Horse Around at Newport Polo
Whether it’s players on ponies galloping to a goal or spectators showing off their designer duds, nothing’s more of a scene than summer polo.
Horse trainer, polo player and instructor, life of the party
Carlos Maldonado, forty-seven, grew up on a farm in Mexico, one of sixteen siblings. For a while, his family lived under a tree. At the age of six, he was sent up into the hills to herd goats; he’d stay out there all alone for a week or two at a time. Maldonado got his first pair of shoes at twelve. And although his incredible tale might sound fit for the silver screen, it’s a reality that has shaped him into the hardworking man he is today.
“I’ve been riding, roping and breaking horses all my life,” he says in a thick accent that hangs in the air like tobacco smoke. Standing at the far end of the 300-foot-long polo field in a cowboy hat, cream plaid shirt, weathered leather chaps and boots with spurs, he looks like a character from an Old West film. Beside him stands a majestic white horse, which he’s hand painted with dark spots for the occasion. Although Maldonado, who lives between Mexico, Florida and Bristol, plays for the Newport Polo Club on occasion, today he’s come to Portsmouth’s Glen Farm to care for his fifteen polo horses.
There’s a story behind how Maldonado came to own the polka dotted stallion; there seems to be a story behind most everything related to the enigmatic man with the thick, jet-black moustache.
A few years ago, Maldonado was breaking horses on an Indian reservation in Texas when he was recruited to work at a massive ranch in the southwest part of the Lone Star State. Its owner had been breeding thoroughbreds as well as quarter horses, some “really nice bloodlines,” before dying unexpectedly. Soon, there were 600 horses running wild on the property. Maldonado quickly roped and caught twenty of them, which he then managed to break and train. In just three months, he had five performing well enough to be sold as polo horses.
His white stallion is one of the five, too beautiful to sell.
“I’ve been playing polo for over thirty years now,” he says, hooking a thumb in his belt loop. “I taught my younger siblings how to play, too.” A group of boys lurks nearby, eyeballing the rope that’s looped loosely around Maldonado’s shoulder as if it were a juicy steak. During halftime he uses his rope to lasso willing participants, of which there are many. It’s a lighthearted game he’s grown famous for leading.
Maldonado is sort of a celebrity here at Newport Polo, with a steady stream of friends and fans who wave at him in passing or who swing by the horse trailers to say hello while he’s filling feed buckets with hay and grain. Perhaps his allure lies in the fact that he doesn’t just dress the part and talk the talk; Maldonado is a living, breathing, honest-to-goodness horse whisperer. On an average day, he wakes up early, feeds his horses, then rides and trains them until 7 or 8 p.m. He says that while some horses only require twenty minutes of instruction time, the less behaved ones might need an hour or more.
“I’ve come from nothing. I’ve ridden my horse for days at a time. And look at me now,” he says proudly. “I can’t wait until this article comes out so I can show the photos to my mama, show her where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing.”
Polo player, riding instructor, mother of two
Bridget Torrey’s cheeks are flushed apple red as she dismounts her horse at the end of a riveting match between USA and Italy, with the Newport Polo Club representing team USA. Glen Farm is swarming with spectators, nearly filled to capacity. Some viewers, dressed to the nines in designer duds and embellished oversized hats, sip from wine glasses at fabric-draped VIP tables; others, attired casually in salmon pink shorts and faded T-shirts, drink beer from foam koozies while playing cornhole on the lawn. Although the game has finished, nobody seems in a rush to head home.
Torrey trades her helmet for a white baseball cap, wiping sweat from her forehead with the back of her arm.
“Most people think about polo players in the context of royalty,” Torrey says. “But anyone who has spent time at Newport Polo knows we all get our hands dirty!” By day, the forty-one-year-old working mother serves as the marketing and sales director at the Villages on Mount Hope Bay. When that job ends, her other one begins: Torrey helps her husband, Ted, operate Glen Farm Stables, where they board horses and give riding lessons. Due to the nature of their business, the couple owns anywhere from fifteen to twenty horses at a time.
“So much time and money goes into their care,” Torrey says. “Horses need regular exercise and regular grooming. They consume about a bale of hay every two days at $7 to $10 a bale. They need new shoes every six weeks at $100 plus. We keep them in stalls, so rent is another factor, and bedding costs $6 per cubic yard.” Then there are vet bills, tack, blankets, mallets, the needed truck and trailer. “It’s truly a labor of love,” she says with a smile.
