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Hats, sundresses and champagne will be aplenty Aug. 1 in Maple Plain at the family-friendly 21st annual Polo Classic
July 26, 2010

By Matt Kane
Sports Editor

MAPLE PLAIN — Hey, ladies. Did you get a new sundress you’ve been dying to wear? How about a fancy oversized hat you simply need a good reason to wear? And, finally, do you enjoy sipping on a nice glass of champagne?

If you said yes to any, all, or even none of these questions, the Twin City Polo Club has an event for you and your entire family Aug. 1 in Maple Plain. It’s the 21st Annual Polo Classic at West End Farm, where, as the website explains, one will “Experience the event that combines the speed, elegance, pride and excitement of polo with the pageantry of tents, hats, and champagne.”

In other words, the Polo Classic will include the prim and properness often associated with polo, but, as event coordinator Craig Robbins says, it will include a whole lot more.

“The Aug. 1 weekend is fun because it is the only time we really put on the pageantry of the sidelines of polo. When you think of the stereotypical polo match, that is what happens. There is a lot of color and a lot of excitement,” he explained. “It’s a great opportunity to come out and celebrate a great summer Sunday afternoon. You can do it with the whole family.

“We encourage people to come out and join in the pageantry. Women wear sundresses and big hats, and guys come out and drink champagne. It’s an outdoor activity, so you can relax and move about. It’s a great place to meet new friends and neighbors.”

Don’t let the fancy dresses and big hats fool you, though, for a huge bank account is not needed to attend the Polo Classic. The cost is $25 for adults, and $10 for kids 12-18 years of age. Children 11-and-under are admitted free of charge.

“Come and see it once. It’s a local event. It’s something you read about or see in movies and you might have a conception of it. Experiencing it, it will live up to your expectations,” Robbins said.

No hat? No dress? No worries.

“You don’t have to dress for it, but it is a lot more fun if you dress for it, because you will have joined in the pageantry,” Robbins said. “If you want to come and throw down a blanket and watch it from that perspective, many do.”

More of a cowboy than a polo chap? Have a beer.

The event attracts patrons from all walks of life, and it truly is a family event.

“We encourage everyone to come out. It’s a great afternoon for the family,” Robbins said. “We have corporations that buy sky box tents so they can have their own reserved space. But the general admission has great views, and they can walk around and watch the game, and get close to the horses. There are activities for the kids, and there will be concessions. Things are set up for everyone.”

The event has attracted close to 2,000 people in past years, and it has raised over $2 million for various charities in its 20 previous years. This year’s Classic will benefit the Ronald McDonald House inside the hospital at Children’s-Minneapolis. Ronald McDonald House provides families a place to stay while their child is being treated at Children’s.

“If you look it up on the Internet, like I did, I was really impressed with the whole story of how they set up housing for people to stay where their kids are being treated,” said Twin City Polo Club member Cathy DeGonda, who lives just around the corner from the Maple Plain field.

“It’s for a great cause,” she said as a horse in the distance neighed in agreement.

For those who want to show off their unique hats, the Polo Classic will include a parade of hats. For each hat modelled, $20 will be donated to the Ronald McDonald House.

The event begins at 11 a.m., and will conclude around 4 p.m. A youth game will lead things off, and the main event will begin around 2 p.m. Between the two games will be the hat parade, a demonstration by the Long Lake Hounds, and a parade of horses and carriages. Throughout the event, concessions, including adult beverages, will be served, and kids can participate in pony rides and face painting.

“A lot of friends of mine, who have kids, show up every year because they just love it,” DeGonda said. “Everybody loves watching the horses.”

Rough riders

Robbins won’t have time to parade around in a hat or drink champagne, as he will play for the Twin City Polo Club team when it takes on the Des Moines Polo Club in the feature game of the day. DeGonda wasn’t sure if she would be playing yet.

As for the skill level of the horses and players (who, combined, are the athletes) Robbins said it is somewhere in the middle.

“It will be a competitive, fun match,” he said. “One way to compare it is, we’re not the Twins, but we are better than Legion ball.”

The skill level of an athlete is determined mostly by how well the horse and rider work together.

“The more athletic the horse, the better you can play. Much of that has to do with the horse, but the communication between the horse and rider is very key,” Robbins explained. “The better you can communicate with your horse, the better athlete you will be.”

The Twin City team will include one player from the Dominican Republic. The De Moines team will include two professional players.

As is the case with most sports, there is a realm of danger involved in polo. Horses can accelerate up to speeds of 30 miles per hour, and collisions and rubbing, as NASCAR calls it, is commonplace when jockeying for position. Swinging mallets have also been known to catch a horse or rider, who is protected by only a helmet, shin guards and boots.

Injuries can happen, but the rules of polo focus mainly on protecting the horses from injury, and each player knows how hard his or her horse can be pushed.

“The players are very conscientious about the horses. They care for them and spend a lot of time with their horses,” Robbins said. “The rules are designed to protect the horses, while still allowing the action of polo. There is a lot of contact and a lot of interaction. It’s exciting. It’s similar to a pro hockey game. In hockey, you can bump and check, and in polo you can run together at very good speeds, and you see a lot of physical contact.”

Each polo game consists of six seven-minute periods, known as chukkers. Between each chukker, riders are required to take a new mount in order to allow the previous horse to rest, similar to a line change. Some riders will return to a previously ridden horse for a different chukker, while others ride six different horses in each of the six periods.

The two teams are made up of four athletes, and the games are played much like ice hockey, where the objective is to score goals. In polo, a plastic ball replaces the rubber puck, and the goals are marked by wooden posts at both ends of the field.

