Hockey on Horseback: San Diego Polo Club to resume season with Hawaiian-themed tailgate party

By Ashley Mackin

The San Diego Polo Club, home to one of the oldest organized sports in San Diego and now based in Rancho Santa Fe, will resume its 2013 season on Aug. 18.

La Jolla resident Lorraine Slack, who has strong family ties to the Club, said she will be at the games because watching polo is “more fun than even the races at Del Mar.”

The typical season runs June 9- Sept. 29, with players taking a break July 21-Aug. 18.

Slack attended the July 21 game, which she called “riveting,” especially because the score was consistently tied. “It was two-to- two, then one side would score and the other side would catch up, four-to-four, eight-to-eight,” she said excitedly. The game eventually ended with a playoff.

Slack’s nephew, Ron Bonaguidi, was named founder of the club when it changed its name to the San Diego Polo Club in 1995. Prior to that, it was known as the Rancho Santa Fe Polo Club. Ron’s wife, Krista, is a polo player. But that doesn’t begin to cover the history of the club. In its annual publication, “San Diego Polo” (2013 edition), its legacy is chronicled. In 1906, John D. Spreckels organized the first major polo tournament in California. Playing in Coronado (at the Spreckels’- founded Coronado Country Club), Spreckels flew in English lords to play the American team.

The Coronado Country Club attracted skilled players and viewers alike, and soon had three polo fields. The polo club moved to its current location in Rancho Santa Fe in 1987, where it now has more than 60 members, who play each other during weekly tournaments. It continues to draw talented players, like Krista Bonaguidi.

“From a player’s perspective, the appeal (of polo) is the competition on the fields and above that, it’s the horses,” she said. “For me, it’s all about the horses. They are amazing animals and it’s really interesting that especially with the game of polo, the horses tend to be very competitive. The horses I play on love to play; you can tell. They follow the ball. When the umpires blow the whistle, my horses stop. They know the rules better than some players on the field.”

Krista said the horses add to the thrill of the game because “it’s not just watching an athlete make an amazing shot, it’s watching a player moving 30 miles an hour on top of an animal making that shot.” That, in addition to the history of polo, makes attending a match as an observer that much more fun, Krista said. The sport has worldwide roots.

Early drawings, depicting what could be polo match, were found in Persia and dated 1546 AD. Slack said she heard that the game was once played in Egypt with human skulls as balls.

Polo gained popularity in India, where modern rules were developed. When the British took over India, they took over polo as well.

Contrary to most sports, when it comes to handicaps, the higher the number, the better the player. Each professional is awarded a handicap from minus-2 to 10 (10 being one of the best players in the world). Krista said her handicap is minus-1, but some players at the club have as high a handicap as 6. Handicaps are issued to fairly match people in play.

Krista and others will play at the Aug. 18 opener. For the season pickup, the San Diego Polo Club will host an island-inspired party, “Aloha Sunday,” during which Kimo Huddleston of Hawaii will demonstrate hitting techniques and explain the rules as an introduction to polo.

His wife, Stephanie Huddleston, will perform a hula dance routine. All the food will have island flair.

The catered food found on Sundays helps draw “an amazing crowd,” Krista said. The public is invited to watch polo matches on

Saturdays, but there is no food, bar or spectacle, such as that of a Sunday match. Spectators range in age from in their 20s to those in their 70s and beyond, enjoying the food, the bar, and the overall scene. “The community is realizing that polo is fantastic,” she said.

Polo 101

■ The word polo is derived from the Tibetan word ‘pulu,’ which means ball.

■ Polo is often referred to as hockey on horseback.

■ The object of the game is to hit the ball between the uprights (goal posts) at opposite ends of the fields. By doing so, a goal is scored.

■ A goal is worth one point and the team with the most goals scored at the end of the match is the winner.

■ Matches consist of either four or six, seven-minute chukkers (periods).

■ There is a break between each chukker, and a 10-minute break at halftime for the players to change horses.

■ Polo is played in more than 60 countries and enjoyed by more than 50 million people each year.

■ Although they are not recognized as a distinct breed, polo ponies are unique horses that combine the traits of a number of breeds. In the United States, Thoroughbred horses are usually bred with Quarter Horses to produce polo ponies. The Argentines cross Thoroughbreds with their local Criollo horses.

If you go

■ Polo sundays: Gates open at 12:30 p.m. with matches at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

■ san Diego Polo club: 14555 El Camino Real (at Via de la Valle), Rancho Santa Fe

■ Tickets: From $12, free for kids ages 12 and younger. VIP tickets: $30 with reservation. Tailgating tickets: $10 per person gets lawn seats for picnics

■ First Free Lesson: 5 p.m. Tuesdays, 9 a.m. Sundays, learn history of the sport, four basic hitting techniques and rules. You’ll start with a ‘foot mallet’ and an arena ball.

■ Contact: (858) 481-9217

■ Website: