Players gather 25 years after games began in the Equidome

Imagine going to a 25-year class reunion and all your classmates were polo players. That’s what happened on June 28 at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. Polo players came from as far away as Brazil to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of LAEC Polo.

The Los Angeles Equestrian Center polo school taught more than 600 people how to play polo along with creating a polo fan base of 20,000-plus with the professional polo games in the Equidome.

In the 1980s the professional polo games at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center drew tremendous crowds with a wide range of celebrities, including Sylvester Stallone, Stefanie Powers, Ernest Borgnine, Bill Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Bernadette Peters, Merv Griffin, Keanu Reeves, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Elizabeth Taylor, Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange, Johnny Grant, Bruce Boxleitner, Pernell Roberts, Wilt Chamberlain, Nicollette Sheridan, William Shatner, Alex Cord, Robert Wagner, Patrick Duffy, Jane Seymour, Pamela Sue Martin, Mickey Dolenz and Juice Newton, to name a few. On a Saturday night it was the place to see and be seen.

Even more, the high-goal arena action in the Equidome was phenomenal. Teams were brought in from all over the country, picked up in limousines and treated like stars. The best arena players in the country regularly played there. “Wild Bil Walton” was captain of the L.A. Lancers team and 9- goaler Tom Goodspeed was captain of the Los Angeles Stars team. Mike Azzaro would play with the visiting Houston team; Ruben Gracida captained the Mexico team; Paul and Peter Rizzo were known as the New York Blues team; Hector Galindo and Podger el Effendi played as the Miami Sharks; and Piki Alberdi, Julio Zavaleta and the late Miguel Torres were known as Team Buenos Aires. The regular high-goal arena action allowed “Smokin’ Joe” Henderson to achieve a 10-goal arena rating in 1989. He was the first 10-goal arena player in 30 years and one of only three in arena polo’s 100- year history. None has reached that high an arena rating since. Henderson played with the Los Angeles Stars team.

The Equidome was part of the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in the 75-acre Griffith Park just outside central Los Angeles. The arena was a full-sized polo arena measuring 150 feet by 300 feet. It had cement walls, leaving many a polo player with bruises after some of the more aggressive games.

According to an account by writer Paul Lippman, the idea for a professional arena polo league got underway thanks to Dr. Robert Walton, who came up with the idea and took Lippman out to watch an arena game in Modesto. The late Lippman, who had written for the San Francisco Examiner in the early 1960s and who helped cultivate fan interest in hockey and tennis when it wasn’t very popular, was captivated. The next year, Walton, with the help of son Bil, organized players Corky Linfoot, Mike Conant, Joel Baker, Ronnie Tongg and Peter Baldwin to have two teams, one 19 goals, the other 18 goals, play in an exhibition arena match at the Monterey Fairgrounds. The game was played in the mud after a long day of rain, but still attracted a large crowd. Walton and Lippman knew they had something, but it would have to be staged indoors. They formed a joint venture with LAEC’s Al Garcia to get a regular professional polo league going, calling it the National Polo League. While Walton and son Bil put the games on, Lippman handled the promotion and publicity.

Unfortunately, in less than three years, the center filed for bankruptcy. According to published reports at the time, the operation was eventually turned over to Gibraltar Saving and Loan Bank, which brought in the Southern California Hotel Group to reorganize and manage the center. About that time disagreements erupted between the Waltons, Lippman and Garcia, and the joint venture was dissolved. The Waltons continued on with the NPL for a short time, while the LAEC formed the American Polo League to play at the center. It too lasted only a short time. While the LAEC still exists, professional arena polo at the center hasn’t been played there since the early 1990s.

In spite of professional arena polo’s short life, it was something special that has not since been duplicated at that level.

Randy Russell’s Polo America decided to commemorate those days on June 28, by celebrating its 25th anniversary. Three games were played in the still-impressive arena.

The first was a junior polo game featuring Daniel Galindo, Hollie Boggess, and David and Harrison Samaniego, who beat Steven Paulson, Danielle Kammann and Brittany Post. The second game was a celebrity match sponsored by Harry Winston featuring Bill Devane, Doug Sheehan and Lolo Payan against Grainger Hines, Ardeshir Radpour and Randy Russell, who won. The umpires were Alex Cord and Vince Azzaro. It had been longer than 10 years since Devane, Cord and Sheehan were on the field at the same time. Another special treat was to have Peter Cullen announce the game. The pro game featured Domingo Questel, Joel Baker and Manny Questel, who defeated Carlos Galindo, Billy Sheldon and Cary Burch. The umpires were Mark Cruse and Andy Smith. It was great to have Smith and Baker participate, since they played together the very first pro game in the Equidome.

Celebrities were on and off the field. Mickey Dolenz and Nicollette Sheridan, both past students at LAEC, came out for the fun. Sheridan was put to work handing out trophies and throwing in the first ball. A moment of silence was observed for players and people who were instrumental in creating the LAEC legacy. Included were Johnny Grant, Miguel Torres, Sue Sally Hale, Al Garcia, Paul Lippman, Pamela Story and Nancy Garrat Hughes.

So many memories and relationships developed at LAEC. Russell met his wife, Annie, when she worked in the polo office, Mike and Claudia Uretz met at the LAEC Polo School—they now have four sons who play polo. LAEC students Kerry and Cheryl Tusup’s 19-year-old son, Shane, heard about the reunion and asked to work the back gate. He wanted to see first hand everything that his parents had told him about LAEC.

Walking from one end of the Equidome to the other was like walking down memory lane. Everyone was there from Mike, Vince and Rome Azzaro to Suzanne Peika to Matt Richardson to Lou and Diane Miraglia to Russ Sheldon and Davis Bales.

Unfortunately, many of the high-goal players who helped make the excitement, like Henderson, Goodspeed, Tongg and the Waltons, were absent at the reunion.

The evening was capped off with a reunion photo. Anyone in attendance who had ever played at LAEC went into the arena for a group shot. Ford Trucks, a longtime supporter of polo, has arranged with Polo America for everyone in the photo to receive a copy. As everyone began to say their goodbyes, eyes became misty knowing a get-together like this may never happen again.