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Polo lives on in Old Westbury

Meadowbrook Polo Club's manager Esteban Scott practices on

Meadowbrook Polo Club's manager Esteban Scott practices on one of his horses. (May 13, 2011) Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

In the heyday of American polo during the early 20th century, Nassau County was its undisputed epicenter.

The sport claimed as many as 30 polo grounds -- each the size of nine football fields -- spread among lavish estates and vast open space. Upward of 30,000 people traveled by train from New York City for weekend matches featuring players almost as well known as Babe Ruth.

"People probably can't believe it today, but polo games, then, were like baseball or college football games," said Dennis Amato, a Port Washington polo historian.

A century later, one of the last remnants of that era operates out of a barn in Old Westbury near one of the few remaining playing fields. Meadowbrook Polo Club, the oldest in the United States, began its 130th season last weekend.

Though it has found a niche among dedicated amateurs and a few traveling pros, the sport's exposure is limited, the club's manager acknowledged.

"A lot of people don't even know we're here," said Esteban Scott, a professional polo player from Argentina in his second year managing the club. "But this is something that is accessible."

Most of the club's matches are free to spectators, with few barriers between them and the action. The players mingle with the crowd during frequent switches of their "polo ponies," mostly thoroughbred horses.

"In baseball, it's pretty hard to chat up the pitcher," Scott said as a point of comparison.

This season, tournaments are scheduled through Oct. 2. They include fundraising events supporting causes ranging from Ronald McDonald House to SUNY Old Westbury.

This is the 10th year of polo fundraisers for the college, with more than $200,000 taken in for scholarships and preservation efforts including the historical Clark Family Stable on campus, officials said.

"It gives us a closer relationship to the community," said Old Westbury President Calvin Butts. "We're raising funds, and friends."

All events are held at the U.S. Polo Association's Whitney Fields in Old Westbury. For the past 15 years, Meadowbrook had also used Bethpage State Park, but this year yielded the space to a new club, Polo at the Park.

Meadowbrook player Julie Rinaldini of Old Westbury hopes the sport can experience a local resurgence in interest.

"It makes you feel alive," she said of playing polo. "But it's also expensive."

The costs come from the space and resources it takes to care for multiple horses -- as a player's skill increases, so does the need for more horses.

While money and exclusivity remain a part of polo's mystique, for spectators it can also represent a simple day at the park.

"I just wish it were the way it was back then," Rinaldini said, of the crowds that once watched polo. "Now, we're just keeping it alive."

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