After a hiatus of about six years, polo is coming back to East Aurora this weekend.
It has been a few decades since the heyday of the Knoxes and polo competition at their estate in East Aurora when matches attracted large crowds to watch riders on horseback thundering across the polo field.
But this weekend, the polo ponies return to the estate, now known as Knox Farm State Park. And the matches will be complete with champagne and halftime ceremonies.
“When those horses go flying by, it’s like thunder on the ground. It gets your blood flowing as an observer,” said John Hatcher, a former polo player and board member for Friends of Knox Farm. “There’s no greater feeling than being flat out on a polo pony, striking the ball and see it go 100 yards.”
The Saturday matches on the Knox Road field, which cost nothing to watch, aim to get fans interested in supporting more games and to raise money for the park and young cancer patients .
Although the match is free to the public, a $75 champagne brunch is already sold out, with 300 expected. And nearby parking costs $10. The match also has more than a dozen corporate sponsors.
Slade Sharpsteen was among the last to play polo at the Knox farm.
“There’s two polo fields in East Aurora, and no players,” said Sharpsteen, “It’s a shame.”
Sharpsteen, the owner of a Lockport commercial printing business, will ride in Saturday’s match and is one of the few locals with his own stable of polo ponies.
Buffalo was one of the first communities to adopt the sport after it was introduced in the United States in about 1875. A Buffalo team in 1878 began a series of summer matches against Newport, R.I., according to the Museum of Polo, outside Palm Beach, Fla.
The Knox family, whose wealth came from banking and co-founding the Woolworth’s department store chain, helped make local polo stick.
Seymour “Shorty” Knox Jr., a banker and art benefactor who financed the modern wing at Albright-Knox Art Gallery in the 1960s, fell for polo during the sport’s American heyday in the 1920s and ’30s. Back then, it was an Olympic sport, and private clubs and the Army had teams.
Knox’s team won the 1933 U.S. Open match at the Long Island Meadow Brook club in 1933. And he traveled to England and Argentina for games and wrote books – “Polo Tales and Other Tales” – about his adventures. In the 1950s, he coached his sons, Seymour III and Northrup, and in 1957, their team played in the U.S. Open, losing a close 11-10 match against Illinois’ Oak Brook team.
“I have never seen, in all my 35 years as a polo player and spectator, a more exciting or thrilling polo game,” their father wrote proudly.
The Knox Aurora team disbanded sometime around the late 1970s and early 1980s, but Northrup Knox kept the field weeded and tended so other teams could use it for the Knoxes’ Buffalo General Hospital tournament. Those charity tournaments drew several hundred spectators, but they ended almost a decade ago when Strawberry Farm’s Polo Fest folded.
The last polo match at the Knox estate occurred around 2008. Since then, Sharpsteen, 54, and his son A.J., a horse-shoeing blacksmith, have been putting their polo ponies in trailers and heading to play at polo clubs in places like Cortland and Skaneateles in Central New York and farther away in Toronto and Cleveland.
Even though there are about 200 polo clubs in the United States, encouraging people to take up the sport is a challenge.
“People perceive it as a rich man’s sport, which it can be. I’m not going to lie,” said Justin Powers, the U.S. Polo Association’s director of club development. “Until they see polo and they see that there’s everyday people playing the sport, they tend to gravitate to the fact that it’s kind of an elite sport.”
The son and grandson of horse trainers, Powers, 28, said he has “$100,000 in student loans that will prove I’m not wealthy … There’s ways to play the sport and enjoy it on more of an economical level.”
But the sport does require some money. It’s possible to play with one horse for a portion of a game, but the Powers family will bring a dozen ponies.
Most players have enough to play a fresh horse for each 7.5-minute period called a chukker. Standard games are four to six chukkers long.
Near Powers’ home in Youngstown, Ohio, polo has a following. At the Darlington Polo Field, just over the state line, about 400 people came out for a recent Friday night game, paying $5 for admission.
Powers compares polo to playing hockey while driving a race car that has a mind of its own.
“If someone enjoys horses and is competitive,” he said, “polo’s the perfect blend.”
On Saturday, or Sunday if it rains, the program at the Knox Road field is intended to educate curious neophytes.
After a 1 p.m. exhibition match by a team of high school girls from the Western New York Polo Club in York, near Geneseo, a regular game starts at 2. A “Land Rover Buffalo” team featuring Cornell University coach David Eldredge and his daughters will face off against the “Garelick Jewelers” team with the Powers and Sharpsteen.
Watching Sharpsteen practice for the weekend match one afternoon last week in Lockport was like watching a Ralph Lauren ad come to life.
The setting sun edged Sharpsteen’s silhouette in gold light. With a swing, his mallet clicked and a white ball rolled along the grass, bright green against a white fence. The tall glossy brown polo pony ran to it, ears up straight in the sign of horse pleasure.
Sharpsteen loves the game for the horses, eager to run for the ball like a dog would be, and the speed. Saturday, he hopes polo’s charms will be obvious to everyone else.
“I just want to see a big turnout,” he said, “so everybody gets to see it again, and bring back some of the story.”