The "gentlemen's sports" of golf, tennis and yachting all moved smartly out of the summer pleasure domes of the upper class during the past four decades. But polo, the world's toniest contact sport, remained haughtily and expensively cloistered. No more. On weekend afternoons around the country, crowds of tailgating fans show up to watch scores of horses thunder across neatly turfed ten-acre greenswards. Willow mallets whistle--pock--as high-charging riders smack a 4-oz. white wooden ball. Brooks Fire-stone, 49, of the tire Firestones, reports, "It's no longer a social, rich man's game."
Not all the Old Guard is pleased. Stewart Iglehart, 75, a top competitor from the sport's golden age in the '20s and '30s, wrote recently that "today's ponies ... have noticeably less polish on the field"; his tone suggested that some of the riders are not too polished either. But like it or not, the sport of kings, which traces its roots back through England and India to Persia in 525 B.C., is now enjoyed by the likes of the "Bruise Brothers," a pair of upstart investment bankers who compete in Santa Barbara, Calif., and the bread-and-butter players who gather regularly at the Kentree Polo Club in Grand Rapids or the Skaneateles Polo Club in upstate New York. Membership in the U.S. Polo Association (USPA) has nearly doubled since 1977, to more than 2,300 people. There are now about 200 polo clubs across the U.S. Even businessmen in their 40s are taking up the game, says Steve Gose, owner of the 250-member Retama Polo Center in San Antonio. "They're like weekend duffers in golfing. They'll never play in tournaments, but they enjoy it."
That is putting it mildly. Tracey Lewis, 28, admits she is obsessed by polo. "I like most being wide open down the field," she exclaims, "feeling my shirt rippling, going 40 m.p.h., going to goal on my best mare. It's just a feeling like you're flying. This totally turns me on." Lewis, who owns a Beverly Hills p.r. firm, is one of the growing number of women in the predominantly male sport. Celebrities, including Bo Derek, Stefanie Powers and Sam Shepard, are mounting up as well. Danger is little deterrent. In Hawaii a month ago, a player was killed in a mishap involving Alex Cord of TV's Airwolf, but the actor remains hooked. "Once you have the spell cast over you, you become the slave of a grand passion that lasts forever," says Cord reverently. "It encompasses different skills. You have to be able to ride like a Comanche and think like a chess player."
In addition it helps to have money. Boosters of the sport's democratization claim an income of $50,000 a year can be enough to get by, but annual costs run upwards of $10,000. Those who are serious need at least three horses (one for every two chukkers, or periods, in the standard six-chukker game). Price: from $2,500 to $15,000 each. Next come the expenses of a groom, a stable, feeding fees and the rig for transporting the animals to competition. Thus most of polo's new blood is well off, even if not fathomlessly rich: self-made achievers, entrepreneurs, administrators, lawyers, doctors, bankers.