LAKEWOOD RANCH -- The Sarasota Polo Club at Lakewood Ranch is warming up for winter league games and tournaments by attracting top local and national polo players.
With nine polo fields, a regulation arena, renovated pavilion and clubhouse and a beer garden on 130 acres of property just past Lorraine Road, the Sarasota Polo Club is ready for a banner season.
The club will host a New Year Celebration Tournament starting at 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 4, which is open to the public.
Tito's, namesake of the Texas-based handmade vodka chain, will have a Uihlein family member playing. The Uihleins owned the original Lakewood Ranch property.
Tom Hughes, director of polo operations, began playing competitive polo in 1966. Relatively new to the Sarasota Polo Club, Hughes said he wants to make the club, which has 4, 8 and 10-goal leagues, one of the best in the country.
"We are working with the United States Polo Association to implement many of their new polo programs to grow the sport," Hughes said. "We have one of the best facilities in the country and we are very excited about our new direction."
President and Chief Executive Officer Rex Jensen of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc., master developer of Lakewood Ranch, said he's expecting good things from Hughes, who is looking into expanding the Polo Club's seasonal school, which offers horseback riding lessons, polo instructions and pair driving classes for adults led by Lakewood Ranch resident Misdee WrigleyMiller, a national pair driving champion.
"Tom's vast and varied experience in all aspects of the game, and his ability to attract new players, will certainly help to elevate the club," Jensen said after Hughes was hired last spring.
Polo is an equestrian sport consisting of two teams of four players on crossbred polo ponies lined up against each other. The object is to score by driving a small white plastic or wooden ball into the opposing team's goal using a long-handled mallet.
The game lasts about two hours and is divided into six, seven-minute periods called "chukkers."
Jaymie Klauber, co-owner of the Polo Grill and Fete Ballroom in Lakewood Ranch, said she became so enamored of the sport she took lessons, practiced and is now a regular league player at the Sarasota Polo Club. Klauber, who will compete in next Sunday's league game on the Tito's Vodka team, bought a 7-acre ranch on the Polo Club property where she and her husband, Tommy Klauber, live year-round and house several horses in one of three barns.
"I don't have much time to dedicate to polo but I'll take whatever I can get. I'm just happy to have the opportunity to play," Klauber said. "What makes it so much fun is you can really hear what's going on over on the sidelines. I can hear them calling my name when I ride by. I'm blessed to have the Polo Club right in our community."
About 1,500 people turn out for the polo competitions, Hughes said.
"A great support system comes here every Sunday, along with additional people from our various sponsors each week," Hughes added.
The new polo season runs through Sunday, April 12. Gates open at 10 a.m. General admission is $12 for adults, free for children, and dogs on leashes are welcome.
Themed tailgating is a big draw for the Polo Club. Judges award prizes to the best-adorned tailgate spots based on fun cuisine, original drinks and creative tailgates. 2015 tailgating themes range from "Let it Snow" in January, Valentine's Day and President's Day in February, to "Go Green" for St. Patrick's Day and a springtime theme for Easter.
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.