Equestrian sport is all about fast moves and enthusiastic fans
“Keep your head on a swivel!” was the succinct advice offered by the arena announcer to the enthusiastic crowd gathered at Tryon International Equestrian Center the first Saturday night in August. They had packed the stands — and waited out a rain delay — for the third annual Gladiator Polo Battle of the Carolinas. Team Greenville was defending South Carolina’s 2018 championship as 2017 champ Team Charlotte fought to snatch it back for North Carolina. In the end, Team Greenville edged out Team Charlotte, 9-8.
Gladiator Polo was created in 2017 by Mark Bellissimo, Managing Partner of Tryon Equestrian Partners and Wellington Equestrian Partners in Palm Beach. “There has always been the perception that polo is a game that is more social gathering than spectator sport — that the crowd is more interested in who is there and what they’re wearing than what is happening on the field,” says polo player and Gladiator Polo Competition Manager Gates Gridley. “Gladiator Polo was created to bring it to a larger audience and grow this sport we are all so passionate about.”
To get bigger, Bellissimo went smaller. His concept shrunk the field from the spacious outdoor expanse of 900’ long and 450’ wide to an enclosed arena 310’ long and 250’ wide. Team rosters went from four players per side to three. “Polo is a very fast sport with horses going full speed,” Gridley explains. “Within a smaller arena, you don’t want to see bumper cars, you want to see Formula 1 racing.”
The length of the games was also decreased from six 7.5-minute chukkers —polo for period — to six 5-minute chukkers, with less time between goals and fewer action-stopping fouls. Spectators sit in grandstands to watch the play from above, rather than at field level. This allows them to keep their swiveling gaze on the horses, which hurtle back and forth as fast as 35 mph, mounted by players whacking their mallets at a speeding ball.
Patrick Uretz, in the #3 position for Team Charlotte, has been on a horse since infancy and is a two-time National Intercollegiate Champion for Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He first played Gladiator Polo in Tryon in 2017 and was hooked. Uretz calls it “a fun, fast-paced game” and notes that “[since] spectators are closer to it, they give us a lot of energy. In field polo, you don’t really hear the crowd. In arena polo, the crowd is loud and really pumps you up.”
True to its name, the sport is more extreme than its traditional counterpart. “Physically, Gladiator [Polo] is pretty tough,” says Uretz, who got his eye socket broken with a mallet a few years ago. “It’s quick and fast. In field polo, after every goal you go back to the center and there’s a throw-in — you throw the ball in. In Gladiator, there’s no room to take a break.”
Matt Coppola has been playing polo professionally since he was 15 years old, and made his Gladiator debut wearing #1 for Team Greenville in Tryon. “I am stoked,” he said before the game. “There’s some pressure to defend the title, but I kind of thrive on pressure so I’m excited for the challenge of it.” Coppola travels year round, and will go to Argentina to play outdoor polo from October to December.
While Team Greenville’s Felipe Viana was named MVP of the game, it’s the equine athletes that are the true MVPs: Most Valuable Ponies. “The horse is definitely the better athlete,” laughs Uretz. “You can have great hand-eye coordination and great field awareness, but you’ve got to have the horse to get you there.”
For more information about the sport, see gladiatorpolo.com and tryon.com.