Story by Callie Broaddus
“Going to Wellington this year?”
It was a question you might have overheard in any shop or on any street corner in Middleburg during the winter months. To the passerby not involved in the horse culture, it might have seemed like Middleburg residents were simply obsessed with Lord of the Rings. But anyone who had stepped foot in the horse world knew that Wellington, Florida, was the winter playground of the world’s top ranking riders and many of the sport’s wealthiest and most dedicated patrons.
Athletes and horses from around the world converged on the small town, which sits about 30 minutes outside of West Palm Beach, Florida, for four months of intense competition. Many Middleburg-area riders headed down for hunters and jumpers at the renowned Wellington Equestrian Festival, but that’s not what this article is about. I’m here to talk about polo: the sport that brings hundreds of spectators out to Great Meadow in The Plains every summer Saturday for tailgating and tug-of-war by the arena.
“Once people try it, they very seldom quit. They love it.”
The Wellington scene is an international melting pot for polo, with intense high goal matches featuring the top players. I sat down with John Gobin and Whitney Ross of Great Meadow Polo Club to watch the Ylvisaker Cup, a blistering 20-goal tournament at The International Polo Club Palm Beach. The atmosphere fit the game’s moniker, “The Sport of Kings,” complete with Veuve Clicquot and divot stomping, with horses galloping at 35 mph down a manicured grass field the size of nine football fields.
Gobin and Ross spent the winter in Wellington, playing with Great Meadow Polo Club sponsors and the more serious polo school students who wanted to stay fit for the Virginia summer season. Ross said the polo school’s 50 ponies spent the winter enjoying a well-deserved vacation at Gobin’s farm in Aiken, South Carolina, where they could get “fat and happy.”
Ross told her students to come to Florida if they could, where they could rent horses from another school and see the sport at the next level. And if they couldn’t come down, Ross encouraged them to try other disciplines back in Virginia, like foxhunting, to keep their riding muscles in shape during the offseason.
I asked if they ever worried about losing polo players to other disciplines by leaving for the winter. “No, because polo is such an adrenaline sport,” said a confident Gobin, “Once people try it, they very seldom quit. They love it.”
Gobin’s mission for Great Meadow Polo Club went beyond cultivating talented players. “At our polo school, what I try to do is get people to come into the polo community, learn to play polo, buy horses and someday buy a farm. So they’re in the community. … That’s my ultimate goal, to get these people to become horsemen.”
Gobin, a former captain of the United States Polo Team, fell in love with polo when he saw his first game. “We’re always searching for the young children to come along and change their lives like polo changed my life. But it’s a lot harder nowadays, with computers, video games, to get them out of the house and into the barn. … If you’re a horse person, half of your day you work hungry and dirty and hot and sweaty, but you love it, because it’s just the way life is on the farm, riding horses. If you don’t love it, then you can’t do it.”
Gobin said it would almost be impossible for him to run the club and school without Ross, whom he described as a true horsewoman. “Whitney is very smart, one of the hardest-working people I know, and she’s very caring to the horses. She knows every individual horse — and we have over 50.”
Despite the idyllic weather and elevated level of play, Gobin and Ross always looked forward to coming back to Virginia in the spring. “The nice thing about Virginia is we start in the arena because of the weather,” said Ross. “It’s easier to hit that big arena ball than it is the grass ball. So, everyone can start in the arena and warm back up, and by the time it’s grass season, they’re chomping at the bit.”
One thing Ross didn’t miss in Florida was Virginia’s red clay. “[The horses] get a lot dirtier in Virginia! All 50 have to get baths to get ready for Twilight Polo.”
Gobin said Virginia was his favorite place. “The polo in Virginia is unique, because we have fantastic fields and fantastic polo clubs … and it’s extremely cheap for the quality you get. I think it’s almost as good as Wellington, and it’s probably a quarter of the price.”
Gobin and Ross are hoping to grow their business in Wellington next year, with a new farm and small polo school, aimed at enabling Great Meadow players to experience the same fun, friendly level of play they’re accustomed to, while being just hoof-steps away from the best players in the world. ML