Southern Respite

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The Chukkar Farm Polo Club serves up the ancient game in a stunning setting.– By Rod Evans | Photos by Nina SHields

 One characteristic that separates polo from other sports is the overriding spirit of congeniality that washes over you as soon as you step onto the polo grounds. Players from opposing teams who will soon be giving no quarter to each other on the field can be spotted sharing a laugh before the match. The spectators fall right in line with that welcoming spirit, even if they showed up to support opposing sides.There’s something about gathering in a beautiful setting to watch a graceful sport that seems to bring people together and foster a collective feeling of simply being happy to be there, and few polo clubs in the country better exemplify this spirit than the Chukkar Farm Polo Club.Located in Alpharetta, Ga., about 30 miles north of Atlanta, the club was established on some of the most luscious, pastoral 173 acres of land in the state. Surrounded by majestic oak trees and bounded by a 26-acre lake, the club’s natural beauty makes it not only an ideal location for polo, but it’s also become a popular site for concerts and parties of all varieties.

Learning to Ride 

Jack Cashin founded the polo club in 1989 to serve primarily as a teaching facility and that remains its mission today.

“If someone doesn’t know how to ride, we teach them,” Cashin says. “Once they learn how to ride, we teach them how to play polo. We show them how to play safely so they get to the point where they know what they’re doing and don’t do anything foolish. It’s a process.”

Cashin, who at 86 claims to be the oldest active polo player in the U.S., knows all about the process of learning the sport. After relocating to Georgia from Cleveland in 1973 while working in the restaurant business, he read an article about the Atlanta Polo Club and thought, “Now there’s a sport I haven’t tried.” He showed up at the club one afternoon and was told, “Get yourself a horse and join the club,” he recalls.

That was fine, except Jack, who played several sports while growing up, including football at his alma mater Colgate University, didn’t even know how to ride.

“They didn’t have any process for teaching riding or the game, so I kind of came into the sport backwards in that I bought a horse before I even knew how to ride,” he laughs. “I had a big, beautiful palomino quarter horse named Hennessey. I began playing in scrimmages and made every mistake in the book. Oh boy, it was not an easy intro, but I got the hang of it eventually and went on to become president of the Atlanta Polo Club.”

Cashin purchased the farmland for about $1,100 an acre and later embarked upon a path of trying to help others enjoy a much smoother path to proficiency in the saddle. But he says his eventual role as a polo teacher developed organically after the land that the original Atlanta Polo Club occupied was converted into park space near the Chattahoochee River.

“I decided to build a polo field on my farm to serve the displaced players from the polo club. We started playing polo and a group of people who were taking polo lessons from a lady they thought didn’t know the sport well enough asked me if I would train them. I hadn’t thought of doing that, but I said, ‘Sure.’ I started training them using a wooden horse and a hitting cage to teach the strokes and that’s how it started; with those five initial players,” Cashin says.

Largely by word of mouth, Chukkar Farm Polo Club club began attracting would-be polo players from around the area who were drawn to the beautiful surroundings and Cashin’s calm, patient demeanor. Today, the club boasts 40 polo ponies that roam free on the property and has an average yearly membership of about 22, but many more come for a few hours or a day or two to learn the sport and play. Matches are held year-round, with the outdoor season stretching from May through October. During the indoor season from November through April, matches take place in the indoor arena.

Playing the Game

Historians believe polo was first played more than 2,000 years ago in Persia, the area now known as Iran, and was originally used as a training game for military units. Initially, men and women played the game, but women would be largely denied participation in ensuing years. Records indicate Europeans first played the sport in the 1600s, with the first British-run polo club being founded in 1859 in colonial India. The sport enjoyed a boom period in the 1860s, and New York City became the hub of American polo, with the first matches on U.S. soil played around 1877. The Polo Association, which morphed into the United States Polo Association (USPA) was formed in 1890 to govern and promote the sport.

The USPA’s efforts were obviously successful, as the U.S. was considered the top polo playing country in the world for the first 50 years of the 20th century. Now, Argentina is generally considered the most avid polo nation, with many of the world’s top players, including the renowned St. Regis Connoisseur Nacho Figueras, calling the country home.

