Long Island polo enthusiast Robert Ceparano is a man on a mission: To make what he calls “the sport of kings” more appealing to commoners.
His challenge? Making the game more affordable.
The mounted team sport, which has deep roots on the Island — the first polo match played here was in 1879 — can cost people who play at mid- to highly competitive levels $100,000 or more for a four-month season, lasting from June to October.
Club memberships can cost $13,000 a year. And polo ponies start at $10,000 to buy, plus boarding, which can cost more than $9,000 a year per horse.
It’s the high cost of playing polo, a sport often described as a mix between croquet and soccer on horseback, that has limited its popularity, industry insiders said.
Polo aficionados on Long Island want to change that.
Ceparano, 64, of Medford, manages one of the oldest polo clubs in the country — the Meadowbrook Polo Club, in Old Westbury, established in 1890 — and owns Country Farms Polo & Equestrian Center, a horse riding and polo school in Medford. He and other Long Islanders in the polo business, including Frank McNamara and Ted Oslager, president and manager, respectively, of The Southampton Polo Club in Water Mill, aim to broaden the scope of the sport.
“Polo is an incredibly exciting game. The rush you feel as you’re blazing down the field on a 1,000-pound horse, racing at about 35 to 40 miles per hour, with your heart pumping and your adrenaline going, there’s nothing like it,” Ceparano said.
“Plus, the sport teaches you discipline, responsibility, commitment. There’s camaraderie. The people you meet through polo can become your friends for the rest of your life. I don’t think all of that should be limited to a small group of people.”
Though polo largely remains a niche sport, the number of registered players in the United States is climbing. Player membership in the United States Polo Association, the sport’s Wellington, Florida, governing body in America, grew from 4,988 to 5,400 in the last four years, a spokesman said.
The fast-paced sport is played on horseback by two teams of four players each, typically on a grass field the size of nine football fields. Players score goals by using a wooden mallet to hit a small white ball between two goalposts 8 yards apart. Teams are frequently coed.
The game is divided into 7 1/2-minute time periods, called chukkers. Each game consists of six chukkers.
Polo experts advise that a horse’s play time be limited to half a chukker, though the rules allow a horse to be ridden for an entire chukker before the player is required to switch horses. So at least six horses are needed per player in a full game, and 12 horses are preferred.
“Back in the day, if you didn’t own a horse, or several horses for that matter, you couldn’t play,” Ceparano said.
Polo for the public
To make the sport more accessible to people lacking king-size budgets, Ceparano and others have created initiatives such as a “work-to-play” program, internships, package deals for lessons and horse leases.
At Ceparano’s riding school, students and players who don’t own horses can lease them for $75 to $125 a chukker.
Work-to-play students can pay even less.
Christen Crowley, 16, of Baiting Hollow, has been playing polo through Country Farms’ work-to-play program for two years.
She attends practice two to three times a week. Crowley and several other young students are responsible for cleaning stalls, saddling, bathing and grooming horses, and readying them for adult players and for themselves.
“And then, we remove their saddles, make sure the horses are OK for the night and put them back in their stables. The work is hard, but it’s so much fun. We all work together and all of us love playing polo so much. The game is so exciting, which definitely makes it all worth it.”
In return, Crowley’s parents pay a discounted rate of $50 a chukker. Ceparano said other students, who exercise horses during the week after school, pay nothing at all.
At the Southampton Polo Club in Water Mill, people interested in learning to play polo can opt for a $2,000 package deal that includes 10 hourlong lessons. An intro-to-polo lesson costs $300.
All lessons are taught by professionals such as Argentine polo pro Ignacio Cabrera, who for the past 10 years has given lessons at the school full time during the summer months.
The club also offers internships to young American players.
Students, who are usually in their teens, do not have to pay club membership fees, are eligible to play for hire alongside pros, and for trips to play in polo’s mecca, Palm Beach, Florida, with room and board included, McNamara, 78, said.
“Polo is a cyclical thing,” said Oslager, 71, who has been the manager of the Southampton Polo Club for 25 years.
“Interest in the sport rises and decreases and then rises again. But of course, those of us who love it, like Bobby [Ceparano], and Frank [McNamara], do the very best we can to attract more people to it. We want the sport to live on.”
Others around the country are also trying to boost polo’s ranks.
