LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Polo players were whooping and cheering this week, riding their ponies and taking shots on goal as they got in their final practices before the season opener Sunday at the Sarasota Polo Club.
The big smiles and laughter defied the gussied-up stereotype of the sport. Even ponies in the next pasture over were watching practice, perhaps wondering when they might get into the game.
The fun is back, said polo manager Rebecca Gutierrez, watching the action from a golf cart.
Back after a preseason of field preparations, maintenance and planning.
"I love the sport. When that game happens Sunday, it makes it all worthwhile," said Gutierrez, a native of Penrith, England, who learned the sport as a young woman in Australia.
Polo has been a way of life at Lakewood Ranch since 1991, when the polo grounds opened years before the first house was built.
Leading up to the season opener, most of the atten
tion was being given this week to the horses, gently and gradually preparing them for the long season that runs into April. The horses do a lot of walking before progressing to speed work, Gutierrez said.
The full season includes a U.S. Polo Association Hall of Fame game in tribute to the local founders of polo, some of whom are in the hall, Gutierrez said.
Polo at Lakewood Ranch predates the opening of the polo club, reflecting the love of the sport by Schroeder-Manatee Ranch executives John Clarke, the former president, and Clive Davis, the former vice president.
Clarke and Davis used a cow pasture near the former SMR headquarters to play "knock-around games" with cowboys in their free time, according to the Sarasota Polo Club website.
Even after the polo club opened, a gate would have to be opened occasionally off University Parkway to get to fields, Gutierrez said.
"Some days you couldn't go there because the cows were out," she said.
Nowadays, there are no cattle anywhere near the 140 lush acres of the polo grounds or the BMO Championship Field.
"Look at it now," Gutierrez said.
New this year will be a beer garden on the north side of the field in the general admission area.
In addition to the games themselves are the themed tailgating events and speciality activities during the season, including Porsche and Ferrari parades, an SMR horse race, and a best-dressed dog contest.Megan Flynn, a polo player and instructor in the Sarasota Polo Academy, was among the players practicing this week.
Flynn, a native of Milwaukee, was "on a horse before she was born," Gutierrez said, explaining that both of Flynn's parents were riders.
Two groups of riders are now enrolled in the academy, learning the sport of polo. They range from young children to people in their 70s, and they come in all riding skill levels, Flynn said of the growing popularity of the sport.
"Some of the kids couldn't ride before," Flynn said.
While polo has a loyal following, and Sunday tailgating sessions are a popular outing along the sidelines, local polo officials are mindful of the need to recruit a new generation of fans.
The Sarasota Polo Club worked with The Out-of-Door Academy to open the first high school polo club in Manatee-Sarasota.
Brett Timmons, athletic director for ODA, said some of the students use the polo club to meet their physical education requirement.
Gates open at 10 a.m., and play begins 1 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $12. Children under 12 are admitted free. For more information about the season or polo academy, call 941-907-0000. The club is located off Lorraine Road, south of University Parkway.
For information about individual events during the season, visit www.sarasotapolo.com
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.