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The Sport of Kings, Costa Rica Division
July 1, 2006 -- Not far from an iconic Jorge Jiménez Deredia sculpture that marks the entrance to Peninsula Papagayo resort in Northwest Costa Rica is an unmarked turnoff for a long and rutted dirt road. Barely wide enough to accommodate an SUV or a pickup truck, the pokey path doesn't appear to lead anywhere in particular.
But a few dusty miles down the road and a quick left back toward the Pacific Ocean and it all begins to change. An unassuming little sign welcomes you to "Ellerstina Costa Rica." Then you suddenly find yourself in a spectacularly proportioned natural amphitheater.
A series of perfectly manicured green fields stretches to a strand of sugary white beach and the dazzling blue sea beyond. A palapa, thatched in the local Guanacaste style and outfitted with white-cushioned sofas and chairs, overlooks the fields and the ocean. Luxurious seating, crafted from stacked stones and polished wood, radiates from the palapa. An elegant bulding, shaped like a horseshoe and crafted from warm brown bricks, shingles and timbers, stands nearby.
The serenity is seductive. The harmonious way in which man and nature have created beauty together is soothing. The vistas are restful. When the sun shines and the ocean zephyrs billow, there isn't a more peaceful place on earth.
Rut it's all chimera. This idyllic setting just down the coast from Peninsula Papagayo is actually the newest home of the just-barely-controlled chaos known as polo, one of the oldest and now fastest-growing sports in the world.
The three green fields are home to thundering ponies unleashed eight at a time in impossibly close quarters by two teams of daredevil riders who wield powerful mallets and strike hard balls with a brutal THWACK! The palapa and stadium-style seating below are filled with friends, families and fans who lustily cheer on the horses and the athletes. The horseshoe-shaped building is a stable that frenetically prepares the dozens of horses that the players will use during a single match.
"It's a sport with a lot of contact and a lot of adrenaline," says Ronald Zurcher, the polo player and horseman who oversees the architecture at Ellerstina and designed many of the structures at Peninsula Papagayo. "Polo attracts a very sophisticated audience, but it is anything but serene. The action is very fast. The calm surroundings are just a backdrop for movement."
The contradiction of Ellerstina Costa Rica goes far beyond bucolic surroundings and frenzied activity. Everything about the 2,700-acre operation is a wondrous contradiction. It is bringing a 2,500-year-old game to a new-from-the-ground-up venue. It is bringing a sport with a storied history to a country that has no polo tradition at all. It is bringing the international jet set that adores polo to a corner of the world that they have never before frequented. It is bringing championship play to a sport whose other top venues--Argentina, England, Palm Beach--are the product of generations of upper-crust cultivation.
Most audacious of all, Ellerstina Costa Rica is turning the sport of kings into a year-round lifestyle that will eventually include ranches, an equestrian center, a hotel, a spa, coastal residences and a beach club.
With four kilometers of pristine coastline on Costa Rica's North Pacific shore, Ellerstina will be an unprecedented opportunity to build a private club community to celebrate the passion and prestige of world-class polo. The purpose-built facilities are unique in the tightly knit world of championship polo and they carry the executive design and imprimatur of Gonzalo Pieres, the Argentinean legend whose Ellerstina Polo Club rules the sport.
"If Gonzalo had said, let's play polo in China, the polo community would be playing in China," says an admiring Zurcher. "But Gonzalo realized what we have here and he's the reason why Ellerstina Costa Rica exists. He's brought a lot of professional players here."
A former championship polo player whose sons now play for his top-rated Ellerstina Costa Rica team, Pieres is equally effusive about the appeal of this slice of paradise. "Costa Rica is perfect for polo," he says. "The weather allows us to play around eight months a year. And it is a safe country with beautiful beaches and an outstanding future in tourism."
