It is a modern-day Seurat sprung from its canvas – a deep blue winter sky, a ten-acre expanse of manicured lawn, 60 families or more picnicking from tidy rows of cars lining either side on a Sunday afternoon.
Suddenly, horses and their uniformed riders gallop onto the field, jerseys numbered and emblazoned with team names known to all: Charley Replogle’s Ocean Grill; Michelob – Peter Busch’s team; Rocking K, for the Kahle family; and Shamrock, John Walsh’s team.
After two decades in Vero Beach, polo has become, if not plebian, a lot more accessible to players and spectators alike, thanks to a decidedly unstuffy crowd of old Vero friends working hard to ensure its survival.
Fears that the crown is slipping from the Sport of Kings have not materialized, though polo, long considered the domain of only the most affluent, has evolved into a family pastime here. Drawing a growing crowd of tailgating spectators lining up their lawn chairs and blankets, it has maintained its base of participants, even while the recession has prompted some players to hang up their mallets in larger polo communities like Wellington.
Thanks to a core group of a dozen well-known Vero families, who combine sense of community with addiction to the sport, polo here has thrived. An ever-evolving league has managed to endure the tough economic times by volunteering to do chores it formerly hired out, and has ensured continued interest by encouraging younger players.
Polo was ushered into Vero Beach in the late 1980s by no less than nobility: Charles, Prince of Wales. With great fanfare and an international press entourage, Prince Charles came to play at the invitation of avid polo fans Galen Weston and Geoffrey Kent, founders of Windsor, the north-island community as elegant as the sport it championed.
From its roots at Windsor, Vero Beach polo trotted west around 2000, to the similarly New Urbanist if considerably more affordable neighborhood of Pointe West, a mile or so beyond the city’s mall on state road 60.
Today, public matches are played on the field at The Polo Grounds, a development adjacent to and south of Pointe West, with larger homes surrounding what doubles – once the divots are stomped -- as a well-groomed park, set off by the crisp white fences of a handsome equestrian center and boarding stable at its western edge.
With several families now saddling up their third generation for play, a sense of small-town familiarity overlays the Old World tradition pervading the field where play takes place every Sunday at 2 – barring inclement weather.
There, during a season that starts in January and runs through Easter, the English-accented commentary of Dawn Garvey Redman often includes this assurance of action: After bullfighting and Formula One racing, polo, she claims, is the third most dangerous sport.
“It is not for the faint of heart,” says George Kahle, the senior statesman of Vero polo, pointing to various bones he has broken “here, and here, and here.”
“The Kahles have made a huge commitment to family polo,” says John Walsh, whose national celebrity as host of “America’s Most Wanted” falls away on the Vero field, where he becomes just one more polo fanatic. “They’ve done a tremendous job.”
“George and Sandy Kahle are part of a great group of people,” says Peter Busch, a member of the beer-brewing dynasty and father of Tiffany Busch, an up-and-coming player on the national scene. “That’s been one of the driving forces to keep me out there – these are all my friends. The other is the all the children. I truly hope this club stays with it.”
Kahle is so blinded by the love of the sport that he is able to watch unflinchingly as not only his son Dolf plays, but also his 15-year-old grandson, Devon.
On this particular afternoon, the striking blond boy who has suddenly shot up and filled out into a serious presence on his thoroughbred horse was charging down the field with the ball in play and suddenly came off his horse, falling on to the field. He promptly got back in the saddle, and with a deft turn or two and a well-guided swipe of the mallet, proceeded to score a goal seconds after his mishap. A cheer rose up from the crowd.
Devon Kahle lives on a curving barrier island street dripping with live oaks and leading to the ocean, where his great-great grandmother, Grace Hopwood, kept a family beach house.
(Her husband – Devon’s great-great grandfather – and Pointe West developer Tom Jones’s grandfather were partners in Calgon, the Pittsburgh-based water softener and bath products company.) Devon’s great-grandfather is Dan Richardson, beloved Vero philanthropist and former citrus man.
In a sense, Vero’s history in the dual rural pursuits of ranching and groves may be at the root of its unfussy embrace of polo today. Indeed, the land where the polo is played today was once planted in citrus trees; cattle still graze in adjacent pastures. Devon remembers “hanging on to my dad’s belt loops” when he first sat on his father’s saddle as a four-year-old boy.
