Hockey on Horseback

Local pros, TV celebs give Valley residents a glimpse of polo

By Brian Covert

Dick Butkis: “Tomorrow we
re gonna try our hand at water polo.”
Bubba Smith: “Yeah, I sure hope those horses can swim.”
Butkis: “Me too.”
TV beer commercial

For many folks, the only exposure they’ve had to the sport of polo may have been that well-known television commercial featuring two former football stars turned “famous polo players.”

But the 750 people from all over the San Joaquin Valley and beyond who attended the Modesto Polo Club Arena on a Saturday in September were treated to the real thing: all the gala of a professional polo match, complete with highly respected pro poloists and a few Hollywood celebrities as well.

Besides raising funds for the Modesto Memorial Hospital’s orthopedic services, the Eighth Annual Polo Plus Benefit also helped to familiarize Valley residents with what is often looked upon as a sport of the upper class, said Cathy Gorham, public relations director for the hospital.

“I think what’s really neat is that it brings the sport of polo to this area,” she said. “You know, people really think of it down in Los Angeles as for the rich only, and while all these people (here) certainly have money, it’s kind of nice to see it out here in Modesto and the country.”

The crowd, enduring the 105-degree heat, got what they paid $20 per ticket for. Among the poloists playing were film stars Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Logan: Jones is best known for his roles in such movies as “The Eyes of Laura Mars,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and “The Amazing Howard Hughes,” while Logan has played in “The Adventures of the Wilderness Family” movies and television’s “77 Sunset Strip” and “Daniel Boone.” Both consider polo more than just a passing interest.

In Logan’s case, he fell into polo quite by accident.

“I was trying to get into jumping horses in Aspen, working a horse over some jumps, and they were playing polo in the pasture next door,” he said of some former neighbors. “Somebody got hurt and they asked me to fill in for him and I said, ‘I don’t even know how this game is played,’ and they said, ‘Don’t worry, just hit the ball and try to hit it between those two cones.’ Boy, that was it. I had more fun on that horse playing that game than I’ve ever had in probably any sport I’ve ever played. I said, “This is for me.’”

But for the more serious polo buffs at the benefit, the appearance of the movie stars was overshadowed by the performances of some of the nation’s top riders in polo. Dr. Robert G. Walton and his two sons, Bil and F.D., competed in the game, providing a professional touch to the match. Walton, a noted Modesto physician and dermatologist (and owner of the ranch on which the arena is located), is co-president of the National Polo League and head of the Polo Club of Modesto. Bil is currently the captain of the Los Angeles Lancers Pro Polo team, on which his brother F.D. also plays.

John Madigan, a veterinary surgeon and faculty member at the UC Davis Veterinary School, also participated in the event. Madigan currently plays professionally for Miami in the National Polo League and is well-known throughout northern California polo leagues as one of the top in the field.

Ted Dawson, sportscaster extraordinaire for KABC-TV in Los Angeles, was there to announce the game. Dawson, who also plays in Los Angeles celebrity polo matches, provided a quick, witty play-by-play for the spectators.

“…John Madigan and Bil Walton collide with their mallets, sending the ball somewhere into the next county…” he said as the ball flew out of the playing field.

Striking mallets and colliding horses were not uncommon in the one-and-a-half-hour match. Many times during the game, the riders had to calm their horses down; the horses seemed to be just as intense as the riders themselves.

As in any polo game, this star-studded match was divided into two teams of three: Logan, Madigan and F.D. on the red “Aspen” team, and Dr. Walton, Bil and Jones on the blue “San Saba” team. The purpose: to score goals by swatting the four-and-a-quarter-inch yellow ball into their respective goals at the end of the playing field, while riding horseback with a 50-inch mallet used to hit the ball. Sound easy? Combine that with manipulating their horses on a second’s notice and trying to anticipate their opponents’ next move and you had a game of grueling, fast-paced strategy that has earned its nickname of “hockey on horseback.”

A typical polo game is played in periods called “chukkers,” which last about seven and a half minutes each. Four chukkers are played per game. Every “half-chukker” the riders change to a fresh horse and the play resumes again. In addition to the six players, there are two referees riding horseback on the playing field (which is usually the size of a football field). Play stops when a referee calls a foul, with penalties allowing the fouled team a “free hit” to a defended or undefended goal, depending on the seriousness of the foul.

The final outcome of the Modesto match: Aspen 11, San Saba 12. Soap opera star Kim Ulrich of television’s “As the World Turns” awarded the trophy to the winning team.

“It was a tight game, it was a hard game, it was a good body-contact game…” said Dr. Walton in his noticeably British accent during a post-game interview.

“It was hard-hitting and there were some clever plays — that’s what the public enjoys. That’s what we were doing it for: We were doing it for the public to enjoy themselves. I think it was a great game and I enjoyed it,” he added.

Walton said he encouraged his sons early in their youth to take up polo — a necessity if one is to someday be a real professional in the sport.

“There are a lot of men who start playing polo when they’re 40 years of age, and the reason is economics — they didn’t have enough money (earlier) to play on horses and whatever it takes,” he said.

“Those people that start at that advanced age never become very good. They can enjoy themselves and play a reasonable game, but they never become stars. The only ones that become great professional polo players are when they start at 10 or 11 — those are the good ones,” Walton said.

Walton said that he has another son who plays polo and another daughter out of his three daughters who used to play, causing some sibling rivalry among the Waltons.

“We always used to get together,” he said. “Our joke was that the Kennedys would get together for touch football and the Waltons would get together for polo. So yes, there’s always been that sibling rivalry, absolutely.”

Is polo still considered a game of the elite?

“Before World War II, that’s true, it was a game of the wealthy, no question about it,” Walton said, “and it is still a game of the wealthy: There’s still types of polo that are played by very wealthy people who hire their own professionals to play and who have fantastic horses.

“But the majority of members of the
United States Polo Association today come from all walks of life. In our club we have a lawyer, a farmer, several ranchers, a butcher, a horseshoer — we have a great cross-section of various people. But I wouldn’t want you to go away thinking it’s an inexpensive game…”

Walton said he “very definitely” sees polo as a growing sport among enthusiasts from all walks of life.

“There is a place for middle-class people to play polo today. They don’t have their own rooms, they get their own horses ready, they take care of their own horses and they truck their own horses. They do everything themselves. There is this level of polo today, and a lot of people play it and enjoy it,” he said.

Logan, for example, said he will continue to play polo “Until I die. It’s a wonderful game. It’s a kind of game you can just keep playing into your 60s too, if you stay in pretty good shape. Then also, so much of it is reliant on your horses. You’ve got to have good horses, and this (Walton) family has good horses.”

So, after a day of hot sun and competitive polo, guests and players alike at the Walton ranch were invited to a plush outdoor sit-down dinner with a live band playing dance music. While others danced, ate and drank, some of the guests took to cooling off in the swimming pool out back.

And to answer the question that’s burning in your mind: No, there weren’t any horses swimming in the pool. At least not while the guests were there.

Brian Covert is a student at California State University, Fresno, where he is managing editor of “Insight,” the journalism department newspaper.