To understand why Ellerstina Costa Rica is shaping up to be a polo pony of an entirely different color, it's important to go back to the beginning. And the beginning could be on the Iranian plateau around 600 B.C. That's when the earliest recorded polo match pitted Persians against Turkomans. (For the record, the Turkomans won.) From that moment, polo became the favored sport of the ruling classes, especially in Asia, and royals from China to Egypt doted on the game. A polo stick even appears on the coat of arms of Chinese emperors. Indian princes loved the game--some used elephants instead of ponies--and the game has always been the favored sport of the moneyed classes on the subcontinent.
Polo came west via Manipur in the northeast of India in the middle of the 19th century. British officials wrote accounts of the game, which were read back in England by elite military units. By 1874, the game was established in the United Kingdom and polo's first Western set of formal rules was created. European nobility quickly picked up the sport as part of their affection for everything equestrian. Polo crossed the Atlantic at about the same time, where it was adopted by America's burgeoning upper classes, who never missed an opportunity to do as the European royals did. Harry Payne Whitney, scion of the powerful Whitney clan and an avid sportsman, helped modernize the game.
The appeal of polo to the wealthy and discerning has always been obvious: You had to be wealthy to play the game because of the high costs involved. You needed refined riding skills and enough money to afford a stable of fine horses. (Players require as many as eight specially bred ponies to compete in a single match.) Money fuels all the other aspects of the game too. The fields are huge (300 yards long and as much as 200 yards wide), maintenance is costly as are all of the other accoutrements of the equestrian pursuit. And you need lots of free time to work on your game and move yourself, your entourage and your horses around the world to compete on the circuit.
Ever since Argentina won the first Olympic gold medal in polo in 1924, Argentineans have dominated the sport. Argentine teams have been the world champions for more than 50 years. Argentina produces the best ponies, a special breed coveted by the top players. Argentina also produces almost all of the sport's best players (called ten-goalers), many of whom, like Pieres and his children, come from a long line of polo champions. Three of the sport's most important events, including the premier competition, the Argentina Polo Open, are contested in Argentina.
Recent years have brought a worldwide upsurge in the sport's popularity. The best players travel an exclusive circuit from Argentina to Europe to the United States to compete as teams. But in a unique twist, polo is a sport where wealthy amateurs can put together their own teams and play with and against the game's greatest players. These enthusiasts, called patrons, have fueled a boom in the sport that has brought tens of thousands of new fans to polo, all of them attracted by the game's seamless merging of man and horse, speed and beauty.
The somewhat nomadic nature of polo created the opportunity to create Ellerstina Costa Rica. The polo community--the fans, the players, the patrons--spends October, November and December in Argentina. February, March and April are Palm Beach's turn to be the center of the polo world. Spring and summer are when the entire polo tribe decamps for Europe, Connecticut and The Hamptons on Long Island in New York.
"January is open," says Zurcher, the architect. "The climate is not great in the best polo places. And polo people miss their polo in January. But Costa Rica has the perfect weather in January. It's ideal for polo."
And Zurcher had the ideal spot in mind. The Hacienda Santo Tomas was a well-known spot that farmers used to rest cattle that were being brought from north Central America to Costa Rica. And it had a 300-hectare oceanfront amphitheater that Zurcher knew could be transformed into a polo-playing paradise.
He approached Pieres, whose Ellerstina operation in Argentina is the stuff from which generations of polo legends are made. A former great player himself, he owned Ellerstina, one of Argentina's leading teams. His two sons, Gonzalo Jr. and Facundo, were both ten-goalers on the squad. And Ellerstina also breeds the best ponies thanks to Pieres's relentless pursuit of polo excellence.
Pieres immediately recognized the potential of Santo Tomas and agreed to rename his team and the development Ellerstina Costa Rica. With Zurcher as the designer of the master plan and Pieres designing the polo facilities, Ellerstina quickly took shape. Also involved with the project: Alejandro Battros, the world's most respected polo-field consultant.