Devon’s best friend on the field is Hayden Walsh, John’s son. Father and son have played polo internationally, including in Morocco and Ireland.
A love of horses follows both of Hayden’s blood lines; while he was taking part in a practice the weekend before, Hayden’s mom, Reve, was out leading a fox-hunt on the other side of the state. “Fox-hunting is more observational,” the 15-year-old St. Edward’s ninth-grader says. “Polo is more interactive.”
That, of course, is gross understatement.
If leaping over fences and ditches on horseback is “observational,” imagine a whole herd racing down a field together, stopping almost simultaneously, doing a U-ey, and hauling tail back the other way. Imagine everybody hanging on with just the thighs – nothing opposable or prehensile there -- and deliberately smashing into other riders.
That’s called the “bump.”
With one hand holding the reins, the other wields a goliath-sized bambooand- hardwood mallet. And they don’t keep it down low, where it isn’t going to hurt anybody. No, they hold it high in the air, or twirl it around in half-circles perpendicular to the ground. If they aren’t assailing a ball with it, they’re using it to “hook” another player – intertwining mallets to stop them from taking the ball.
That ball can suddenly fly up and bash someone in the face, someone who isn’t wearing a face mask, since it isn’t required. Someone like the host of a weekly TV show. someone young enough to still need to attract a mate. Or someone like Robert Lynkeechow, a trainer and umpire, who got nailed in the face in last week’s practice game, and had to be rushed to the doctor by George Kahle’s wife Sandy for 18 stitches just above the eye. He was just glad it hadn’t affected his vision.
Vision is why people don’t always wear masks – they are not required, though helmets have seen a significant design upgrade in the past few years. The game of polo has a lot to do with peripheral vision, watching the pony coming up on your flank, watching the ball arc in a different direction, when someone like Peter Busch, a seriously good player, swings his mallet back-to-front and knocks the ball off its line.
“Dad has a big back shot,” says Tiffany Busch, Peter’s daughter, the rising star in the Vero crop of offspring. She remarks on it with an irritated grin, the way another man’s daughter might be bothered by tight curfews – he’s always interfering with what she had in mind. Which is precisely what seems to make polo particularly addictive to intra- generational competition. These kids know, if they work hard, the day is nigh when they can wallop their pops – or moms -- in front of everyone, a defining moment for parents as well.
“When they introduce us and we ride down, and I hear them clap and whistle louder for Tiffany than they do me – that’s a lot of fun,” says Peter Busch. Tiffany, however, claims to have seen him glare when she has called out, “Dad! Check up!” which means, back off – she has the shot, and doesn’t need his help.
Peter Busch takes it in stride, in part because he has seen the competition between siblings, growing up with brothers who play even a hair better than he. The Busch family comes from a long line of horse lovers – his father, who was born in 1899, tended the Clydesdales that delivered the first kegs of beer at the grand opening of the famous brewery.
With his dad traveling to “almost all” his horse shows, Peter showed the family’s horses until the age of 21, when his son David was born – he, of “Dancing with the Vero Stars” fame. Peter and his wife Joan, his childhood sweetheart, moved the family to Vero Beach in 1984, when Peter created Southern Eagle Distributing in Fort Pierce.
It makes him proud that his daughter now does the very dirty work of caring for their stable of horses, across the street from their home southwest of town.
Tiffany frequently is called to substitute in matches in Wellington and Hobe Sound, where a higher-level polo is played. “She’s young, she’s aggressive and she’s a woman – and that’s what they’re looking for to get more Americans playing polo,” says Peter Busch. “She is one of the best one-goal women players in the U.S. at this point. Her name keeps popping up all over the place – California, Chicago, Missouri. It’s exciting to see her doing this pretty much on her own.”
Tiffany was always Peter Busch’s “horse girl,” he says. Of his six children, it was Tiffany who would join him no matter the weather when he saddled up for rides at his Montana ranch. “She would go on trails that nobody else would go on,” he says. “One thing led to another and she was doing a little show jumping and she kept asking, ‘Why don’t we get into polo?’"