According to Torrey, some people in the horse community think polo players mistreat their horses, believing that if horses run too hard, stop too fast and bump into each other, they must be unhappy. “The reality is the horses on the field love the game,” she says. “As in every horse discipline, if a horse doesn’t love their job they are very difficult to ride, so they are trained or used for something else. The horses are the whole game; we take very good care of them.”
As the sun continues its descent toward the horizon, the pastoral farm is cast in amber luminescence. Dog owners walk their furry companions along the stone wall that lines the long driveway. Atop a row of towering poles, national flags representing the club’s competitors blow in the summer breeze.
Suddenly, a swarm of children surrounds Torrey: Buzzing with excitement, they ask for her autograph. Graciously, she pens her name on plastic polo balls and crinkled pieces of paper. “It’s so cute when they ask for your autograph,” she says. “It’s especially flattering when parents of young girls tell me I’ve inspired them. They love to see women of the Newport Polo Club playing alongside the men.”
Torrey’s daughters — Teghan, age eleven, and Piper, age nine — are also avid riders who love attending mom’s matches. “My kids get so excited to run around, play in the field and stay late into the night wearing glow sticks and cooking s’mores around the campfire,” Torrey says. “Hats off to Dan and Agnes Keating for building a fantastic polo club. We have such an incredible slice of paradise here and I hope it continues for a very long time.”
Official tailgating judge of Newport Polo, bowtie aficionado
A polo match lasts approximately one-and-a-half hours and is divided into six timed periods called chukkers, each of which is seven minutes long. In just twenty-one minutes of play, the field takes quite a beating. So much so that it’s become a halftime tradition for spectators to “stomp divots,” or pick up the clumps of grass that have been kicked up by the horses’ hooves and place them back where they belong.
And while the majority of folks are helping to right the field during halftime, Patrick Jardon can be spotted lurking around the tailgating area, a glass of Scotch in hand.
Tailgating is as integral to the polo scene as Pimm’s Cup cocktails and tanned, bleach-blond horse grooms. Lining the entire right side of the field, as well as the back left corner, are tailgate parking areas where groups of friends and family hang beside oblong tables piled high with food, drink and decor. “Halftime is the perfect opportunity for me to judge the tailgates and tables without the risk of knowing whom it might belong to,” Jardon says. In appointing a winner, Jardon looks for something funny or unique, that shows creativity.
The most recent win was secured by a group of guys who had placed a candelabra on a table with a nice buffet of food positioned behind a Woodie station wagon. Some of the sponsor-donated prizes include bottles of Hangar 1 vodka and tickets to Newport’s International Tennis Hall of Fame.
“How did I come to be the official Newport Polo tailgating judge?” Jardon asks, his eyes crinkling. “Well it’s sort of a long story.”
Although Jardon didn’t know a whole lot about polo growing up, he did know a bit about horses. “My father was a very well-known thoroughbred race horse trainer who came to Rhode Island from Cuba in the 1940s,” he says. As an adult, Jardon bought a horse named Othello at Glen Farm Stables and trained there with Ted Torrey to compete in hunter/jumpers, an equestrian discipline where horses are ridden English-style and jump over obstacles in a course.
“Dan Keating introduced the sport of polo to me back when he ran Glen Farm Stables,” Jardon continues. “I was at the stables every day with my horse…Dan and I became fast friends. He had the vision to bring polo back to Newport. I helped him by riding and training the horses and he taught me how to play.” Jardon says that Saturday night polo began with Dan’s friends and family all pitching in. “His mother sold pizza and snacks. I assisted in the announcer’s booth by calling the plays and riders’ names to the announcer, as well as climbing up and down the scaffolding to keep our cups full! Eventually, Dan and Agnes Keating asked if I’d like to be the official tailgating judge one season and I’ve been drafted each year since.”
A classic Jeepster convertible truck rolls by slowly, filled with five laughing men. It parks in the tailgating section and its passengers hop out, an array of mint green, strawberry taffy and sky blue cotton.
“I love seeing the different style choices people make,” he says. “The ladies in hats and dresses, the men in blazers and polos. What’s most exciting for me, though, is seeing people who were mucking stalls two hours earlier looking like a million bucks. Everyone fits in here, whether they’re in their barn clothes or a tuxedo. Anything goes.”