Florida's polo country: "This is a fantasy world"

Polo's day has come. The one-time sport of bluebloods and idel army officers is not about to invade the inner city or to push Sunday football off the TV screen, but it's been given a shot of middle-class respectability with the emergence of a sprawling resort 15 miles west of Worth Avenue.

Palm Beach Polo and Country Club has plenty of golf, tennis, riding, even international croquet, but it is primarily a celebration of polo. There are nine polo fields, each 10 acres (or 10 football fields) in size stretching across the Florida veldt like a misplaced swath of colonial East Africa. Instead of sunbathers and golfers, you wake up to see polo players galloping past your window, practicing at what they call "sticking and balling."

From the opening of play in early January to a series of championships in late April (though the resort operates all year) you will find yourself mingling with some of the great names in the game -- Julian and Howard Hipwood, the English brothers, and the 10- goal Argentine idol, Gonzalo Tanoira. More to the point, you will meet ordinary, unranked players, examples of the slow democratization of polo such as Laura D'Allesandro and Dick Kates of New Jersey.

Players are rated worldwide on a scale of minus 2 to 10, and as Dick Kates said without a trace of irony or embarrassment as we watched a rainy Sunday game through the wide, arched windows of the Players Club lounge: "I'm a zero, Laura's a zero."

Of course the two have played only a short time, as has Bill Douglas, an artist and writer who has moved to Palm Beach in pursuit of the sport he adopted a few years ago in Charleston, S.C. Mr. Douglas, an old acquaintance whom I ran into quite by accident as he rested between chukkers (there are three to a half, six to a game), has a knack for discovering cities, resorts, sports ahead of the general public. "Just once I wish a visiting magazine writer would not get so hung up on the ambience and the accoutrements of polo," he said. "They can't resist counting the Rolls-Royces, the Gucci shoes, the spectators in the social register."

Clearly he wasn't including Ami Shinitzky in the generality. MR. Shinitzky is editor of a top US polo magazine and open admirer of Palm Beach polo. "This is a fantasy world," he said amid the buzz of apres-polo. "Only five years ago such an idea would have been farfetched. Polo was dormant in this country after World War II. Then for years the soul of the sport was at Oak Brook, Ill. -- after the Meadowbrook Club closed down on Long Island. At Oak Brook five years ago there were just three teams in the US Open. This year, when the equivalent of that championship is played here, there will be 20 teams."

The Chicago company that built Palm Beach Polo and Country Club in 1979 chose a fertile region, the well-established Royal Palm and Gulf Stream polo clubs being close by. "At first Royal Palm resented the intrusion, feeling its strength wouls be depleted," Mr. Shinitzky went on. "Well, the opposite has happened. There is now twice, even three times the polo activity in the area. There must be 1,000 polo ponies around here. And this club has become the international capital of winter polo."

There are polo lessons for beginners and games on weekends, but if the lovely tableau of eight men (and sometimes women) in high boots and short-sleeved shirts surging back and forth across a green lawn in pursuit of a white ball doesn't appeal, there is much else to do. The 250-odd condos are clustered around the polo fields and, two miles away, the Golf and Tennis Clubhouse.

Daily I presented myself to the young tennis pro with the improbable name: Harry Hery. Mr. Hery, a former John Gardiner Tennis Ranch operative, runs a handsome nine- court layout (there are also four courts near the polo fields) and gives a solid, no-nonsense lesson. Off the court he questioned the widely held notion at PBPCC that polo requires the highest of athletic prowess. He was taking riding lessons on his time off, he confided slyly, and preparing for his polo debut.

Across the road from the courts are two emerald croquet pitches. Croquet is another sport that appears to be widening in appeal. If you use international rules, forget about that happy, mindless game you once played in the backyard. Libby Newell and Vinnie Ross, croquet converts from Palm Beach, can be summoned for lessons. From them I learned, on a quiet Sunday morning round, that (1) a regulation mallet is a heavy three-pound instrument made of lignum vitae, the hardest of woods; (2) instead of knocking a ball through a series of hoops you spend more time trying to strike other balls; (3) croquet is that rare sport in which you often try to drive your own ball out of bounds.

It is clear wherever you go on the 1,650- acre polo ranch that the builders did not skimp on space. My one-bedroom flat ($90 a day until late April, $55 from then until Dec. 20) was so large I found myself hiking around the living room, in and out of the huge walk-in closet, and onto the terrace for exercise. Studios, $60 in high season, $45 otherwise are not warrens either. It was comforting to note that someone behind the scenes is attending to housekeeping details. I was surprised, in a condo operation, to see the maid arrive each evening to turn down the bed and leave a sweet.

I shouldn't imply that all social cachet has gone out of polo. In the Social Tent during the rained-on Sunday game, I heard a blazered gentleman ask his woman companion, "what did Bettina do with the dogs? Are they still in PAris?" Then their voices were drowned out by a country western group, Breakfast Barry and the Armadillos, assigned to a post-polo gig. I told you the game is changing.

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