The People's Polo

It's a late Sunday afternoon in Wellington, and the polo crowd is trying to squeeze in another match before the stifling heat of summer consumes South Florida. Invites are word-of-mouth, while both game time and venue are subject to change depending upon the weather. The sport of the horsy set...
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It's a late Sunday afternoon in Wellington, and the polo crowd is trying to squeeze in another match before the stifling heat of summer consumes South Florida. Invites are word-of-mouth, while both game time and venue are subject to change depending upon the weather.

The sport of the horsy set has a deliciously laid-back informality to it nowadays. Militaristic equine displays are the stuff of satirical musical comedies. This is Wellington.

This afternoon's event lands at the Grand Champions Polo Club, formally known as fields 6 and 7 of the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club. Grand Champions is flanked by million-dollar Mediterranean-style homes. The narrow entrance off Lake Worth Road is unmarked, but the cluster of horse trailers, grooms, and mares clogging the dirt road indicates that here's where a match is about to take place.

There's no grandstand, no fancy white tents. The spectators sit on car trunks or plastic folding chairs, and they wear jeans, T-shirts, and baseball caps, as elegant in their casualness as characters in an Ed Hardy advertisement. Cold beverages are retrieved from coolers. Today, a local gourmet deli called Cilantro's is catering, so there's South American finger food on hand, such as empanadas and tarta pascualina.

Melissa Potamkin Ganzi pulls into the club shortly before 6 p.m. in a silver Audi SUV. She steers the SUV over a lovely green lawn and parks it headfirst in a row that consists of more than a dozen vehicles whose rear bumpers face the field. "Everyone is tailgating," Ganzi explains.

It's informal. Communal. Just how Melissa and her husband, Marc Ganzi, like it.

"Everyone's perspective of the sport is based on Pretty Woman," Melissa laments. "It doesn't seem accessible."

The Ganzis want the general public to experience the sport. If that means playing in open spaces, like at the Miami Beach Polo World Cup, or sponsoring cheap polo camps for children, then so be it.

In the world of polo, the Ganzis are patrones (pronounced pa-TRON-ess). That means they bankroll much of the costs that their four-player team, Audi Polo, incurs, with the German automaker picking up the rest of the tab. And the bills are substantial. There are stable fees to be paid. Horses to be purchased, trained, and maintained. Travel expenses. Salaries for players and staff. Sport insiders estimate that it costs $300,000 to $1 million a year to support a professional polo team.

For Melissa, polo is a full-time gig. The 39-year-old mother of two exercises a half-dozen horses a day and tends to the minutiae of the organization. The Ganzis own the fields at Grand Champions, which they purchased in the summer of 2007; according to Palm Beach County property records, the fields cost $12.3 million.

"We were really lucky to be able to purchase these fields," Marc Ganzi says, looking around appreciatively. "A polo field is a little bit like wine — it gets better with age."

The club is literally in their backyard; the Ganzi's five-bedroom home and pool overlook the fields. Marc envisions adding some bathrooms, a few tiki huts, and maybe a small grandstand. But he loathes the idea of contaminating the panoramic view. He wants the vibe to remain low-key. "We call it community polo," he says.

Melissa resembles a surfer girl as she steps out of the Audi SUV. Her long, blond hair is tied loosely into a braid. And her face has a healthy tan. The only hint of wealth is on top of her head, where massive pearly white Prada sunglasses rest. Like all the Audi players, Melissa sports white Wrangler jeans for the match. It's nearly game time, so she slips a pair of clogs off her feet and slides on her riding boats. Then the sunglasses are replaced with a baby pink helmet that has the name MEL embroidered on it in white thread.

There's a flurry of kisses and introductions set against a backdrop of chatter in lyrical Argentine Spanish — the unofficial language of polo.

Polo originated in Persia in the Sixth Century BC as a means to train the king's elite cavalry troops. Hundreds of men would take to the field to reenact battles on a minute scale. Soon, the Persian nobility had embraced the sport — it was egalitarian in the sense that even the uppercrust ladies got to play. These days, Argentina dominates polo as the country produces most of the world's top-rated players.

The scoreboard arrives at Grand Champions from another Wellington polo field on a red flatbed trailer that looks like it would be ideal for a hayride. This trailer, though, is being pulled by a polished black Lincoln Navigator.

Everything is in place. Horse handlers escort several ponies over to the players for the first seven-minute period, known in polo as a chukker. The pampered beasts are gorgeous. Taut muscles flex under coats that have been brushed to a shine. Manes are shorn into flat Mohawks, tails braided tightly, and ankles bound with enough tape to look as if the animals are wearing knee-high socks.

"Are you going to go easy on us?" a man playing against the Audi squad beseeches his opponents.

The first chukker zooms by. The ponies are panting so loudly that their exertions can be heard from the sidelines. It's time to swap horses. Melissa Ganzi moves seamlessly from one saddle to another, mounting her second horse, a caramel-colored mare, without even touching the ground. Since each beast is a different height, the players must trade in their mallets nearly every chukker for their majestic swings to reach the ball.

The mallets are arranged on the ground in ascending order: 50 inches long, 51 inches, and so on. The players have memorized which mallet corresponds to which horse. Melissa points to a stick with red markings and instructs an assistant to hand it to her. "El rojo," she says. "Gracias."

And they're off. Again. The pounding of horse hooves reverberates like a mantra, lulling the spectators into a peaceful stupor. In the distance, at the Ganzi home, children splash in the pool under the watchful eyes of nannies. Marc lounges there too, taking in the match from his own pool. Many of the couples who live in the large homes surrounding the fields have turned out at Grand Champions to watch, socialize, and root for their neighbors.

One of the neighbors hints that Melissa Potamkin Ganzi had a comfortable upbringing. Well, yes. Melissa's paternal grandfather, Victor Potamkin, started a car dealership in Philadelphia in 1954. These days, Potamkin Automotive has 28 dealerships and 48 franchises in six states; the company, which is headquartered in Miami, has some $1.5 billion in annual sales.

Melissa grew up in Philadelphia, riding horses and competing in equestrian events. She met her husband while both were attending the University of Pennsylvania. Marc Ganzi is CEO of Global Tower Partners, a cell phone tower company based in Boca Raton. Marc's father, a former polo player, bought Melissa her first polo pony in December 2000.

"That ended up being a very expensive gift," Marc says with a laugh. The next year, the couple moved to Wellington, where Melissa approached Argentine polo player Juan Bollini for lessons. She was hooked. Then her husband took up the sport. Now the Ganzis have several dozen horses, plus a staff of veterinarians, stable hands, and players.

It's a lifestyle they can enjoy as a couple. There aren't many sports in which men and women can compete together at the professional level. In polo, the most important asset a player can have is a horse — OK, several horses — with fine temperaments, horses that move almost instinctively with their riders.

Handsome, tanned Argentine players have gotten much attention in polo circles in recent years. So does Melissa sometimes feel like a sex symbol too? "The real sex symbols are the horses," she says. "To me, it doesn't matter who is on top of them."

After the last June match in Wellington, staffers drove the Ganzi horses to Santa Barbara for the summer season. And the Ganzis flew to England to play, with borrowed polo ponies, against blueblooded chukker chucker Prince Harry.

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