MAKING A DIFFERENCE.
Support group continues to help players get through rough times.

There are many not-for-profit charities that enjoy raising money each year through the polo community. Clubs across the U.S. hold polo matches to raise money for various deserving organizations including those working for kids’ causes, cancer, Alzheimer’s and more. Some events include elaborate galas or parties, while others are more lowkey with fieldside picnicking and a raffle. Some events raise hundreds of thousands of dollars while others are happy to bring in $100.

One event, however, helps those a little closer to home. One of the biggest charitable events on the polo calendar is the Polo Players’ Support Group’s Outback 40- goal Challenge, held annually at International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida. Proceeds from the event help give financial assistance to seriously injured or ill polo players and grooms. The Polo Players’ Support Group was founded by Dave Offen in 2001. Offen began the organization after his close friend, then 8-goaler Rob Walton, became paralyzed after falling from a horse while playing polo in Dubai in 1995. Offen, along with others, organized the Rob Walton 40-goal Benefit in 2000 to help raise money for Walton’s long-term care. Realizing the dangerous nature of polo would likely mean others would require assistance in the future, Offen was inspired to form the support group. The group has provided financial assistance to at least 30 individuals.

Thanks to the generosity of so many people, Offen has been able to put on a one-of- a-kind annual fundraising event: an allpro match of the highest-rated players in the world, impressive silent and live auctions and a delicious dinner. Seeing the value of the support group, each of the players happily donate their time, as do game officials including umpires, timers, scorekeepers and flaggers.

Players donate the use of horses; International Polo Club donates the use of the field; Outback Steakhouse founder Tim Gannon donates the food and related staff to feed the hundreds who attend the aftergame dinner; and numerous individuals and companies donate fabulous items for the auctions. Additionally, other event sponsors donate cash. Money is also raised through ticket sales, auction proceeds and donations.

Though exact numbers are not in for this year’s event, the 2006 event raised over $285,000 and both 2007 and 2008 brought in over $400,000 each. Some of the auction items this year included a box at the Kentucky Derby; a luxury ski lodge in Vail; original artwork; a Belleau Farm duck hunt; a polo-filled week in Argentina with 10- goaler Mariano Aguerre; a dream team challenge offering two bidders a chance to play with three current or former 10-goal players; jewelry; clothing; polo lessons; polo equipment and more. The players’ jerseys are also auctioned off, which always brings some spirited bidding, especially among the ladies who get a kiss from, and a photo with, the player who wore the jersey in the match. Each jersey is signed by all the players.

The Jimmer Newman Memorial, a 30- goal match held annually in memory of International Polo Club polo manager Jimmy Newman’s son who died unexpectedly in 2005, was played prior to the 40-goal match. Proceeds from that event were donated to the Polo Players’ Support Group.

Player Ron Stenger, who plays in Springfield, Missouri in the summer and Indio, California in the winter, read about the event in this magazine a few years ago. Though he is usually in California during the benefit, he participates in phone bidding during the live auction. Twice he was high bidder for a week in Argentina with a highgoal player. “The first was with [10-goaler Adolfo] Cambiaso. The second was with [10- goaler] Mariano [Aguerre]. This year my sonin- law Scott Montgomery [was high bidder] for a week with Mariano,” said Stenger. “The trips were all great. I enjoyed them immensely ... It was a fabulous experience. [The pros] worked with us and tried to teach us. ... They take very good care of you. They understand you are there to have fun. The horses were excellent.”

Phone bidding allows more people to participate and helps up the ante so more people can be helped. Aside from Walton, the group has helped numerous people involved in the sport. Unfortunately, despite the dangers of polo and working with horses, many players and people associated with the sport don’t have health insurance due to its high cost. When someone becomes ill or gets injured, they are usually no longer able to work, which means they can’t support themselves. Many have nowhere to turn. The Polo Players’ Support Group is the only group of its kind assisting those in the polo community until they get back on their feet.