Live to ride

The Twin City Polo Club team includes several local riders and horses, including Robbins, of Maple Plain, and his six horses, and DeGonda, who owns a ranch near Lyndale, and her three horses. The club members range from grade school to the golden years.

Robbins and DeGonda grew to love the game of polo in completely different ways. Robbins, 50, grew up watching his father participate in the sport around the Twin Cities, and joined the club in 1978, when he was still in high school. DeGonda, 44, discovered the sport later in life, long after she hung up her barrel-riding saddle after high school.

“About nine or 10 years ago, I went on a trail ride with some girlfriends, and a new girl started telling me she just started coming out here and playing polo,” DeGonda explained, with beads of sweat consuming her made-up face and blonde hair. “I was like, ‘No way. There’s polo out here?’ Because I didn’t know about it. She saw it and took some lessons. I came out with her to check it out, and then I got hooked.”

DeGonda, who works at the post office’s accounting service center in Eagan by day, explained her start in the sport of polo recently on a Thursday night after she had just dismounted her horse, Mr. Big, following a two-hour practice session at West End Farm.

“I like the involvement. It’s not like you have a horse in your backyard and you are going to take a ride down the street. You come out here and there are other people and you all have the same interest and you play together,” she explained between sips of a cold beer, while leaning on her 1976 Dodge club cab pickup truck. “We practice Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, so you get a lot of riding in, for sure. No use going to the gym in the summer.”

She is hooked on both the competition of polo and the dedication the sport requires from both horse and player. DeGonda fell in love with the sport of polo so much that she packed her bags and relocated from Excelsior to Lyndale so she could be closer to the action.

That Thursday-night practice session was the first taste of action for Mr. Big (a.k.a. Palatine’s General), who, at 16.1 hands, lives up to his name. Also along for the practice ride were DeGonda’s other two horses, Suzy Q (PlayIt) and Mary (What About Mary). All three of DeGonda’s horses were purchased at Canterbury Park.

Robbins had all six of his horses — Cachina, Ruckus, Oahu, Fiver, Captain Jack and Teddy — at the Thursday-night practice. The love for polo was instilled in him from his late father, William.

“I enjoyed it right away. I’ve always loved riding and being around horses. My skill level has progressed marginally since I was a kid, but I’ve always enjoyed it,” Robbins explained Thursday, just before heading out for the first chukker. “My dad played here since he was 12. He came up from South Dakota to play. My dad and I both played out of Fort Snelling, when it was the parade grounds and the military had it.”

Robbins currently lives on his father’s horse farm, where he learned to ride and train horses, with his mother, Jill.

Polo has been played in Minnesota since the 1920s, when it was used by the United States Army at Fort Snelling. The sport was played at Wayzata’s Meadow Lake Club and Eagle Ridge Polo Club near Shakopee until it moved to the West End Farm in Maple Plain in 1964.

Robbins, who graduated from Orono High School in 1978, said he really got involved in polo in 1976, after his family moved to Maple Plain from Cedar Rapids, IA. He joined the Twin City Club in 1978, meaning this is his 33rd year in the club.

To say polo has taken up a big portion of Robbins’ life would be an understatement.

“It’s consuming,” he insists. “You have to keep your horses in shape, and you have to keep yourself in shape. Every year, I probably bring a new horse into the game, so that means I have to train it to get its skill level up to where it is safe on the field. It usually takes a year of training before it’s a competitive horse. They will still play, but it takes a year before a good horse gets competitive. Sometimes longer.”

Money can be a factor when getting into the sport of polo, but Robbins said it doesn’t have to be the deciding factor.

“Most are well-enough off, but you don’t have to be Rockefeller to play,” he said.

Horsing around

Most of the horses used in polo are off-the-track thoroughbreds, many of the local mounts coming from Canterbury Park, so they need to be retrained for polo.

“The difference is stopping and going,” said Robbins, referring to the differences in horse racing and polo. “They are used to running — they like the speed — and they are used to running within a group of horses, but the stopping and turning requires them to be more athletic than just running straight.”

The history of each horse as a racehorse doesn’t necessarily indicate what type of polo horse it will be.

“The polo horse is only running 200 to 300 yards, whereas the track is a mile-and-a-quarter, so a slow horse at Canterbury could still be a very fast polo horse, because it takes quick bursts of speed and quick athleticism,” Robbins explained.

Training is year-round. The horses and riders get on-the-field training at West End four days per week during the summer season, which runs from May 1 to Oct. 1.

The Twin City Polo Club, which is in its 46th year, practices and hosts events at the Maple Plain location on Turner Road just off County Road 90, and also at Black Berg Ranch, a private farm in Watertown. Black Berg hosted the Freedom Farm Polo Event July 17. The Polo Classic is this Sunday at West End Farm, and the Binger Cup Tournament, which includes the MHSEA team challenge and youth game, is Aug. 13-15 at West End. For a full schedule of events, log on to www.twincitypolo.com/schedule.

Spectators are welcome to attend all events practices. The practices are free of charge and are informal enough to include tailgating. The horses and riders, some who practice wearing an old T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans, are highly accessible and willing to discus the sport and the horses with newcomers.

Heck, they might even critique your hat at the Polo Classic. Just watch your step.

For more information on the Polo Classic, log on to www.thepoloclassic.com, where you will find everything you need to know about the event, including the charity, how to sponsor the event, and what to wear. For information on the Twin City Polo Club, log on to www.twincitypolo.com.

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