The Maine Event
Thundering hooves, the whack of mallet on ball and a tropical breeze from the Caribbean Sea—welcome to polo as it’s played in the Dominican Republic, home to an active polo scene for more than 70 years. At local polo clubs today, visitors can take polo lessons, watch professional matches and even join a match or two, given sufficient horsemanship skills and experience. For equestrians of all sorts, and for anyone who appreciates an adrenaline-fueled display of athleticism and horsemanship, there’s nothing that compares, at least according to Jabar Singh Jr., whose father helped develop the Dominican Republic’s polo community in the 1950s. “It’s true that polo is the `sport of kings and king of sports’.”
The British ruling classes helped popularize polo worldwide in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after officers stationed in India took up the sport, which has its origins as a cavalry training game in ancient Persia. Since then, polo has remained a favorite gentleman’s sport in posh enclaves and clubs in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, as well as South America (especially Argentina), Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Iran, Pakistan, India and the Caribbean (Dominican Republic and Jamaica). During the 1940s, in the midst of President Rafael Trujillo’s 30-year reign in the Dominican Republic, the island’s privileged class, including Trujillo’s son Ramfis and internationally renowned playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, began playing polo on the fields adjacent to Hotel El Embajador in the capital city of Santo Domingo.
In 1954, Rubirosa, who was linked romantically to actresses Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe and married to heiresses Doris Duke and then Barbara Hutton, invited polo’s then superstar Maharaja Jabar Singh to an international tournament in the Dominican Republic that featured some of the best players of the era. Born in Jodhpur during the “golden age” of India’s autonomous princely states, Jabar Singh was raised dividing his time between hunting and polo. A highly rated player, he traveled the world winning international tournaments. Impressed by Singh’s skills, Ramfis Trujillo invited him to stay on the island and help organize the sport. Singh stayed for six years, meeting the woman who would become his wife, Mireya, and having two sons, Jabar Jr. and Bijai. He would’ve stayed longer, but while playing at a tournament in Paris in 1961, Trujillo, Singh’s benefactor, was assassinated. For the next decade, Singh lived in Spain, competing successfully throughout Europe. In 1971, he returned to the Dominican Republic at the invitation of the conglomerate Gulf + Western, to help develop a polo club at the corporation’s new resort, Casa de Campo.
Located on the island’s southeast coast in the city of La Romana, one hour’s drive west along the new highway from Punta Cana, Casa de Campo comprises 7,000 verdant acres bordered by the Caribbean Sea and the Chavon River. Year-round, the resort and its nearby sister club, El Pitirri, host friendly practice matches and smaller weekend tournaments. Casa de Campo has become the heart of Caribbean polo, though, with its three tournament fields, practice field, an outdoor arena and string of more than 100 polo ponies bred and trained at the resort’s Rancho Higueral. The result is the premier polo destination in the Caribbean according to the resort’s polo director, Calixto “Cali” Garcia-Velez. Garcia-Velez learned to play and ride correctly from Jabar Singh himself, alongside his longtime friend Jabar Singh Jr., chairman and CEO of The Cliffs Ocean Resort in Santo Domingo.
At the island’s other currently active club, Sierra Prieta Polo Club in Santo Domingo, “the players are locals and play friendly games of a lower level,” explains Singh Jr. “Casa de Campo sees a combination of local and international players and tournaments are at a medium level.” Those international tournaments are the most competitive in the region with local players hoping to make an impression and move up to the highest level of the sport. According to Singh Jr., locals Denis Santana and Carlos Cortez are among the best the island has ever produced.
The formal tournament season runs from January through April, peaking with the Semana Santa Polo Tournament held over Easter week. According to Garcia-Velez, the final weekend of matches attract a cosmopolitan crowd of a couple thousand spectators who come to watch the competition and then attend the luxurious parties that extend into the late hours, night after night. During halftimes, the global mix of European, American and Dominican spectators gather on the field to mingle, stretch their legs and divot stomp— the traditional job of spectators to toe back into place clumps of grass that have been dislodged by the ponies’ fast and furious maneuvers.
But it’s the players who probably enjoy the week most. With its unique combination of adrenaline and intense athletic challenge, polo is addictive according to Singh Jr. “Imagine hitting with accuracy a bouncing synthetic ball the size of a baseball from on top of a horse galloping at full speed with a flexible 52-inch rattan stick, while seven other players are running after you.” “Believe me, it is not easy,” he says. “[But] polo is like a drug, once it gets into your system it is very difficult to stop. I have played many other sports, and I can assure you there is no better feeling than playing polo.”
Aleece Gregg’s list Personal Vacation Advisor
Eat: For seafood and Thai-inspired cuisine, go to Acqua Mare, in the Cap Cana marina. The glass floor over the sea at Punta Cana Resort’s La Yola is as amazing as its Mediterranean cuisine. Passion by Martin Berasetegui puts a Caribbean spin on Spanish and Basque flavors.
Day Trip: Travel to the snorkeling paradise of Isla Catalina. Whale Watching Witness the humpback whale migration.
Make Yourself at Home; Punta Cana
The polo fields at Casa de Campo are within an hour’s easy drive from Inspirato’s Signature Residences in Punta Cana and Cap Cana, highlighted by the 16,000-square-foot Villa Palmyra with 6 bedrooms, 7.5 bathrooms and a dedicated chef, housekeeper and butler. Intimate parties will enjoy Villa Tortuga’s 4 bedrooms and 4,150 square feet of living space and a private pool. Those desiring beachfront and a private pool can opt for the 6-bedroom, 9,800-square-foot Casa Caribe.