The four players per side swing mallets in an attempt to advance the small, white ball past a pair of goal posts set eight yards apart on a field that measures 300 yards by 60 yards. Polo “ponies” are in reality thoroughbreds or thoroughbred crosses, generally mares, which possess tremendous speed and stamina, with players often riding three different ponies during a match. The matches are divided into six periods of play, called chukkers, each lasting seven minutes.

Player skill level is rated by his or her “goal” ranking, also called a handicap. The USPA issues goal ranks ranging from -2 to 10. A 10 ranking is extremely rare, with only a handful of players worldwide ever achieving that distinction. Polo matches are also rated by goals, a designation derived from the goal-ranking total of all of the players on the field. A “high goal” match is considered one in which elite players are involved.

The players’ uniform numbers are not chosen at random or because it’s the player’s lucky number. Each number denotes the specific position of the player. Those wearing numbers one and two occupy offensive roles; while number three is worn by the team leader, who serves as the pivot between offense and defense. The number four is worn by the team’s defensive ace.

A Perfect Match

Chukkar Farm Polo Club’s proximity to The St. Regis Atlanta provides an opportunity for people staying at the resort to take advantage of a special perk.

“We offer a program where a couple interested in learning polo can be transported by a limousine up to the farm, and we teach them how to play by putting them in the hitting cage to learn the strokes,” Cashin says. “Then, we have them get on a wooden horse to try out the strokes. Once they get the swing of the swings, I guess you could say, we take them into our 105-by-210-foot arena and put them on a couple of our dead broke horses (mounts that don’t spook easily), where they can simulate what they’ve learned. Then we provide transportation for them back to the St. Regis. The next day, they come out here again to watch a polo match. That way, they understand what they’re seeing a little better.”

The pairing of polo and the St. Regis is a natural fit owing to the resort’s longstanding promotion of the sport, which dates back to the early 20th century when John Jacob Astor IV, founder of  The St. Regis New York, was the catalyst behind frequent polo matches held on Governors Island in Manhattan. After he founded the flagship hotel in 1904, Astor continued to forge a lasting link between polo and his new luxury hotel that would grow stronger even after his death aboard the Titanic in 1912.

The St. Regis sponsors or supports several international caliber polo events each year, including the Fifth Annual St. Regis Cup, held in May at Cowdray Park Polo Club in Midhurst, England. During the tournament, the team from England defeated the U.S. squad in the championship match.

In March of this year, the St. Regis Hotels & Resorts team, captained by Figueras, fell in the final round match in the Sentebale Royal Salute Polo Cup, held in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Sentebale team included Britain’s Prince Harry, a respected polo player who was making his first visit to Brazil. Proceeds benefited the nonprofit HIV/AIDS organization Sentebale, founded by the prince and Prince Seeiso of the Royal Family of the Kingdom of Lesotho, located in southern Africa. Health officials say the area has the third highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in the world.

Charity on the Farm

While Chukkar Farm does not host any major “high goal” matches, choosing to focus its energy on building its reputation as a place where people learn the sport, charity plays a huge role in its mission. For more than 25 years, the club’s Chukkars for Charity program has helped nonprofit groups raise money. The program allows the organizations to invite guests to the farm for a day of polo, with the proceeds benefiting the nonprofit’s cause. Among the nonprofits who have sponsored the Sunday afternoon matches are Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and the American Parkinson Disease Association.

Cashin says horse owners frequently donate mounts that can no longer play high goal polo to the farm, which has earned a reputation as “horse heaven” thanks to its humane care practices that include letting horses roam free and never putting them in stalls unless they are sick or injured.

Even though Chukkar Farm does not usually play host to many world-class players, top-level players do play on the farm from time to time. When they do, Cashin says, they are asked to rein in their skills a bit.

“Some of those players are so good and can hit the ball a mile, so we ask them to make sure they hit it to the newcomers to help them learn,” he says.

Cashin, married to wife Helen for 64 years, says three of his six children live on or near the farm. He was offered more than $100,000 per acre to sell the land a few years ago, but never considered taking the deal.

“People said I should have taken the money and ran,” Cashin says. “But where was I going to run to? I’ve already found the place I love.”