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In Saratoga even tailgate parties
are high-end, genteel, horsey affairs. Instead of football, their sport is polo; instead of kegs, their primary vessels are picnic baskets; instead of an asphalt lot, their stage is a well-kept lawn. Nevertheless, shorts and T-shirts, takeout burgers, and the family dog are also welcome. Like early mornings at the track, polo provides a family-friendly and fairly affordable taste of the Saratoga summer scene.

(It provides a good dose of Skidmore flavor too. The Saratoga Polo Club dates back to the 1890s, when its colors were white and green. The club and its traditional playing fields were revivified in 1978 with leadership from Leighton Jordan ’78 and others. In 1980 it began hosting Skidmore first lady Anne Palamountain’s annual benefit luncheon and polo match, which raises funds for scholarship aid. And its current owners include Jim Rossi ’82.)

Polo has to be seen to be believed, but here’s a quick summary of what to expect. The Saratoga Polo grounds—just off Denton Road, near Skidmore’s Castle Baseball Diamond—open at 4 p.m., and cars begin parking along the low sideboards at the edge of the enormous grass field. On the opposite side is the clubhouse, where patrons are treated to chairs, catered food, and the sun at their backs. On the bring-your-own-chair tailgating side, a hat or visor can be crucial. While everybody unpacks cars, walks dogs, and snacks, both teams’ ponies and riders warm up on the field.

When play commences, a kind of equine scrum gathers and disperses and gathers again, now careening to the sides (where the fans only occasionally have to duck a stray-flying polo ball), now ranging to the far ends where the goals are. With reins in one hand, riders use the other to hit the ball with miraculous precision, swinging their long mallets over either side of the horse’s neck and sometimes even sideways under its belly. To keep it just this side of wild and woolly, stripe-shirted umpires, also mounted, follow the play closely, calling interference and other violations, which may result in a handover of ball possession or a penalty shot. The announcer’s play-by-play only partly explains the arcane rules of engagement. No matter: even clueless viewers get an eyeful of exhilarating hell for leather, punctuated by big swooping golf shots. The six periods of play, called chukkers, are fairly brief, and so are the intermissions in between, when players jump off their tired mounts and jump onto fresh ones. A full match usually lasts around two hours.

The action of horses, humans, and mallets is amazing enough, but polo’s peculiarities go further. While equestrian sports from fox-hunting to racing feature the practice of posting—the rider alternately stands in the stirrups and sits in the saddle, to ease the up-and-down impacts of trotting—in polo, players and umpires covering long distances across the field sometimes post at the canter. It’s a subtle oddity but perplexing and mesmerizing, as if a jockey were to gallop down the track riding sidesaddle. Another charming quirk of polo is the tradition of inviting all the spectators onto the field at halftime to help stomp the hoof-cut divots back into the turf. Kids love the chance to run around, grownups use the opportunity to see and be seen, and for all parties the assignment seems impossible to execute without grinning.

Polo may be “the sport of kings” (it costs a princely sum to own several athletic horses), but its spectators include plenty of regular Saratoga joes—that is, horse-loving, outdoorsy summer socializers. —SR