Aiken’s polo players have been threatening to start playing arena polo here for years, and several polo enthusiasts have gone so far as to put up polo arenas. There has even been at least one exhibition game over at The Plains of Aiken development. Now, although there is no word of anyone organizing regular arena practices or making an arena club, we will have an arena polo tournament, thanks to Randy Russell, president of Polo America and the man behind the Ford Trucks Balloon and Polo Festival, held here in 2007 and 2008.
Randy has put together the Ford Trucks U.S. Open Arena Championship, a 14-16-goal tournament that will be held at an arena he is in the process of completing at his home in the Steeplechase development on Aiken’s Southside. The tournament runs from April 28 until May 3. It will be limited to eight teams and already has attracted serious interest from three or four.
A polo arena is 300 feet long by 150 feet wide, although many arenas are either bigger or smaller. Whereas outdoor polo has four players to a side, arena polo has just three. The ball, made of inflated plastic or leather and about the size of a Florida grapefruit, resembles a mini soccer ball. Players can bounce the ball off the walls (“boards”) of the arena and they score by hitting the ball against a marked-off (usually) recessed area the arena’s end.
Like many indoor versions of outdoor sports, arena polo can be both faster (in terms of how the play changes) and more physical than grass polo. The game is definitely easier to watch and understand since the players never get that far away from the spectators. Many players, especially those from Northern climes, get their start in arena polo, which can be played year round indoors, even in Chicago or Maine. Horses that play in the arena have to be quick, bold and handy. They can even be a little bit crazy: on the grass a hot-headed, keen horse might be hard to stop, but in the arena there is nowhere to go but to the play.
The entry fee for the tournament is $1,000 per team and parking for spectators will be five dollars per car, and five dollars to attend the final match. There will be a Kentucky Derby party after the consolation finals on Saturday, May 2, at which players, spectators and friends can watch the race and (presumably) indulge in Mint Juleps. All proceeds go to benefit the families of servicemen at Fort Gordon. The families of Fort Gordon have also been the beneficiaries of the Ford Trucks Balloon and Polo festivals.
“I didn’t have a connection to the military before,” explains Randy. “But after we made the families of Fort Gordon the beneficiaries of the first balloon festival, I saw how appreciative they were and how much it is needed. Now about 90 percent of my events benefit military families. We’ve been able to help about 30 families attend funerals of loved ones that have died in the line of service. We’ve also been able to help a little boy get treatment for a blood disease after his mother ran out of insurance and ran up all her charge cards. We raised enough money to pay for his treatment and to pay off all her credit cards. Now the little boy is cured and playing soccer.”