Las Vegas Sun

November 13, 2018

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How one lesson changed the way I saw polo

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Wade Vandervort

Case Keefer, Las Vegas Sun journalist, receives a lesson from professional polo player Ismael Molina during a media event to promote the Las Vegas Polo Classicthe first outdoor grass polo game to be played in Las Vegasheld by Polo America at Star Nursery Field, Wednesday, March 7, 2018. The Las Vegas Polo Classic will take place April 14 & 15.

First Las Vegas Polo Classic

President of Polo America, Randy Russell, demonstrates his swing during a media event to promote the Las Vegas Polo Classicthe first outdoor grass polo game to be played in Las Vegasheld by Polo America at Star Nursery Field, Wednesday, March 7, 2018. The Las Vegas Polo Classic will take place April 14 & 15. Launch slideshow »

Las Vegas Polo Classic

• April 14-15, 11:30 a.m.

• $800-$2,500 for four-to-eight-person tents

• Star Nursery Fields

Fewer than 100 people nationwide are certified as official United States Polo Association instructors. After more than two decades of work in the field, Ismael Molina joined that elite group earlier this year.

Molina, who teaches out of the California Polo Club, gave me a 30-minute training session last month at Star Nursery Fields, where he demonstrated his preternatural rapport with horses. The only thing more impressive? His unyielding patience for a far-less-athletic rider.

I’d thought of polo more as a clothing company than a sports competition before Molina saddled up an 11-year-old gelding named Nevada and told me to hop on. My inability to direct him might have taken us to Arizona had Molina not repeatedly set us back on course.

And yet, the instructor never got frustrated. Instead, he exuded a lot of excitement, or at least feigned it, when I cocked my mallet and socked the ball 20 yards down the field on my first attempt at a back shot. “Very good!” Molina exclaimed. “You’d play the No. 1 position—always forward. They’re going to tell you to stay all the way up, stay forward and wait for the pass.”

I felt like the comment related as much to my cluelessness as a rider as my ability to make contact, but at that point I was happy with any compliment. I can only hope I didn’t disgrace the field too much ahead of April 14, when four high-profile teams will descend upon the site for the two-day Las Vegas Polo Classic, featuring the first-ever local outdoor grass polo games.

Tournament matches are scheduled for 12:05 p.m. and 2 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday at Star Nursery Fields adjacent to Sam Boyd Stadium, with four players and as many as 25 horses on each team. Games are separated into four seven-minute quarters—they’re called “chukkers” in polo—and the horses are changed out every round.

Randy Russell, owner of Polo America and the event’s organizer, has brought three-man arena polo matches to the South Point Equestrian Center in the past but says he always envisioned something bigger for Las Vegas. Star Nursery Fields’ expansion in recent years made it possible, prompting Russell to sign a three-year contract to bring the Las Vegas Polo Classic there.

“The one thing that everyone is going to take away from this is the sound,” Russell says. “The first time those eight horses run by and those hooves, it embeds in your mind forever.”

Horses reach speeds of up to 40 miles per hour during a match, and Russell says they typically run twice the distance of the Kentucky Derby in a single chukker.

Neither speed nor distance were characteristics of my brief foray into polo. If Nevada had been wearing a speedometer, I doubt it would have ever registered over 5 miles per hour. I could hit the ball, but without teammates in a solo lesson, the chances of me handling the reins properly and maneuvering into position to chase it down for another whack were minuscule. “The most important first is to ride the horse safe and stay on,” Molina says. “After that, you can hit the ball.”

That doesn’t fit with my skill set, so I’m hereby retiring from polo. Perhaps Molina can find a more promising prospect during the Las Vegas Classic. The California Polo Club will be on hand to offer lessons before and after the games, with prices starting at $225. Take it from me, it won’t be easy, but anyone who watches the professional matches should gain a new appreciation for the sport.

“Polo challenges you in so many ways,” Russell says. “You’ve got to have the hand-eye coordination to hit the ball and the strategy of where to place yourself in the game. And then you’re also controlling a 1,000-pound animal. The adrenaline rush never leaves you.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.