Polo for the people, Bethpage State Park

Polo matches are played at Bethpage State Park.

Polo matches are played at Bethpage State Park. (Credit: Newsday/Nelson Ching)

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Bethpage State Park enjoys an international reputation for golf and local popularity for winter sledding. But polo? Not so much.

Still, opening day of polo season drew hundreds of spectators -- some longtime aficionados, some newcomers -- to witness the fast-paced sport.

As mounted players ranged around the field, swinging long-handled mallets at a small white plastic ball, spectators in the grandstand watched and learned. Among the crowd -- which one organizer unofficially estimated at 800 -- were Matthew Shivers, 23, of Great Neck and Pearl Young, 23, of Levittown.

They admitted to knowing little about the sport, although she rides horses. "I wanted to wear a summer dress and a hat like the 'Pretty Woman' thing, but it wasn't sunny enough," Young quipped.

Donna Handlin, 65, of Floral Park, also was a first-time polo spectator. "I came out of curiosity to see what the sport was like," said Handlin, a retired New York State lottery worker. Handlin's verdict: "I am enjoying it very much," she said. "I like the action."

 

 

DWARFS A FOOTBALL FIELD

 

The game, with four players on each team lasts for six seven-and-a-half-minute periods. It's played on a grassy field 300 yards by 160 yards, roughly the size of eight football fields. Perhaps because it is so expensive (horses and tack, or gear, can run several thousand dollars), polo hasn't caught on among average sports fans, says Robert Ceparano, owner of Country Farms in Medford, one of the hosts. The organizers at Bethpage hope to change that.

"Polo is traditionally a rich man's sport," Ceparano says. He noted that Long Island was a center of polo during the 20th century. One of polo's superstars, Tommy Hitchcock Jr., played at the Meadowbrook Polo Club in the early 1900s.

However, Ceparano says he wants to introduce the sport "to the working man." He runs a polo arena in Medford, where he tries to make play affordable for families.

To add appeal to the Bethpage State Park matches, refreshments, including Long Island wine and hot dogs, are sold under white tents. At half-time, spectators are invited onto the field to stomp the divots, toeing swatches of grass torn up by the horses' hooves. Shows will be added in the future, Ceparano says, that may include a trick rider.

Al Hans, 55, an attorney from Massapequa Park, was getting in the polo spirit. He'd brought a picnic lunch of ham sandwiches, strawberries and lemonade, and was sitting in the front row to get a closeup view.

"A few times the horses came right by," Hans said. "You don't realize how dangerous this sport is until they come up close."

Some spectators were longtime polo fans -- and fellow players.

Janet Stieg, 52, of Brookhaven, attended with her friend, an amateur polo player named Chick Satterley, 43, of Brookhaven.

Stieg, a self-described "polo mom," understands the sport and has enjoyed introducing her children to it. "It's fast, it's dangerous and it's pretty to watch," she said. The family owns five horses, and Stieg's two children play.

But others were still grappling with the nature of the sport. It reminded Shivers of another, better known, pastime.

Quipped Shivers, "This basically looks like soccer on horseback."

 

 

 

 

Polo at the Park

 

WHEN | WHERE 3 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 9. Gates open at 2 p.m.

INFO 516-249-0700, ext. 6, poloatthepark.com

ADMISSION $5 general (ages 12 and younger free), $8 parking

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