Polo was first played in San Diego in 1906, launched as a business venture more so than an athletic competition. It has been part of local history longer than the Padres or Chargers. But after more than a century, including 26 seasons at its current location east of the Del Mar Fairgrounds, the future of the “sport of kings” is in jeopardy.
The City of San Diego did not renew the San Diego Polo Club’s 25-year lease when it expired in March, opting instead to possibly allow other organizations to use the 80-acre site.
“We’ve been a part of the fabric of this community for 106 years,” says Steve Lewandowski, community relations director for the polo club and match announcer for 22 years. “We’d like to stay there.”
In an effort to attract visitors at the turn of the century, Hotel del Coronado owner John D. Spreckels built the nearby Coronado Country Club, a four-block, two-story facility that included an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, and three polo fields. “He was a real mogul,” Lewandowski says of Spreckels. “He realized if he had polo he could get people to stay at the Hotel Del for the whole season rather than just a couple of weeks — people who watched and people who played.” Following the first major tournament, which pitted English lords against an American team made up of Navy officers, interest in the sport exploded, attracting millionaires and movie stars. But after two world wars, the country club was sold and polo in Coronado came to an end.
Although the game continued to be played in various locations throughout the county, it wasn’t until 1987 that the club found a permanent home in the San Dieguito River Valley.
“It’s a magical place,” Lewandowski says. “It really is. I think six couples met there and got married. And the sport has been synonymous with philanthropy since the beginning. They used to hold charity balls in Coronado,” he said. “In the past 26 years, since we started keeping records, the club has worked with more than 80 national and local charities, helping them raise more than $20 million.”
The venue also served as an evacuation site for horses during the 2007 wildfires. And contrary to popular belief, the San Diego Polo Club is not private, nor is it a “snobby place where you have to dress up,” Lewandowski says. “How elegant can a place be when half the athletes are pooping on the field?”
Because the lease hasn’t been out to bid for more than two decades, the city felt doing so was “appropriate to see what other proposals might surface,” says Darren Pudgil, a spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders. A request for proposals should be issued within the next few months, he notes. “It won’t necessarily be granted to the highest bid,” he says. “This certainly isn’t about making money, and it could certainly end up continuing to be used as a polo field.”
The polo club has started a petition, asking community members to show their support so the sport can remain at the site. “The club feels it’s been a good steward,” Lewandowski says, noting a $1 million annual cost to maintain the site. “I think we’ve been a pretty good tenant over the last quarter century.”
But not everyone always agreed. The San Dieguito River Valley Joint Powers Association spent ten years trying to get the club to restore and revegetate part of the hiking trail along the riverbank that was threatened by the practice track. “Those issues were basically resolved,” JPA executive director Dick Bobertz notes. The work hasn’t been completed but will be required by the new leaseholder. “At least the polo club understands the issues,” he says.
Despite criticism from some that the club profits by allowing soccer, lacrosse, and rugby on the fields in the off-season, Lewandowski says polo is not a money-making venture. “There’s no profitability in it whatsoever. At the end of the year sometimes there’s more owed than what’s been taken in and members have to pony up.”
Lewandowski says without a new lease he’s not sure about the future of polo in San Diego. “We don’t have a plan B. We’re going to have to regroup and do something else. Right now we’re in limbo. We’d hate to go away and we’d hate to go away from that spot.” The petition can be signed online. (www.sandiegopolo.com) BIANCA KAPLANEK