 fans who regularly attend home games of the Los Angeles Colts, one of six teams in the indoor American Polo League: “Polo is losing the stigma that it is only for the rich. The league has brought polo to the man and woman in the street.”

But polo’s players and promotors are j still saddled with the sport’s glamorous ; image. Ste-Marthe fans stepped carefully around piles of horse manure to spread picnic blankets along the sidelines. And unlike the hotdogs and beer devoured at most sports events, the Montreal Club fans sipped white wine t from tall glasses and nibbled warm ' croissants. Even the tournament prizes I were unique: four winning team mem' bers each received a customized Rolex watch with the silhouette of a polo player etched on the face. And American fans are attracted to charity polo matches by i the participation of such celebrity playj ers as television actresses Pamela Sue ( Martin and Stefanie Powers.

For his part, the Toronto Club’s Sifton decried such elitism. “We try to discourage people who want to take up the sport solely for the status,” he said. Sifton instructs new recruits in the game’s difficult technique of striking the regulation four-ounce hard rubber ball, 3!4 in. in diameter—while riding a galloping horse—with a 91/2-in.-long mallet mounted on the end of a flexible bamboo pole. In international “high-goal” polo, players are rated and given a handicap similar to golf. Last April a Canadian team was entered—but did j not qualify to compete—in the first-ever World Handicap Championship in Bue| nos Aires, sponsored by the three-yearold International Polo Federation. And the federation is lobbying the International Olympic Committee to include , polo, a full-fledged Olympic event as recently as 1936, as a demonstration sport at future summer Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, club-level players boast of their fanatic personal enthusiasm for the sport. Pennycook, for one, works in Toronto but flies home to Montreal every Thursday in time for his 7 p.m. polo game. “I can remember driving from Montreal to Hartford and back in a snowstorm just to play four chukkers,” he said, recalling one indoor game. Added Shutt, whose four-player home team at Ste-Marthe finally succumbed in the September game to the visiting team from Sugarbush, Vt., by a score of 7-4: “Polo is a chance to live on the edge for an hour.”

-BRUCE WALLACE in Ste-Marthe