The 22-goal USPA Gold Cup was well underway at International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida, when COVID-19 reared its ugly head. The 14 teams were divided into four brackets, playing off from Feb. 23 to March 10. Brackets 1 and II had four teams playing off within their brackets while Brackets III and IV had three teams each, playing cross bracket.
Polo is not immune to the impact of world events. Polo clubs are constantly forced to ride the high and low waves of the economy and today tackle the constraints put on summer seasons by the advent of the new coronavirus and yet, against those odds, one East Coast club is thriving. This year Brandywine Polo Club celebrates 70 years of existence and its membership is booming.
“We have the most individual USPA members in the Eastern Circuit (48),” said Michael Bucklin, a member of the club’s board of directors.
(Brandywine has also accrued the most new USPA members in the Eastern Circuit this year.) “And what we are seeing is a new-found momentum, the increased numbers of polo school members stepping up to full grass membership.”
Brandywine appears to be something of a poster child for the USPA’s Polo Development Initiative. It has benefited from the program with funds matched in investment in the refurbishment of the club’s arena, which is sponsored and named after Malvern Bank, a financial institution focused on supporting the equestrian community up and down the East Coast. The PDI has also enabled the club to extend a working relationship started last season with 4- goaler Martin Estrada, who has transformed the polo school, which itself dates back to 1963.
“Clubs do well if they are constantly reinventing themselves in some capacity,” said Justin Powers, executive director of the USPA’s Polo Development Initiative. “Brandywine has the training tool—arena polo—and a lot more four-chukker polo, which is a good shift in the sport to allow more people to play without having to make a bigger commitment. Also, Brandywine is now very much a turnkey facility—arena, stabling, fields—these turnkey facilities are fewer and far between at clubs. They also have a really good team there, between Elizabeth [Hedley] and Martin [Estrada]. They have a strong board, that meets regularly and is working towards a sustainable future. We’re starting to see the fruits of their labor.”
Hedley was brought in by club president and longtime benefactor of Brandywine Polo Club, Dixon Stroud three years ago, bringing with her a track record of marketing clubs throughout the USA.
“We knew Brandywine had the history of polo here and the ability to attract players from a number of states,” said Bucklin. “Elizabeth has been able to help bring the club back up to its heyday and attract more spectators and sponsors. She has definitely gotten us back on the map.”
Hedley’s initial impression of the club was summed up in one word: Rudderless. “The club wasn’t growing its polo,” she said. “It wasn’t reinvesting in its facilities and it wasn’t finishing its season in the black. More importantly it didn’t have a clear vision for the future it deserved.”
It was Hedley who talked Estrada into bringing his talents to Brandywine to resuscitate the club.
Estrada, who is well known for his polo academies in Florida, admitted, “I was challenged. I brought 14 head of horses and two 2-goalers with me and then we just rebuilt the whole thing from stalls to fields, the arena, the bathrooms and even the office. That was very scary the day that I arrived in June 2019.”
“He was impressively determined,” said Hedley.
“[He was] dedicated and laser-focused on the club’s foreseeable future.”
It was Estrada’s tailored approach to bringing new players into the sport that worked so well for the club. He started playing four-chukker games some
22 years ago when he launched the Palm Beach Academy, an approach that raised eyebrows from the old school players, but suited new ones. He also created a two-contact rule for the professionals, downsizing their role and elevating that of the amateurs on the field. His theory has more than one practical benefit.
“First, with four chukkers you can play two games on the field,” he explained. “Second, players don’t tear the field up as there is less stopping.”
While the pros have to play smarter, the twocontact rule gives the upcoming player (Estrada chooses not to call them beginners, which he thinks can prove demeaning) more participation in the game. “They want to be safe, have fun and improve,” he said simply.
He likens a polo club to a restaurant and when he first arrived, he realized that Brandywine did not have a good menu.
“My recipe works,” he said. “If the ambience is good, the service is good, they will come back and bring a friend. The formula is really simple.”
Brandywine’s menu has since been revised so that rather than simply catering for visiting teams to play, win and leave in highly-competitive tournaments, it is offering lower-goal tournaments and incorporating the two-contact rule to entice polo school members out of the arena and onto the grass.
“Last year I was trying to find some members from the club to play in four- and six-goal tournaments,” Estrada explained. “They said to me that they prefer not to play because they have more fun playing the practice chukkers. I told them, you play. If you have fun, you pay the entry fee. If you don’t have fun, you don’t. They were excited to play in the leagues that I created. The reaction is good when the service is good.”
“It’s working,” Bucklin concurred. “People see that polo is a fun sport, they join the school or do a couple of lessons or jump in the coaching lesson to get a real feel for what it’s like to stick and ball and play a bit of polo. The idea is to run them through the school and teach them horsemanship, how to tack up a horse, take care of a horse. Some people stay in the polo school and some become full members pretty quickly.”
The introduction of behind-the-scenes skills into the polo school is another aspect of Estrada’s MO. “We try to be non-elitist with the emphasis on skills and not just the ability to hit the ball. To hit the ball, you have to get to it. To get to it, you have to be able to ride a horse. And to be able to ride a horse on the polo field, you need to know how to take care of a horse off it,” Estrada said.
The club sits in the heart of horse country in Pennsylvania’s Chester County and has been successful lately in recruiting new members from other disciplines, such as hunter/jumper and eventing. Part of the appeal is Estrada’s insistence on providing newcomers with great horses.
“They [hunter/jumpers and eventers] know what is a good horse. So you attract them with a good horse,” he said. “They take one lesson and they just keep coming back. When people take a lesson on a nice horse, nice mallet, nice saddle, nice field they are coming back. People know what is good.”
Over the course of its lifetime, Brandywine Polo Club has overcome its fair share of obstacles—not least a tragic barn fire in 1966 and a vicious tornado in 2013. But this, the commemorative 70th year, sees the club rising to meet the new challenges imposed in 2020, in growing its membership and teeing the club up for a longterm future. With 100 stalls, four polo fields, new footing in the Malvern Bank Arena, exercise track and affordable local housing, as well as Estrada’s seasoned expertise, Brandywine is ready.
“I would love to see continued growth of the club, as we continue to stand on our own two feet,” said Bucklin. “Our ultimate goal is to make sure Brandywine is going for the next 70 years.”