LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Before there were houses, schools, restaurants or business parks at Lakewood Ranch, there was polo.
Polo arrived at Lakewood Ranch in 1991, several years before the first neighborhoods were built.
"We didn't start the polo with an idea of it being a development. We did it for its own sake, not as a marketing approach," former president and CEO John Clarke has said.
In other words, polo came to the Ranch because of the love of the game by Clarke and members of the Uihlein family, who owned the ranch.
Some of the first players at Lakewood Ranch were Schroeder-Manatee Ranch employees, including cowboys, who began playing using ranch horses.
Maybe the founders didn't anticipate that polo would become a hit with the public. But 25 years later, the stands at Sarasota Polo Club are full each Sunday, and tailgaters vie to see who can serve the most scrumptious feast along the sidelines.
"It's a big milestone for the club," Kristen Galvan, new club manager, said of reaching the quarter-century mark. "Everything is growing rapidly around us, but we still have our peaceful corner."
The club's 130 acres are best known for polo, but over the years have hosted many other events, including Chamber of Commerce hob-nobs, soccer tournaments and Frisbee competitions.
For anyone wanting to learn polo, classes are being offered for the second year. Instructor Megan Flynn says all skill levels are welcome, even for those who have ever ridden a horse.
Students of the game can move up to arena polo, and then to the Sunshine League, played on one of the full-size 300-yard-by-160-yard fields.
"We coach them along and get them ready for tournament polo," Flynn said. Polo classes are held Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. The next class starts Feb. 11.
The club has also started offering riding lessons for all ages.
Galvan, a native of Glastonbury, Conn., comes to Lakewood Ranch from Aiken, S. C., where she managed polo games, schedules and more.
She has a broader background in animal health, sales and marketing, and her husband, Luis, is a polo player. They have a 4-year-old son, Lucas.
"I am happy I came here. I love it here," Galvan said.
She especially likes the facilities at Lakewood Ranch, the setup, and the turnout for Sunday games.
"The people line up at 10 a.m. to get a seat," she said. "We have everything here, a great field and infrastructure."
In addition to polo Sundays, where games start at 1 p.m., the club usually offers a little something extra. This week it will be the Alfa Romeo Club bringing their sports cars for fans to admire. A regular Sunday attraction is the Clydesdale horses.
Each year, the Sarasota Polo Club celebrates its beginnings, when some of the first players were cowboys, with the SMR Cup. This year, the SMR Cup is set for Feb. 21 and will include a horse race at halftime.
Admission to Sunday games is $12. The Sarasota Polo Club is located at 8201 Polo Club Lane, just south of the intersection of Lorraine Road and University Parkway. For more information, call 941-907-0000.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter@jajones1.