Polo in Petaluma?
Kathleen Weber and Rachel Inboden had their picnic basket, sun hats and sunscreen ready for a day of horses, polo and fast cars Sunday at the Cerro Pampa Polo Club southwest of Petaluma.
The five-day Horses Horsepower event was the first international polo tournament in the U.S. in years, organizers said, and the first match at the polo grounds at the Sonoma-Marin County line since 2009.
“I just love it,” Inboden said, watching the first of three polo matches from their picnic blanket a few feet from the grass field. “I would do it every weekend if I could.”
Like many of the several hundred attendees, the two San Francisco residents were fairly new to polo - although it is said to be the oldest team sport in the world.
Weber rides and has taken a polo lesson. She said she is tempted to start playing “the game of kings.”
“I’m contemplating dipping my foot in,” she said. “It seems like a very masculine sport, but I like the idea of bending that gender line.”
While it’s true most competitors were men, the game is played co-ed and there were a few female riders in the three games played Sunday afternoon, including a 14-year-old girl.
Katerina Rivkin of San Mateo held her own with the bigger, older players as she played for the Polo SF club against an Argentina team.
“I love horses, plus I’m pretty competitive,” she said later. “I like the team aspect of it, and you get to bond with everyone.”
Rivkin, whose father, Vladimir, played in the third game Sunday, has been riding for less than two years.
She knows she has to work hand-in-hand with her mount to stay safe and play well in the rough-and-tumble game played atop 1,000-pound beasts thundering past at breakneck speeds.
“If you don’t have your horse controlled, you don’t have anything,” she said. “If you don’t have control, you’ll miss everything.”
Ramiro Marini, an Italian born in Argentina who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, rode his horse Cordoves in the exhibition match against the San Francisco team, which they won, 10-1.
As Cordoves nudged him from behind, Marini talked about the athleticism the equine half of a riding team requires.
Polo horses, sometimes called “ponies” even though they’re not, are best when they have the agility of a quarter-horse and the speed of a thoroughbred racehorse. He said riders, too, form a bond.
“The international polo community is very small,” he said. “I can go to a polo club anywhere in the world and I will know someone.”
Exposing the sport to regular people is one goal of Sunday’s matches, which organizers hope to make an annual event.
“It’s such a family thing. We’re a bunch of friends, not trying to be hoity-toity,” said Charlie Thieriot, who rides for Polo SF. “It’s friendly, easygoing, relaxed.”
Both he and Vladimir Rivkin called the sport “intense.”
“When I get done, I feel euphoric,” Thieriot said. “It’s an extreme sport.”
Polo SF, led by Rivkin, has started an exchange program, bringing teams from other nations to compete in the U.S. as well as sending teams and players abroad.
The team’s Cerro Pampa Polo Club off San Antonio Road offers group and individual lessons as well as practice games for beginners.
In addition to the polo competitions Saturday and Sunday, the event offered horsepower of another variety earlier in the week at the Audi Challenge at Sonoma Raceway.
Dozens of sleek Audi sports cars - including two carbon-fiber race cars - lined the VIP section of the field. Audi VIP ticket holders were able to get behind the wheel of some of Audi’s high-powered models and test their mettle in the “Audi Sportscar Experience” program at the raceway.
San Mateo resident Jack Matthews sat in the VIP section sipping wine under a large umbrella, watching his first polo match.
“I’m trying to understand the rules,” he said. “It’s something you associate with the rich and famous. You would never expect to find a polo course out here.