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Agriculture & Outdoors

Polo has deep roots in South Texas ranching

Polo has deep roots in South Texas ranching
A lineup of legends, Memo Gracida (ten goals), Tommy Wayman (ten goals), Lester “Red” Armour (nine goals), and Joe Barry (nine goals), enjoy the fanfare before a game at Retama. From 1979 to 1986, the U.S. Polo Association’s Open Championship tournament was held at Retama in San Antonio.

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Carmen Mero
WCN Correspondent
April 4, 2007
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Wilson County home to polo players

Any given Sunday evening in the spring or fall, a visitor to the Houston Polo Club can find a multitude of ladies in fancy hats and expensive clothes drinking from champagne flutes along manicured sidelines, but though the sport can wear the trappings of high society, the roots of Texas polo run much closer to cowboys and ranching.

The exact origins of polo are unknown, but there is evidence that an early form of the sport was played during the reign of Darius the Great in Persia in the early sixth century B.C.E. The game spread to Tibet, Turkey, China, and Japan and flourished in India from the early 16th to mid-18th centuries. English cavalry officers adopted the sport in India and by the 1870s, it was popular in England. Polo traveled to the United States from England and by 1890, the U. S. Polo Association (USPA) was formed as the governing body of the sport in America.

Polo grew along the East Coast of the United States and was an Olympic sport by the 1930s, and crowds in excess of 30,000 regularly attended international matches at the Meadow Brook Polo Club on Long Island. By this time, the sport had made its way to Texas, where it found a natural home among ranchers and cowboys. Yet, Easterners felt it too sophisticated a sport to be mastered by such rough players.

The East Coast “horsy” set received their comeuppance and Texas players earned international respect when Llano cowboy Cecil Smith led his team to victory in the 1937 U. S. Open Championship tournament held at Meadow Brook.

The USPA handicaps players with a rating from minus 2 to 10 goals, with 10 goals being the highest (and rarely granted) rating. After Smith’s debut at Meadow Brook, the USPA would tip its hat to a parade of South Texas cowboys who would earn ratings of 7 goals or higher, including Smith’s son, Charles. The Barry family would produce three players rated over 7 goals by 1948. Joe Barry would follow in his father’s footsteps, achieving a 9-goal rating by 1972. Ray Harrington Jr. started his career “cowboying” on Texas ranches and not only achieved an 8-goal rating, but became a legend as a horseman and polo player. The Armstrong Ranch produced Stewart Armstrong, who reached 7 goals in 1988. And almost 50 years after Cecil Smith ruled as the 10-goal king of polo cowboys, Texan Tommy Wayman assumed the 10-goal crown.

Polo truly came home to Texas in 1979, when the USPA granted permission to Steve Gose’s San Antonio polo club, Retama, to host the U. S. Open Championship. The open was held at Retama for eight consecutive years. This period reversed the trend of Texas players leaving the state with an influx of the world’s best professional players moving to the San Antonio area.

Sandy soil and plentiful grass made Wilson County attractive to some of these players. The son of a California veterinarian and 9-goal player, William “Corky” Linfoot achieved a 7-goal rating while playing at Retama. He lived in Sutherland Springs and his daughters attended school in Stockdale until the family followed polo back to California after Retama’s decline. The Azzaro family followed a similar path. Mike Azzaro achieved 10 goals and still resides near Sutherland Springs when he is not playing professional polo around the world. Mike’s father, Vince, lives with his wife, Kathleen, near Sutherland Springs. Vince has played polo and managed polo clubs across the United States.

The Retama polo club declined with financial difficulties in the late 1980s, leaving polo in South Texas in a stalemate for several years until Andrew Hobby built a polo field on his ranch near Lockhart. Hobby’s Spencewood Polo Ranch has reintroduced polo to the San Antonio and Austin areas and is home to many local players whose polo careers started at Retama under the tutelage of the great Texas cowboy polo players.

Spencewood has also drawn new polo players to the area. Jeff Mero is a California native and 3-goal professional polo player. Mero moved to Wilson County in 2005 and raises and trains polo ponies on his ranch between Stockdale and Nixon. Mero plays at Spencewood Polo Ranch and the Houston Polo Club.

Spencewood Polo Ranch hosts a spring and fall tournament season. The 2007 spring season will begin March 31. Admission is free and polo players take pride in introducing their sport to strangers.

For more information on the spring season at Spencewood, contact David Crae at 512-376-9555

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