History of the United States Polo Association
1890 – Present
In 1990 the United States Polo Association celebrated its centennial anniversary as the governing body of polo in the United States. It was a 100 year chapter in the glorious and romantic history of the oldest of all equestrian team sports. Polo is perhaps the oldest organized sport of any kind, according to some historians, as references date play in Persia during the First Century AD.
Polo was first played in the United States in 1876, introduced by James Gordon Bennett, who had first seen the game played in England. Bennett came to be known as father of American polo as it was he who assembled the players, knowledge, equipment and Texas horses to play the first loosely structured matches in the United States. During that winter of 1876, the first game was held indoors at Dickel’s Riding Academy in New York and the first formal U.S. club was established, the Westchester Polo Club.
Westchester alternated seasons between New York and Newport, Rhode Island before making Newport its permanent home. On May 13, 1876, the Jerome Park Racetrack in Westchester County (future home of the New York Giants baseball team and hence the name "polo grounds) was the site of the first outdoor polo match. Then in 1879 Meadow Brook became a USPA club and began play on the Mineola fairgrounds of Long Island. The foundation had now been laid for American polo and the sport was here to stay and flourish.
As players and teams proliferated, the development of the sport demanded a governing body. The Polo Association (later know as the United States Polo Association), with H.L. Herbert serving as first chairman, was founded March 21, 1890. The USPA’s purpose was to coordinate games, standardize rules and establish handicaps. Mr. Herbert was credited with instituting a handicapping system in 1888 so that teams could be more evenly matched in games. His rating system of 1-10 is still used with the addition of 0 thru (-2), or A-B-C as it is listed today. H.L. Herbert, with W.A. Hazard as his dedicated assistant, continued to guide the Association until 1921. Hazard then followed as USPA Chairman until 1922.
The first USPA headquarters was appropriately located in New York, the center of polo at that time. The Association began operations on a voluntary basis of committee structure and continues as such today with a small office staff. Elected Officers and Governors serve annually along with appointed Committee Members.
That USPA membership originally included seven clubs and, the following year, 142 registered players registered and five new clubs. In its early days of organization, the Association initiated changes in the number and length of time periods (chukkers) in a match. Equipment became standardized and pony-training improved significantly. Scoring was also adjusted to allow for fractioning of points for penalties — later abolished as an unnecessarily complex method of scoring that was replaced with free shots. Even before the Association was formed the Westchester Cup, one of the oldest tournaments in the world, was contested in 1886 by the United States and Britain. This prestigious international polo tournament was played at the time when the Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon and the British Open were all new events in a sparse sporting calendar. Though that first match at Westchester was won easily by the British, the Americans would use the defeat as a catalyst to improve their game strategy and the quality of their horses. The Association continued the series and the United States won nine of the next eleven matches including the 1939 competition, when the tournament was played for the last time at Meadowbrook before a crowd of 40,000. The Cup was not played again until 1988, when the United States defeated an Australasian team in Lexington, Kentucky. The U.S. won again against England in 1992 and later lost to the British in 1997.
In 1904 another important tournament evolved, the United States Open. The first Open was won by the Wanderers, who scored 4-1/2 to the Freebooters 3. The tournament resumed in 1910 and continued every year with the exception of 1911, 1915, 1917, 1918, and 1942-1945. The U.S. Open would become polo’s most prestigious tournament still played annually.
The excitement of the sport was contagious; many of the early polo matches attracted as many as 20,000 spectators. This would be an impressive attendance even by today’s standards, yet when one considers the communication and transportation capabilities of that era it was truly incredible. The center of much of this excitement was Meadowbrook, the site of many of the first Open and Westchester Cup Championships. During the 1913-14, the Westchester Cup packed 20,000 spectators into the stands. Even as polo gained in popularity across the country, extending to Texas and California, Meadowbrook would dominate the sport and be the center of polo during the first half of the century.
During these early years of the USPA, one of the more famous players in polo was Foxhall Keene, handicapped for 14 years at 10 goals, and then 16 years at 9 goals. Though there were many other greats, four players stood out in the 1890’s and early 1920’s. They were: Harry Payne Whitney, the Waterbury brothers, Larry and Monty and Devereux Milburn. These four players were known as the original "Big Four" and won the Westchester Cup in 1909, 1911, and 1913. Milburn would go on to play in seven international matches and established a reputation as one of the most outstanding players of all time. Credited with creating and leading the "Big Four", Harry Payne Whitney played a pivotal role in the sport by helping develop a more fluid open form of play integrating better teamwork.
By 1913, Circuit Cup play began with the first USPA Intercircuit Cup held in 1916. The USPA claimed 1,407 members and began registration of the ponies as well though pony registration would later be dropped in the 1920’s. College polo came of age and indoor polo grew in popularity championed by George Sherman and Robert A. Graviss.
Contributing to the growth of polo during this period was the U.S. Army, who after joining the USPA in 1902, encouraged their members to participate in polo to improve their riding ability. From that time until World War II, the military would play a significant role in polo.
