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Sunday, March 24 , 2019, 6:43 pm | Fair 60º


‘Sport of Kings’ in Full Swing as New Polo Academy Debuts to Attract Next Generation of Players

May begins buildup to tournaments at Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club featuring world’s top players, as well as the next class of students


Some of the best collegiate soccer players suit up for UC Santa Barbara, and the NBA’s most storied franchise may spend a week here to train here every year, but the sport that draws the best players in the world to Santa Barbara does so without much fanfare outside of its hedged-off fields.

May 5 kicked off polo season here, and over the summer, some of the world’s top players will descend on the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club for what are called high-goal tournaments.

In addition to lower-key leagues and tourneys, the club is hosting three two-month series: 12-goal in May and June, 16-goal — the best of the best — in July and August, and eight-goal in September and October.

“It’s the fields and the weather,” said David Sigman, the club’s general manager. “In July and August, you can play here. In July and August, it’s very difficult to play in Texas.”

In the “sport of kings,” players on horseback chase and whack a small plastic ball with a long mallet, which they swing in a windmill motion to pass the ball and fire it between two goal posts. It’s four on four.

Because they’re running as fast as 40 mph along a field nine times the size of a gridiron, the horses are traded out frequently over the course of the game, which is six chukkers long, or periods of 7½ minutes each.

Players are rated with a handicap ranging from –2 to 10. The cumulative rating of a team’s four players determines what series they participate in at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club. (Players on teams in the 16-goal series, for instance, average a handicap of four goals.)

Located at 3375 Foothill Road in Carpinteria, the club features three polo fields, a polo school, boarding facilities and country club amenities.

It’s the third-oldest U.S. Polo Association club, and in August, it will host the Gulfstream Pacific Coast Open, the most prestigious tournament on the West Coast.

“Our club is the Mecca,” Sigman told Noozhawk. “People come here from all over the world to play.”

The kickoff of the 2017 season comes a month after the debut of the club’s new polo academy.

According to Sigman, “the future of our sport is in the youth.”

“In order for us to continue to have a viable polo club, we need to groom at a younger age, and we need to get them hooked onto the sport,” he said.

The club tapped Jeff Scheraga to lead the Santa Barbara Polo Academy, which has some 20 enrollees after the first month.

Scheraga and his wife, Naima, ran a school in Gilroy where they taught intercollegiate and interscholastic polo and lessons for adults.

“We might have the best spot in the country for teaching people polo, here,” he said.

The arenas are built for both fast professionals and wobbly novices, he explained, “and we have a string of safe school horses that are very experienced and are selected for being really tolerant of people who don’t know what they’re doing.”

Lessons, targeted at beginners, run $150 for one or $1,250 for a package of 10. One need not bring a horse to learn — in fact, Scheraga prefers his students ride the club’s polo ponies.

Despite the high-society reputation the sport has and the fact that one is galloping around on a half-ton animal, it’s something that Scheraga and Sigman emphasized anyone at any age can learn.

“No one should feel like they can’t do it,” Scheraga said.

He, Sigman and club members warn that it’s a pursuit one can get hooked on.

“It’s a way of life,” said Toby Mayer, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon and long-time club member who, at 75, still schedules his surgeries around polo commitments.

“You find polo and then you never look back.”

While youth, casual club members and match attendees are all part of the club’s strategy to swell the ranks of local players, Mayer said properly lodging and taking care of horses is an expensive endeavor.

“You want to get the young people if you can … but you got to get them with some money,” he said. “Unfortunately, it just costs a lot of money to play polo.”

Those interested in enrolling in the polo academy can click here to email Scheraga.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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