A players’ fund in England, The Polo Charity Trust, had over £1 million in the bank at the end of 2007 (the last year available) according to financial reports, however, its object is to pay for “the relief of poverty, sickness, disability or injury amongst professional or former professional polo players and others engaged in professional polo activities” ... The fund also assists in player training, the relief of polo ponies in need of care, player facilities, promotion and other charities. Polo Players’ Support Group’s assistance for players is much greater in scope. It has helped players, grooms and umpires with cancer, kidney disease and other serious illnesses as well as injuries unrelated to polo.

Judith Baker experienced firsthand how important the Polo Players’ Support Group is. Baker is a horse trainer in Santa Barbara, California. She suffered a serious back injury that kept her off her horse and thus, with no way of supporting herself. “Basically my back went out. I had no insurance and needed surgery to relieve pinched nerves. Without surgery doctors told me I would lose the use of my legs,” Baker explained. “Jimmy Newman called the Polo Players’ Support Group and there was no hesitation. It was wonderful. I couldn’t ride and the financial support I received helped me get through until I could ride again.” Baker’s surgery was successful, but it was two months of recovery before she could ride again. “I don’t know what I would have done. It is an amazing thing for people like me without insurance. I am on my own and was absolutely stuck,”

Player and umpire instructor Bob Stuerzebecher was also helped by the group after an accident during a PTF Seniors Arena Tournament in October 2003. The umpire horse he was given turned out to be too nervous. “After the first chukker, as I dismounted, [the horse] reared and jumped away causing me to body slam to the ground. I landed on my left arm, breaking six ribs and severely injuring my spleen,” explained Stuerzebecher. “Someone called 911 and I was transported to nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital where I was operated on and stayed for the next three weeks.”

Stuerzebecher’s hospital expenses were covered by Medicare, but the support group covered other expenses, including a week of motel charges for his wife so she could be close by. Later, Ernie Darquea and his family invited her to stay with them until Stuerzebecher was released. He was unable to work for the better part of three months.

After arriving home to Cortland, New York, Bob called Dave Offen for information. “He requested an itemized list of monthly expenses for the period I was out of work. We received a check within a few weeks. Without that support, we would have had to borrow money to get through the winter,” explained Stuerzebecher. “Anyone in the polo community, who has been helped by the Polo Players’ Support Group, would say it is a wonderful program. Many polo players, and guys like me, lead a gypsy life and stuff happens. It’s important to have good friends and I consider the Polo Players’ Support Group to be a very good friend to those of us when we are in financial need caused by severe injury.”

Though most players say they try not to think about the dangers, they know a serious injury or illness could ruin a career. Most professional polo players know someone who has been seriously injured and that is why they are so willing to play in the benefit match for no compensation.

Former 9-goaler Esteban Panelo suffered a very serious head injury that effectively ended his career as a pro. Adolfo Cambiaso’s half brother Salvador Socas suffered a serious head injury in a polo accident. Cambiaso has played in the event numerous times, as has Mariano Aguerre. Aguerre knows Claudio Perez, a polo groom who suffered a spinal cord injury and will likely spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Perez received help from the support group. Aguerre’s wife, Tatiana wrote to Offen, “...Your efforts help a lot of players. You should have seen Claudio’s face when we gave him the check. He is so grateful. He needed some extra help.”

Taking part in the event makes everyone feel good and as an added benefit, those in attendance get to witness a game with the best players in the world. The players try their hardest to show they are the best on the field. This year, two 38-goal teams made up of current and former 10-goal players, took to the field. EFG Bank consisted of two pairs of brothers: Agustin and Sebastian Merlos and Gonzalito and Facundo Pieres. Michelob Ultra had Mike Azzaro, Mariano Aguerre, Pablo Mac Donough and Lucas Monteverde. Michelob Ultra lead most of the game until EFG tied the score 10-10 in the fifth period. The teams swapped goals in the final period to keep it tied, but Mike Azzaro connected on a pass from MVP Mac Donough to score his sixth goal, the game-winner. Michelob Ultra took the 12-11 win.

The Polo Players’ Support Group accepts donations at any time. For more information please go to: www.polosupport.com.

 

 
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