Polo’s greatest era began in the years between the first and second World Wars. The sport not only survived the Depression but expanded into the 1930’s with increased international competition. The number of registered clubs had increased to 88 and playing membership was 2,889, of which 1,276 were military players. Louis Stoddard, a ten-goal player and member of two Westchester Cup Championship teams served as Chairman from 1922 to 1936. He would direct and expand the USPA during the period of great change. Other great names in polo emerged, such as ten-goaler Tommy Hitchcock, Jr., who reigned for 20 years and captured America’s hearts. Both of Hitchcock’s parents were strong supporters of polo; his mother taught young children the game and coached many polo players to greatness. Thomas Hitchcock Sr. was also an outstanding player who was rated at ten goals in 1891.
By 1928, another international match, The Cup of the Americas, was initiated between the U.S. and Argentina. The U.S. Team won the first two competitions but Argentina would go on to be the victor in future matches. The 1930’s also saw women creating an impact on the sport, though they would not be USPA members for years to come.
During polo’s heyday it was only fitting that Hollywood would become involved with this great sport. With a wonderful climate for the game and the appeal for movie stars and moguls, California polo expanded. The geographic spread of polo led to the first East-West match up in 1933, with the West winning two of three matches, proving the Westerners were a force with which to be reckoned. Humorist Will Rogers, strong player and supporter of polo was thrilled. He is still remembered today as saying, "The hillbillies beat the dudes and took the polo championship right out of the drawing room and into the bunkhouse".
The Great Depression eventually took its toll. As World War II began, the number of civilian players dropped from 1600 to 750. Though the number of military players peaked in 1940 with 1,432 registered members, Army polo would later disappear as the mechanization of the era outmoded the need for the cavalry. From 1942-1945 USPA tournaments were not played, though polo continued on private fields. Chairman, R.E. Strawbridge, Jr., headed the Association from 1936-1940, followed by Elbridge T. Gerry to 1946 and then Strawbridge served again from 1946-1950.
Polo survived after the war, thanks in great part to Cecil Smith of Plano, Texas, considered to be one of the first "professional" or paid players. By 1950 the number of active clubs was 56 with 614 USPA playing members. Devereux Milburn, Jr., son of the great 10 goal star, served as Chairman of the Association from 1950 to 1960. The early 50’s also marked the closing of Meadow Brook to make way for a highway; Meadow Brook relocated to Jericho, Long Island. The club would never regain its earlier dominance.
A new star was on the horizon — Oak Brook in Chicago, Illinois. When the first U.S. Open was played there in the 1950’s, the ascent of Oak Brook began and continued as American interest in polo revived during the 1960’s. USPA clubs increased to 77 and 675 players were registered. Arena polo expanded and intercollegiate polo made a comeback with George C. Sherman, Jr. serving as USPA Chairman from 1960 to 1966. Then in 1967 the USPA moved its headquarters from New York to Oak Brook, the new home of American polo. This era also marked the introduction of sponsor money for horses and professional players. With the help of William T. Ylvisaker, the Polo Training Foundation was established in 1967 for the purpose of teaching and improving the sport.
In 1970 the Association listed 100 clubs and 917 registered players. Northrup R. Knox would head the USPA from 1966 to 1970, followed by William Ylvisaker 1970-1975 and Hugo Dalmar, Jr. 1975-1976. The early 70’s brought about increased popularity in polo’s major tournaments and in the club ranks. Polo flourished in Florida, encouraged by John T. Oxley’s interest in high-goal polo and William T. Ylvisaker’s promotion of the sport by courting corporate sponsorship. International play increased as the Camacho Cup, played at Juarez, Mexico, was revived. Norman Brinker closed out the decade as USPA Chairman from 1976 to 1980.
Polo evolved from a society sport to include a far broader base of budget-minded horsemen, professional players and commercial sponsorship. With William Sinclaire as Chairman in 1980, the USPA registered 134 clubs and almost 1,400 players. Sinclaire was followed by S.K. Johnston, Jr. as Chairman from 1984 to 1988. With the dominance of Oak Brook fading, the polo centers of the 1980’s grew to include Florida, Texas and California.
In 1986 the United States Polo Association moved its national headquarters to a more central location in the heart of thoroughbred country, Lexington, Kentucky. Pride and spectator interest were at a high point, particularly after the 1989 Federation of International Polo World Championship in West Berlin, Germany. Eight teams from all over the world battled with the U.S. team riding away as the victor over Britain in the final match. Led by Chairman, John C. Oxley prior to and during the Centennial year of the United States Polo Association, one looked back fondly at the memories and heritage of yesteryear and forward with anticipation to another glorious 100 years. Since that time, Chairmen Stephen A. Orthwein (1991-1995), Richard C. Riemenschneider (1995-1999) and the current Chairman, Orrin H. Ingram, great strides have been in the areas of umpiring, safety, rules, rules interpretation, development of international rules and the refinement of the handicapping process. As the millennium continues to emerge, polo grows stronger – current membership exceeds 3,500. Over two hundred fifty clubs and schools are presently registered. Continued growth at the collegiate level assures a bright future as polo’s strength depends on these young players of tomorrow.
The exciting team of man and horse continues to embody breathtaking skill, fierce determination, gracious sportsmanship and above all, elegant ambiance unique to the world of equestrian sports.
Contributed By: United States Polo Association