"The polo facilities are optimum," explains Pieres. "They can be compared with any of the top polo places in the world because we started totally from zero and everything has been done with lots of judgment."
Over the course of just a few years, two stunning polo fields have been constructed, all with spectacular ocean views. An elaborate stable with the capacity to sleep 24 horses was designed by Zurcher using indigenous materials like cana brava and native stone. The boxes face a green oval planted with Royal Palms to provide a refreshing atmosphere. On each side of the stables are two casually elegant rooms. One is for the players to keep their polo equipment and to dress for matches. The other is a "living room" where players can relax after matches.
Ellerstina Costa Rica hosted its first tournament in June, 2004. Pieres imported the first 48 ponies from his farm in Argentina the next month. Twenty more arrived in December, 2005. Zurcher himself donated 16 more. And Ellerstina hosted its first January season in 2006. Three of the tournaments were 20-goal events, which means the total of the four players' rating on a team equals 20. There are few higher-rated tournaments anywhere in the world.
With the first polo season successfully completed, Ellerstina Costa Rica is beginning to focus on the other portions of the master plan. In years to come, there will be 50 kilometers of riding trails, a working cattle ranch, an oceanside polo and beach club, a hotel, residences and world-class stables and equestrian facilities.
"We want to be something totally different than anything else in Central America," explains Zurcher. "We're going to attract a very sophisticated audience. I know there are going to be people who will want their own polo field. And we'll be able to do it for them."
A POLO PRIMER
Polo is one of the most complex and complicated games in the world. The strategies, tactics and maneuvers of the teams and players on the field are often inexplicable to the casual observer.
But the game itself--the field, the teams the equipment and objectives--is relatively easy to grasp. It's not exactly "hockey on horseback," the shorthand used by many sports wags, but a novice Viewer can watch and enjoy the game from the very first moment.
The playing field is 300 yards long and either 160 or 200 yards wide. There is a 10-foot-high goal on either end of the field. Unlike soccer or hockey the goal is not guarded.
The aim of the game is simple: score the most goals by hitting the ball through the goal.
Each team has four players. Due to the extreme demands on the polo pony, each player changes horses at the end of each time period. That means a player uses as many as eight horses during a single match. Professional polo players usually travel with their own ponies; polo experts suggest that the ponies contribute 90 percent of the skills.
The players are ranked by the goals they score. A "ten-goal" player is the highest ranking. Each team also designates a captain, the sole player permitted to discuss ruling with a game's umpires. The team itself is ranked by the total goal ranking of its four starting players.
The ball used in polo is about the size of a tennis ball, about 3 or 3.5 inches in diameter. It is made of hard, solid plastic and weighs about four ounces. (Polo balls were once made of wood.) Each player has a mallet, a flexible stick with a "head" that looks like a hammer. The mallet itself is usually 49 to 54 inches in length and the head is between 8 and 10 inches wide. The mallet shaft is usually crafted from a special bamboo. The head 1s usually made of wood.
A polo match lasts about 90 minutes. It is divided into periods called "chukkas." Each chukka is 7 minutes long. Depending on the rules and the tournament, there are three or four chukkas per half. Two mounted umpires and a referee at midfield monitor the game and assess fouls for infractions of the rules.
Polo has two unique features. During halftime of a polo match, spectators go onto the playing field to participate in a ritual called "divot stomping." The goal is to replace and repair the divots created by the horses hooves during the first half.
Another tradition unique to polo: the "pro am" nature of many tournaments. A patron, who is usually an accomplished amateur, can assemble a team of polo professionals for a specific tournament. The patron plays with the team. Tournaments of this nature are handicapped based on the combined goal-rating of each player.
A 2017 update: Peninsula Papagayo has expanded to encompass two resorts: a Four Seasons and an Andaz by Hyatt. The partnership with Ellerstina has ended, however. The polo facilities are now called the Santo Tomas Polo Club.
This column is Copyright © 2006-2017 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.