A St. Ed’s graduate, Tiffany is taking an extended break from college, after losing nine of her teeth in a mishap her freshman year at Lynn University. The accident was polo-related only in the broadest sense: she fell out of her bunk bed, reaching for her alarm clock, which was getting her up early for a game.
“She spent the next year in a dentist’s chair,” says Peter Busch. “It sucked,” says Tiffany. “Gum lengthening, root canals. I play a dangerous sport, and what do I do? I fall out of bed.”
Sometimes it is mom, not pop, that the offspring wants to top. Sam and Annie Atwell, college-age brother and sister, long ago found out how to best their mom Debra, who learned to play after a lifetime loving horses while she lived at Windsor years ago.
“I came to Windsor for polo, and I left when polo left,” she says. Atwell today owns Ashwood Grove Farm, a polo-focused facility a mile or so east of The Polo Grounds. Along with boarding and leasing polo ponies, she is recruiting amateurs, particularly women, for classes to expand their ranks in local play.
“Seventy percent of the newcomers to polo in America are women,” she says. “Women come to the sport knowing how to ride really well, and the men typically don’t ride -- but they know how to handle a ball. Women don’t. That’s what I want to teach them.”
Charley Replogle, long-time owner of the Ocean Grill, shows up on the sidelines with his mother, Mary Ellen Replogle. He is sitting out the season after breaking his collarbone in the first 15 minutes of the first match of the season at another polo field in Hobe Sound. “My fifteen minutes of fame,” he calls it.
Charley learned to ride at his mother’s urging, when he was five years old; he remembers seeing his first polo match that year. When he moved to Vero, he paid for the upkeep of his first horse at age 12 by delivering papers for the then-weekly Vero Beach Press Journal. The next time he saw polo was when Prince Charles played at Windsor, 21 years ago.
He, George Kahle and Fort Pierce adventurer Elaine Harrison immediately signed on to learn to play; Replogle eventually taught his son Cole. For anyone who was here in that era, it is easy to see how a group of hometown horse-lovers could suddenly be star-struck by a sport.
The glamour that surrounded the opening of Windsor was palpable, not just in sleepy Vero but all over south Florida. Press descended on the town, along with 4,000 spectators. Windsor was featured in spreads for months to follow; both W magazine and Town and Country put Debra Atwell and her good-looking brood on their pages. Today, her son Sam plays on the Ocean Grill team, along with Smugglers’ Cove resident Edie Bradshaw, who taught daughters Rachel and Chloe to play.
Julia Ancey is another player going the distance. Four years ago, she was in middle school at St. Ed’s, learning polo with Kris Bowman, who gets the credit for teaching most of the Vero kids to play.
“When I moved here, Kris was doing a polo clinic. I was a terrible rider, so I learned to ride at the same time that I learned to play polo.”
Her second year of polo, her parents bought her a horse. But four years ago, they moved to New Jersey. Now the family commutes every weekend in season, staying in what is now their second home in John’s Island, while Julia continues her passion. Now a high school senior, she says: “My school lets me off on Fridays so I can come down.”
Julia plays with Amelia Strazzula, daughter of a local citrus family, on Peter Busch’s team, Michelob. Like Tiffany Busch, Julia loves the horse caretaking aspects of the sport. But mostly, she is there for the thrill. “I love the speed as you’re racing down the field, and the adrenaline rush every time you hit the ball. And I love the team aspect of the sport.”
So far she’s been lucky, she says. She has never been hurt playing polo. “But I did break my wrist playing soccer,” she adds.
“My number-one concern is safety,” says Peter Busch. “We talk a lot about different plays and when I see something going wrong, we come back after the chukker and talk about it.”
At 54, Busch has more or less hung up his mallet following a number of injuries. But he still believes strongly in supporting the equestrian life. Linda Proctor, wife of builder Don Proctor, hasn’t played since her second concussion two years ago.
“You have to be risk-tolerant,” says George Kahle. “It’s the closest thing in modern day to a mounted cavalry charge.”
Then again, these are not the sort of parents whose babies wear helmets in their strollers.
“Today, a lot of people won’t even pet a horse,” says Peter Busch. “But if you think about it, in my own father’s day, horses were everything. They are such a great part of our country’s history.”