It happens on rare occasions. You are drawn to a certain event which impacts your life in a positive way. For me it was a few years ago after seeing a small black bumper sticker with bold yellow lettering that simply read MAUI POLO. It intrigued me enough to go online and look up if Maui even had a polo following or if this bumper sticker was trying to be ironic. I found the Maui Polo Club website and vowed to head upcountry to watch them play whenever I had a Sunday off from work.
Eventually the stars aligned (or the resort got really slow) and I found myself available on a Sunday to ride my motorcycle to the Oski Rice polo field, just above Makawao town. There were no gates or any signs, so I headed down the dirt road apprehensively until I arrived at a huge, flat expanse of lush, green grass. The polo field, behind Oski Rice Rodeo Arena, is used during the fall polo season and is the size of seven football fields. As I was patiently waiting for fans, players and even the horses to arrive (yes, I was THAT early) I had several people come up and introduce themselves to me. Having watched zero polo matches up until that moment in my life I asked a few questions regarding the play on the field, which my new friends answered patiently and thoroughly. By the end of the day I felt like a polo expert and was ready become a Sunday afternoon polo tailgater. Unfortunately I found out that tournament was the last event of the 2010 season, and that April of 2011 would be the next match and it would be played at their spring arena in Pukalani, a few miles away.
The tournament I watched that day in mid-November of 2010 was played round robin style between a handful of four-person teams. After a winner was decided, the field was yielded to a different form of polo, called Paniolo Polo. The rules were the same, but the atmosphere was more relaxed as helmets were replaced by cowboy hats and the “proper” attire was blue jeans and t-shirts.
Quick break in the blog, for an uninformative history lesson.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a Paniolo (pan-ee-oh-low) is a Hawaiian cowboy. In the 1830’s Mexican vaqueros were invited to Hawai’i (The Big Island) to teach the Hawaiian people how to work a cattle ranch. The Spanish/Mexican influence can still be found today in the islands not only in the family names, but as well as the noho lio (no-ho lee-oh: horse seat) or saddles used on their horses. The term Paniolo is believed to have been born from the word español, Hawaiian language has no “S” sound and words must end with a vowel, so español became Paniolo.
Having been distracted by other life events this past year, recently I had a burning desire to watch another polo match.
Sunday, the 13th of May, I decided to head upcountry to Pukalani to watch “The Sport of Kings” at the Manduke Baldwin Polo Arena. For a $5 per adult entry fee (kids under 16 are FREE) you can park your vehicle within inches of the field, set up your chairs or drop your tailgate, cover yourself in sun block and watch some fast-paced competitive polo all day long. With such a relaxed and friendly atmosphere you can bring your own food and make a picnic out of the day or you can buy food there if you did not plan ahead. Other than going to the beach for free, I cannot think of a more affordable event to bring the ‘ohana (oh-HAH-nah: family) to and enjoy the entire day together.
Before the main event began they had Manini Polo (mah-nih-nee: small) which featured young kids playing real polo on horses, not small or miniature horses, but real, full-sized horses. The kids were great and played hard before there match was over and forced to yield the field to the official United States Polo Association Sherman Memorial Cup tournament.
The players trotted on to the field to the sounds of the Hawaii 5-0 theme being played over the loudspeaker. After The Star-Spangled Banner and Hawai’i Pono’i (poh-noh-EE: Hawaii’s own) was played (the kingdom of Hawaii’s national anthem) the announcer led an informal pule (POO-leh: prayer) to give thanks to all the mothers in honor of mother’s day, the players and the hopes that they remain healthy during competition and finally to the lio (lee-oh: horse), without which we would not be able to play or watch polo.
The polo played at the spring season arena seemed much more fast-paced and dangerous to me. The vast expansive field is gone and with the wood boards and metal fence bordering the field of play, it more closely resembles a grass hockey arena. Since there is less room to work with the teams are reduced from four players each to three, but the way the players use the boards to ricochet the ball makes up for that fourth teammate being gone.
The announcer at the matches is an energetic and knowledgable local man, by the name of Fraklin Crozier, who makes the exciting moments even more exciting and the dull moments more entertaining. He is quick to joke about the activities both on and off the field and will answer questions or explain polo related items so everybody in attendance has a better understanding of what is happening in the match. He also shares great stories about polo’s extensive history in Hawaii, as well as first hand accounts of his days growing up and playing on Maui.
For more information about Maui Polo Club, please visit their website or find them on Facebook. If you need even more information on polo you can visit the USPA’s official website (careful, video and audio starts when you open the page).