Originally created 03/28/04

Aiken polo tournament becomes hit



AIKEN - There were plenty of questions Saturday about how the sport of polo, the new final leg of Aiken's Triple Crown, is played and officiated.

"Chukker?" one visitor asked.

"It's like a period in basketball," someone answered.

A lot of people wondered how the sport would go over. After all, the University of South Carolina Aiken had played host to harness racing for more than a decade before this year.

A crystal clear blue sky and sunny day helped ease those fears, and organizers estimated more than 5,000 people turned out to enjoy the round-robin tournament that was three matches long.

Aiken is hardly a stranger to polo. It has thrived amongst the equestrian community for more than 120 years and, with the arrival of several of the world's best players, is today considered one of the hottest polo venues in the country.

"If this day introduces more people to polo, I think that's great," said Sarah Eakin, whose husband is a professional polo player and officiated matches Saturday.

As a former polo correspondent for The London Telegraph, Mrs. Eakin is familiar with the sport. She said Saturday's turnout was exceptionally large for a polo match, but that in England some towns will draw crowds of as many as 1,000 people to matches Sunday after Sunday.

The Aiken Polo Club, which helped organize Saturday's event, also holds Sunday matches, though the sport doesn't draw crowds the size Mrs. Eakin is used to.

Some said USC Aiken's tournament might reignite interest in the sport.

It was Paul Sutton's first look at polo. He was one of hundreds of fans who roamed the field between games and filled in divots left in the turf by the horses' hooves.

"I was impressed with the capability of the horse's cutting or turning back and forth," he said.

Susie Grant and Peggy Penland, members of Leadership Aiken County, said the group plans to ride the sport's newfound popularity and hold a polo tournament fund-raiser in May.

"Now is just a rediscovery of the sport," Ms. Grant said.

In typical Triple Crown fashion, tailgating was an integral part of Saturday's experience. Crowds that lined the enormous 300-yard-long field enjoyed plenty of food and drink.

As the day wore on, the crowd became more polo savvy, picking up on some of the sports' intricacies. A match is made up of three chukkers, or periods, some found out for the first time.

After a goal is scored, the teams switch ends so that one team doesn't spend the whole day playing with the sun in its eyes. That one left some scorecards a little off.

"I've played enough soccer to know you've got to get the ball through the two posts," fan Mike Hubbard said jokingly.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803)279-6895 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.