With high-end horses and thoroughbred cars, the International Polo Club of Palm Beach launched its 2016 winter season Sunday, marking the start of 17 weeks of equestrian sport.
The growing event that is polo’s seasonal debut added several attractions this year, including a showcase of luxury and vintage vehicles, a lounge set in a 1964 British double-decker bus and a beer garden with a specialty brew all its own.
Polo Ale, a product of Oakland Park-based Funky Buddha Brewery, is a blonde pilsner that attendees can enjoy in a lushly landscaped beer garden that is decked out with a refurbished Airstream, rustic handmade tables and live music.
“If you are not a polo enthusiast and just coming here as something to do, we are trying to add attractions every year that cater to everyone,” said Aaron Menitoff, CEO of International Polo Club Catering.
The International Polo Club of Palm Beach is a private, members-only club, but it opens its doors to the public on Sunday afternoons. Tickets for general admission to matches start at $30. About 250 games will be played over the four-month season, which culminates April 24. This is the club’s 13th season.
Polo Club President John Wash said he expected between 5,000 and 7,000 people to attend Sunday’s opening day. Last season, an estimated 160,000 spectators watched matches at the club.
“It’s like putting on an event similar to a scaled-down Honda Classic 17 weeks in a row,” Wash said Sunday.
Also new this season are enhanced ergonomic seats that replace wooden benches that were used for fieldside spectating, and the exclusive $225-per-person Coco Polo Lounge, which includes a Sunday brunch, Champagne, and luxe gift bag.
While some of Sunday’s spectators dressed for the event in flamboyant colors and prints with opulent hats, most wore Friday casual clothes that speak to the club’s attempt to make polo a more accessible sport.
“A lot of people are intimidated by polo,” Wash said. “Yes, in some ways it’s going to be like the Kentucky Derby, but it’s also a great family experience. We want it to be more mainstream.”
Wash said while some people are most interested in the game and athleticism of the horses, others are flying kites or playing Frisbee.
For Barbara Rich, Sunday’s opener was more a social event than a sporting match.
“I like it because I’m with all my friends and it’s a fun way to get together on a Sunday,” said Rich, who is from Connecticut, but has attended as many as 20 matches at the polo club.
Ken and Adriana Gold, of Palm Beach Gardens, were newcomers to the polo scene Sunday. They said they were surprised at how laid-back the event was.
“I’m more of a Tommy Bahama guy, but this is warm and open,” Ken Gold said. “It’s affluent but accessible and I don’t think anyone feels like they don’t belong.”
In fact, tailgating is one of the most popular ways to watch a polo match at the club. People pay thousands of dollars for special fieldside tailgating tents.
“There is no other sport where you tailgate fieldside,” Wash said. “We added tents this year, but we still have a waiting list.”
Polo isn’t the only equestrian event that takes place in Wellington during the winter season.
The town is also home to the Winter Equestrian Festival, held at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. The festival is a 12-week show that draws riders from 33 countries who compete for $9 million in prize money.
INSIDE: See results from Sunday’s matches. Sports, C8