Monson: Hockey on horseback, the sport of kings
South Jordan » The first clue that Saturday's sporting event would be a tad different came with the red carpet laid across the grass leading to the field.
The second was the large tent at the end of the strip of carpet, the one in which caterers were handing out chilled bottles of Freixenet and wide plates of ham, shrimp and salmon to gentlemen wearing blue blazers and beaver-pelt Stetsons and ladies in Gucci sunglasses and hats with brims bigger than a deli counter.
The third was the portable johns.
You can tell a lot about a sport by its outdoor comfort facilities.
These had bouquets of flowers in vases, artwork on the wall, and breath mints in a basket next to the sink. A sweeter-smelling john, you have never taken a deep breath in. They were brought there by a company called Royal Restrooms, which, I figured, should be renamed Royal Flushes.
Welcome, then, to the world of polo, a world that hadn't been associated with the University of Utah for 60-plus years -- until Saturday at the South Jordan Equestrian Park. Associated with is a loose enough term to include inviting in guest players and professionals to play a match as a fund-raiser for the university's College of Pharmacy, which is putting up a new research building and in need of cash. Three-hundred-and-fifty tickets were sold for the brunch alongside the field at $100 a head, not to mention whatever other donations might have streamed in via the chance to take in the rough horseplay.
Scoff all you want at the Sport of Kings, but it ain't all glitz and glamour. Nobody who was mounted up asked if anybody else happened to have any Grey Poupon. It's hockey on horseback. As the announcer at the event almost proudly said into his microphone: Polo is the second most dangerous sport, in terms of annual deaths, in the world.
If you have no clue what polo is, other than a logo on a designer shirt, it is a sport that is thousands of years old, getting hauled back to England from India a couple of centuries ago, facilitating its growth among the wealthy in the West.
It is divided into "chukkars," or seven-minute periods, in which four competitors on horseback on each team attempt to whack a small ball with a long mallet into a goal at opposite ends of a 300-yard field. Sometimes the ball gets clubbed, sometimes players get clubbed, sometimes the ponies get clubbed, and sometimes the horses collide, leaving riders in a heap squarely under hoof.
Only one rider -- Jennifer Luttrell -- fell to the turf on Saturday, "bruising my ego," she said, "more than anything else."
Luttrell was part of the winning team, the Dean's Demons, who thrashed a team called Miller's 4Runners, by the count of 15-11 in six chukkars.
"Playing polo takes good hand-eye coordination," Luttrell said. "And you've got to be able to ride. You're asking the ponies to stop, turn, run in just a second or two."
Think of hammering a rolling golf ball with a long-shafted wedge while steering and bouncing around in a cart over a bumpy fairway, with other carts wielding wedges all around.
Still, the horse is the thing. Polo purists confess that success in the sport depends, to the tune of 85 percent, on the animals beneath them. They switch out ponies after every chukkar.
Because of that, on Saturday, an MVP award was given not only to a player, Luis Saracco, of Argentina, also part of the winning team, but to Ardea, the game's most valuable pony. Her reward: a pat on the face and a warm, soft blanket on her back.
And for those of you hard-nosed, stiff-necked, and blue-collared American sports fans, those who think this whole endeavor is a bunch of foof and fluff, there's another bonus to polo and its traditions. At the half, spectators are invited out on the field to stomp down the divots kicked up by the mallets and horses, and the best part for all the Joe and Jill Sixpacks? They are allowed a glass of liquor to take with them to grease the skids, as it were. Can anyone imagine that going on at an NFL game?
Those who knocked a few back and those who didn't had a terrific time on Saturday, watching a sports event unlike any other they had seen in Utah, relieving themselves in sweet-smelling comfort, and loading up the coffers for a great cause along the way.