Marcos Lopez, 35, president of insurance brokerage firm Rabine Insurance Group in Chicago, organized Chicago’s first “Beach Polo” game series in 2008, and partnered with several nonprofit organizations to promote a string of other polo sporting events in the area.
“There are two main problems with polo. One is the barrier to entry, people start hearing all these scary numbers and quickly jump to the conclusion that it’s not for them,” he said. “And the other is visibility. You need to really put polo in front of people, where they can see it, realize that it exists and get bit by the polo bug.”
Lopez said the fight to make polo more popular “is an uphill battle” but he’s found that “if a person plays polo once, they play polo forever.”
Marc Ganis, founder and president of Chicago-based sports business consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd. says though he applauds efforts by Ceparano and others, similar initiatives to bring polo to the masses in the past have had limited success.
“Polo has traditionally belonged to the leisure class, and the truth is that in America we don’t really have a large leisure class,” he said.
“The sport has been limited to a certain class of wealth, and not just because of the money required to own horses to play, but also because of the high-class social atmosphere that surrounds the game. For many people polo is much more than a sport. It’s the designer clothes, the fancy finger food, the champagne, luxury cars. It’s a whole lifestyle.”
Hooked for life
Ceparano first fell in love with polo almost 30 years ago after his father-in-law suggested he take a lesson. Polo players on Long Island often echo his sentiment that after playing just one game, he was hooked “for life.”
Just a couple of years ago, Adam Lipson, 45, a neurosurgeon who lives and works in Manhattan, had never ridden a horse. Now he has an established polo team, sponsored by his medical practice IGEA Brain and Spine, and owns 10 horses, some of which are stabled at Ceparano’s Country Farms.
He was first exposed to polo by his wife, Alexis, a lifetime horse rider, he said. When Lipson turned 40, the couple took a trip to Argentina, where polo is extremely popular. He played the sport for the first time and “became addicted.”
“I came back home and bought my first polo horse for $15,000,” he said.
“I was going to bed and dreaming about polo, waking up and watching polo videos on YouTube to help me improve my playing technique, rearranging my work schedule so I could run over to the polo field and ride. It’s an absolute passion.”
On Lipson’s team, which plays polo under rules for low- to medium-level competition, there are two professionals and two amateurs.
Lipson is one of the amateurs. He has a barter agreement with one of the professionals and pays the other to play.
“When you hire a pro to play on your team, they play hard for you,” said Lipson. “And if they get injured, it’s their livelihood on the line.”
Fee negotiations in polo, where there are no fixed rates, depend heavily on the relationship between the professional player and the “patron.” But Lipson said he has paid players $1,000 to $5,500 per game and knows rates can scale higher.
“It can seem daunting, but can you imagine playing basketball and having LeBron James on the court with you?” he said. “That opportunity is even more daunting than the price.”
Emma Joinnides, 20, of Islip, whose mom used to be a riding instructor, has been playing polo since she was 8 years old. Of the game, she said: “This is my life.”
Joinnides has forgone college and is pursuing a career as a professional polo player. For now, her grandfather covers her expenses during the summer season on Long Island, which run to nearly $100,000.
“It can definitely be expensive if you want to compete at a high level,” she said. “For now, my grandfather has been kind enough to pay any polo-related costs for me, but eventually I have to get a sponsor.”
When the polo season ends on Long Island in October, Joinnides will travel to Argentina to play competitively in the winter months.
“Emma is assertive and aggressive on the field; she holds her own alongside the men,” her grandfather, Arthur Joinnides, said. “If she falls off the horse, she gets right back on it and then goes on to score a goal. It’s exhilarating to watch.”
Polo at the Park
Ceparano is also trying to boost polo as a spectator sport. Since 2012, “Bethpage Polo at the Park,” at Bethpage State Park, an annual series he organized, has drawn growing numbers of spectators.
General admission tickets to watch a match from the bleachers cost $10. VIP tickets, costing $100, allow spectators to watch from a tent with free-flowing champagne, unlimited cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. That’s where the crowd looks like an outtake from the polo scene in the movie “Pretty Woman”: Lots of big, flowery hats, crisp slacks and, yes, Polo button-down shirts.
Private cabanas go as high as $750.
Revenue for the event has grown from $8,000 in its first year to about $30,000 in 2017.
“I just want to share my passion with as many people as possible,” Ceparano said. “To me, that has no price.”
CORRECTION: Gretchen Persan has played polo for about two years. An earlier version of this story misspelled her name in a photo caption and a video.