History of Polo
In discussing the history of any polo club we must acknowledge the roots of the game and the lure of the sport. Polo is the “most ancient of games played with stick and ball" (American Polo, Bent, Newell, The Macmillan Company, 1929, pg. xvi), “the fastest game, both to play and to watch, yet conceived”, (Ibid, pg. xv) and a game of extraordinary elegance and grace. Its earliest records describe it as the national game of Persia, being respected as a game requiring great skill and finesse. Predating Christianity, polo was played at the time of Alexander the Great. Tibetan culture lent polo its name, a derivative of “pulu”, the Tibetan word for the ball. Persians gave the game its organization and structure and passed it through India to England. The English adopted the game, some army officers suffering from boredom having accidentally stumbled upon it, and gave it more structure and rules. An American visiting England brought the game back to New York where The Westchester Polo Club was formed. American polo spread from that seed throughout New England and to the West Coast. Amongst California’s first clubs, The Santa Barbara Polo Club, founded in 1911, is the third oldest United States Polo Association, (U.S.P.A.), club still in existence in the United States.
History of Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club
An exhibition polo match was first played at the Santa Barbara Agricultural Park’s 1894 Flower Festival. This match encouraged sufficient local interest in the sport that by 1902, the fledgling club boasted a 40-member roster. Polo began to flourish within the community as various fields “emerged”, thereby drawing players to the area. In 1911, Elmer “Long Legs” Boeseke Jr., a former 10 goal player during the time of Tommy Hitchcock, sought and gained admittance for the club into the U.S.P.A. A fire in Carpinteria, CA in 1916 felled a grove of eucalyptus and incidentally paved the way for what was later known as Fleischmann Field. The club passed through several hands after the fire, and in 1929 it was sold to Major Fleischmann who had architect Robert Spurgeon design the barns and combination of the office and clubhouse. Nearby Summerland beach became a favorite training ground for the players who ran their ponies through surf and sand.
The late ‘20’s and the mid ‘30’s saw the Santa Barbara Polo Club into its golden era. Teams, horses, and players would arrive by train, unload from the stock cars, and walk through downtown Santa Barbara all the way to Fleischmann field. Dean Mullins, manager of the “Pete” Jackson horses, recalled that the grooms were quite nervous about the walk through town, as motorists were known to accidentally hit the horses.
Sundays at the Santa Barbara Polo Club became a great social event in this era. Those gathered to view the sport dressed in the finest and latest of fashions and picnicked at the fields with large blankets and servants to serve the noon day meal. The games were riveting, fast and furious. Eric Pedley, Averill Harrimen, Ralph D. Brooks, Cecil Smith, John DeBlois Wack, members of the Boeseke Family, and many other fine players, graced the fields while spectators enjoyed the players’ skills, basked in the mountain views, and were lulled by the sounds of the nearby ocean.
Despite the glamour of polo, its danger should not be underestimated. Many players have died playing the sport of Kings, two of Santa Barbara Polo Club’s managers amongst their ranks.
Jim Colt, a.k.a. “Long Jim”, reputed to be a competent manager, fine horseman, and a true gentleman, was killed in August of 1931 while playing for the club’s team at the Uplifter’s Club in Santa Monica. “Long Jim” was astride his favorite pony, “Snit”, when it tripped across the back legs of another mount, fell, and crushed Colt under its weight killing him instantly. A 10-14-goal perpetual memorial tournament was established in his honor. Harsh economic conditions, marked by high taxes and restricted incomes, began to affect polo in Santa Barbara and in 1936 Major Fleischmann divided his great complex into ten parcels, selling each for the sum of ten dollars. A small group of people purchased the parcels and from among their ranks John de Blois Wack, who had a strong desire to perpetuate polo and safeguard the facility, assumed presidency of the club and hired Harry East, a 7 goal player from England, as manager.
Harry East was considered by many to be the best #1 position player and was recognized by the U.S.P.A. for his talent. Under his management a variety of foreign teams played against the Americans, including the British team led by Viscount Cowdry and featuring Robert Skene. Mrs. Elizabeth Skene remembers being lavishly entertained by Mrs. “Pete” Jackson at the clubhouse. In 1941, the club’s ownership was transferred to Ann G. Jackson.
