They may not spit, but polo players ride to win Polo: With the thunder of hoofs, the smack of bamboo, the occasional curse, it's easy to see this is no head game, anymore.

July 15, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

It swept out of Egypt and through to Persia before the Christian era began. It was the first bat and ball game humans invented, though it is thought to have had a religious genesis.

Thousands of mounted men would deploy themselves across a field against each other. It was rough. It was tough. It was barbaric: in the Asian steppe and Afghanistan, it is said, the ball of preference was a human head.

But polo has softened since those yeastier times. No heads rolled across the pristine polo grounds at Ladew Gardens yesterday, where the game was played at the Maryland Polo Club's big bash, the "Fiesta del Sol."

Not only is polo civilized, it evokes the courtly aura of medieval tourneys, as men and women in costumes, mounted on smooth-muscled thoroughbreds, often do. The elegance is there temper the rough nature of the play -- the cut and thrust, the grunt and dash, the collision of horse flesh, now and then the crack of bone.

Polo appeals to the mind and senses and it is hard to tell where the strongest allure resides. From a distance, across the 160-yard width of the playing field, or down its full 300-yard length, it seems a controlled equestrian exercise, or an improbable and precise dance of men and animals. The click-click of clashing bamboo poles, the slap of leather drifts faintly across the flattened grass.

But let it come close. Let that fierce congestion of horses and riders, with all its seismic thunder, approach. Then all thoughts of minuets, of delicate control, vanish. The idea arrives suddenly in the mind: this is serious business.

The earth shakes, or seems to, and clots of it fly about and the essence of polo reveals itself hotly in the ears as a kind of cavalry charge. Tons of flesh and swinging sticks pound by, more or less guided, in pursuit of a white, 5-ounce ball.

The blood gets up. There are shouts, curses, near confrontations, anger occasionally flashes between and among players. Do they brawl? Do gentlemen spit?

"Polo attracts an aggressive type," said Edward A. Halle Jr. "A person who really wants to win. And, in polo, money is a very big factor at the upper levels."

Halle and his wife, Cindy, own 5-String Farm in Upperco (he plays the five string banjo), which in combination with another farm, Ashwell, fields one of the teams in the Maryland Polo Club. He plays, and Cindy Halle coaches the sport at Garrison Forest School.

"Some people care about winning more than just enjoying themselves," Halle says. I think there are enough people who take it too seriously, and it can have an adverse impact on the game."

Halle looks out across the field behind Ladew Gardens last Tuesday where his team is struggling against Burnt Chimney Farm. He shades his eyes against the sun, falling behind the wall of trees along Route 146, beyond which sprawl tract houses now penetrating Harford County's horse country. It will be a satisfying day for him. Ashwell/5-String wins, 14 goals to 10.

"Some people like to get heated up," he says, clearly disapproving. Of the Maryland Polo Club, he says: "We are trying be a real gentleman's club, pleasant, relaxing, not go for the guts."

Halle believes in the virtues of true amateurism, and sees them under threat.

Polo's devotees seem to cherish its barbaric beginnings. They would not like to return to those rougher expressions, but they always bring it up to someone who steps newly into their world.

"They used to use heads I've been told," says Betsy Gompf. She and husband Art keep 10 polo ponies at their Monta Santa Farm, in Street.

She inquires, almost hopefully: "Is that true?"

Gompf is a wiry man of 53. Nearly 10 years ago, he was one of the founders of the Maryland Polo Club. He was unhorsed in a match a couple weeks ago, knocked unconscious, rushed to the emergency room. Now he thinks that, in polo, knowing how to fall may be as important as knowing how to ride.

The club has only about 35 members. They all know each other; many are related. Friendships are firm or weak within it, as with all voluntary associations. It has its share of bickering, politicking over small prizes. The club wants to attract new members. That was one of the purposes of yesterday's big party at Ladew.

"This is our grand social event," said Ronald Maher, who organized it. "We'd like to introduce polo to as many people as possible."

The club laid on a Scottish bag pipe marching band, blue grass music, lots of food and drink, pony rides, and paraded a champion timber horse, 1992 Hunt Cup winner Von Csadek, to admire.

They also held a polo match, a semi-final in the U.S. Polo Association's Officers' Cup. It was between Sovereign and Greenspring. Greenspring won 9-8 and everybody had a grand time.

"I think there is more interest in equestrian activities in general," said Maher. There are more polo clubs each year, he says, and a lot of people who hunt fox are being drawn to the game.

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