Polo Season: Hawaii's Biggest Tailgate Party, Improved

Polo Season: Hawaii's Biggest Tailgate Party, Improved

Sunday, March 21, marks the opening day of Hawaii's polo season. In true island style, this year's Hawaii Polo Club has upped the ante with an improved clubhouse, more food and beverage vendors during match play, and an energetic half-time and post-match entertainment line-up. Best yet: The Polynesian Cultural Center will transport polo-goers from Waikiki to the North Shore and back in a luxury bus for $25 round-trip, including the price of admission. (For reservations head to: www.polyad.com/Hawaii-polo-tour.html or call 808.833.3000)

We chatted with the club's president, Mike Dailey, for the scoop on what's galloping to Mokuleia this season.

Each Sunday of polo, there will be two matches: The first, a competition between newer players and local teams, kicks off at 2:00 p.m. The second match pits world-renowned players—who hail from Argentina, Santa Barbara, Hawaii and Chile—against each other in heated bouts. Each, says Dailey, is worth watching.

"There are a lot of locals who participate in our polo school," says Dailey. "And it's very exciting to watch your peers play. In fact, we even have some local celebrities who play. Pro surfer Jamie Sterling is a player, and he draws a surf crowd."

Actively playing for 46 years, the not-for-profit Hawaii Polo Club currently has 20 active members and a dozen students. Dailey notes that while they play both together and separately, there are no teams that exclude women. There are, however, women's teams that can exclude men.

A little history: Polo is the oldest sport in the world played with a stick and a ball, dating back 2,000 years to Persia, when it was used to train cavalry. On a Christmas day in the late 1870s, the first polo match in Hawai`i was played in Kapiolani Park, on O`ahu. While none of Hawaii's royalty suited up, Prince Kuhio was an avid fan of the sport. He had a proper field drawn on the inside of the horse track that circumvented the park.

In the early 1920s, the Dillingham's raised prized polo thoroughbreds on their ranch, becoming adept at breeding shorter, stouter and quicker horses. In fact, there's a single horse patrons can still cheer on that hails from original Dillingham lineage. Dailey, who was raised in Hawai`i, thanks his father for his genetic passion for the sport.

"I got my first concussion when I was 9 years old, following the umpire out on to the field before play was over," admits Dailey, whose father grew up on a farm outside of Chicago. He was drafted in to the National Guard's cavalry unit in the 1920s, where he picked up the game. During World War II, he moved to Hawai`i and started the club. Lost for a few war-torn years, he restarted it in the 1950s. The original stables were behind the tennis courts in Kapiolani Park.

Since that time, Hawaii's polo club has traveled to Kenya, Spain, England, Ireland, Chile, Argentina and various cities throughout the mainland U.S.

If all this is sounding very odd to you, it shouldn't: The heavily Argentinean influenced sport has parallels with another Hawaii pastime: Surfing.

"Argentina is to polo what Hawaii is to surfing," said Dailey. "Albeit on steroids. Argentina is a polo factory. It produces players and horses like no where else. I've spent time there, and we have an Argentinean group that works and lives a the club [Hawaii Polo Club is headquartered at the Equus Hotel in Waikiki]. They surf, too, so it's a great scene."

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of polo is also the least-known: The club maintains a polo school that is open to the public. Lessons come in blocks of four (cost is $300), and everything is provided. This year, Dailey has added polo vacations to the mix. Students from China, India and the mainland will come to Hawaii to learn how to play in one of the most picturesque settings worldwide.

"Some of the players have a background in the game, others do not," says Dailey. "We give them a series of lessons, scrimmages and take care of hotel arrangements. Some opt to camp in tents right on the polo field in Mokuleia—they're pretty in to the sport."

With tournament season beginning in July, it's a good time to get familiarized with the sport. Thus far, teams from Santa Barbara, Mexico and Argentina are scheduled to play on O`ahu.

The club's director of marketing and promotions, Glenn Mercante, has found success by re-tooling the approach in which lures people to the North Shore on Sunday afternoons.

"When I kept trying to get people to come see polo, it was like pulling teeth," admits Mercante. "But when I started calling it the largest outdoor tailgate party on the North Shore—that doesn't end when the sun goes down—people came in droves."

Mercante is referring to the line-up of bands who begin playing directly following the last match. On opening weekend, the eight-member "Blue Light Funk" band will set up underneath the Cook pines and lure formerly sedate polo fans to the dance floor.

"We've totally stepped it up this year, rolling with the momentum built at the end of last season, when we had 1,200 people attend the finale," adds Mercante. "There's a new clubhouse for members. VIP tables and tented area for corporate sponsorship. There's a new stage for the band, with modern lighting and sound. New food vendors have come onboard, including BBQ, a taco stand, a crepe truck, smoothies, a coffee vendor and even a cigar store."

Mercante insists those considering the trek bring their kids, dogs, picnics, blankets, coolers or whatever they need to have a good time. This, from the man with a custom-built martini and espresso bar built in to the back of his limited-edition pickup truck.

For the first year, at every half-time show, the folks at Skydive Hawaii will put on a show that will wow audiences. A gaggle of jumpers will parachute themselves on to the field to the soundtrack of "Hawaii, Five-0". The best part: You can sponsor a co-worker to take the jump.

Students from China, India and the mainland will come to Hawaii to learn how to play in one of the most picturesque settings worldwide.