In February of 1942, there was an unexpected suspension of polo. The first enemy bombardment on American soil since the War of 1812 occurred in nearby Goleta. Near Senator Tom Storkes’ ranch, a Japanese submarine attempted to knock out a large oil storage tank close to the beach. Twenty-five shells in all were fired, but none hit their target. The community, understandably, put all its energy into the war effort and, through 1946, the club’s polo fields were used to station and train soldiers. During these four years, the soldiers trained so extensively that the fields became bare. The fields required much renovation before they could be used again for polo and the war had such lasting effects that only the staunchest supporters played. Growth in the sport was minimal.
Harry East remained the club’s manager and the 1950’s brought renewed polo interest as several avid polo families, among them the Grabers, the Linfoots, and the Walkers, moved to the area. Harry East retired and in 1954 a perpetual 4-8 goal tournament was established to honor his dedication. The 1960’s marked the return of Robert Skene who chose to make Santa Barbara his home and to help many members learn polo’s artistry by dint of his skill and suave style. Mr. Skene maintained a 10-goal rating for an astonishing 17 years.
The club experienced many different owners and lessors during the 1960’s. Notable among the owners was Rudy Tongg of Hawaii who secured the club as the site of the U.S. Open tournament in 1963 and in 1966. Rudy was able to secure visits by many impressive foreign teams. Rudy’s son, Ronnie, a 7 goal player, stated that the polo that was played in Santa Barbara from 1961 to 1966 was the best high goal polo that the Pacific Coast experienced until the 1980’s. In 1966 Santa Barbara hosted the first trials for the U.S. team to play in the famous Argentina vs. America match in Buenos Aires.
The 1970’s saw the arrival of yet more polo families as the Holdens, the Ringers, and the Conants came to town. In 1970 Robert Skene began constant meetings to procure the club. Developers had their sights set on a mobile park and miniature golf course and, in order to hold them off, Robert Skene sub-leased the club for $4,000.00 per month. In 1974 the Fleischmann facility was to be renovated to encourage a new renaissance in polo. “The Santa Barbara Polo Club, Inc.” bought the property and construction of the envisioned facility began, concluding with the provision of 141 deluxe condominium units, 2 swimming pools, a jacuzzi, eight tennis courts, a tennis clubhouse, an exercise track for the horses, an arena, stabling for 350 horses, and three turf fields. The original clubhouse was left intact.
The Beginning of a New Era
December of 1975 marked a turning point in the club’s history as the club was put into the trusteeship of Ambassador Glen Holden, Dr. Norman Ringer, and Kenneth Walker, placing the club into perpetuity thereby dashing many developers’ dreams. At this juncture, the trustees leased the club to the “SBPRC Management Company, Inc.”. This 501 (c) (7) corporation is now under the management and the direction of its Board of Directors. The club’s name was then expanded to “The Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club.” From this time forward, polo prospered. In 1976 Lisle Nixon was hired as the new club manager. A 3-goal player from Montana, Lisle had been instrumental in starting several polo clubs including El Dorado, Midland, and Willowbend. Owing to his competence and organizational skills, the club prospered until his untimely death in August of 1977. Lisle Nixon was killed while playing a tournament at the club and in 1978 a perpetual 8-12 goal tournament was established in his honor.
In 1980, polo lost another of its proponents in the death of long time club member, Vic Graber. Buddy Linfoot stated that Vic had been instrumental in bringing many players into the game, including Dr. Bill Linfoot, Allen Scherer, Roy Barry, Jr., and Mike Conant, all of whom played for the Crescent Jeweler’s team. Vic was also known for his love of horses and kept a photo album of the best playing ponies dating back to the early 1900’s. Vic Graber played polo avidly until the time of his death and a 10-14 goal memorial tournament was established in his honor.
The 1980’s brought Major Fleischmann’s dream of a renaissance in polo to fruition. Many great players like Joe Barry, Podger El Effendi, Bart Evans, Daniel Gonzalez, Memo and Carlos Gracida and Tommy Wayman graced the club’s fields. Management has developed all levels of polo to attract new players to the club, has ensured continued polo enthusiasm and has encouraged future players through its promotion of intercollegiate polo, public polo lessons and creative marketing. On the social end, the club is reputed for its parties, elegant events and fine dining catered by the Pampered Palate. The club is also known for its sociable tennis, swim and fitness memberships.