Panache Privee

Power Play
Along with serious polo devotees, the Greenwich Polo Club attracts a celebrity-heavy crowd along with the social set's usual suspects.

by JASMINE MIR


The Greenwich Polo Club brings together “the top-rated polo players in the world demonstrating their horsemanship and skill with the finest polo ponies in the world, themselves tremendous athletes.”


For serious polophiles, the social scene at the Greenwich Polo Club never eclipses the action on the field.

Polo's appeal crosses generations: Peter Brant, right, with son Chris.

The social scene at the 2003 Hole in the Wall Gang polo kickoff event: co-founder Ursula Gwynne.

Molly McGrath

Michael and Jennifer Brockman at the 2003 Hole in the Wall Gang Polo for Children event.
This morning, on the impeccably manicured emerald fields of the Greenwich Polo Club, all is quiet and serene. Do not be fooled. This bucolic tranquility will not long belie the body-bruising, career-making equestrian showmanship for which these fields have become famous.

Nor will the surrounding lawns remain Walden Pond-quiet. The hum of celebrities chatting up the who's who of New York-area society, the admiring whispers among gaggles of girls as the hot new players saunter past and, of course, the chink of flutes filled to the brim with bubbly will soon reach a crescendo: On June 6, Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Polo for Children charity event kicks off the polo season.

On tournament Sundays and the many evenings when it hosts dazzling, glitterati-attended charity galas, the Greenwich Polo Club is the buzzing hub of the area social scene, reaching its apex in September when the club hosts the legendary USPA Gold Cup.

To call the Gold Cup the Grand Prix of polo would be a conservative description. In a coup that suggests why he is, after all, referred to without even an iota of irony as a tycoon, Greenwich Polo Club owner Peter M. Brant enticed the Gold Cup to Greenwich in the mid-90s after the club's public opening in 1993. And why not? Generations of polo devotees have called the area home and, now with a meticulously maintained club and arguably the finest tournament in the country practically in their backyard, New York- and Connecticut-area polo enthusiasts need not brave L.I.E. traffic to Bridgehampton or jet down to Wellington, FL, for a world-class match.

Peter Orthwein, a Greenwich resident and vice chairman of Thor Industries, is a particularly enthusiastic area polo booster, even serving as the vice president of the Greenwich Polo Club, which, he says, brings together “the top-rated polo players in the world demonstrating their horsemanship and skill, with the finest polo ponies in the world, themselves tremendous athletes.” And the ponies are not the only athletes on the field worthy of admiration. Club member Susan Oliver Whitney follows in the generations-long footsteps of ancestors beginning with Harry Payne Whitney in her passion for the game. A loyal aficionado of Brant's White Birch team, Whitney can wax poetic about the seductive combination of a strong horse and a sexy player. White Birch has become renowned for both.

Speaking of attractive players, the Argentine exports of recent years have measurably heated things up on the fields. Nacho Figueras, launched to stardom by his fancy fieldwork for White Birch, caused a stir on and off the field. Despite — or, more likely, because of — his bad-boy reputation, Figueras was the most coveted party guest for more than just one season. It was at a Hamptons dinner party that Figueras caught the eye of Bruce Weber and landed a Ralph Lauren ad campaign with Spanish beauty Penelope Cruz, girlfriend of Tom Cruise, whom Figueras himself has been likened to on more than one occasion. Fellow Argentine Mariano Aguerre, along with ten- goal-rated teammate Bautista Heguy, has become a White Birch celebrity, Aguerre's professional and personal stock skyrocketing upon the news of his impending Hall of Famer status.

But the appeal of the on-field eye candy begs the question of whether the increasing numbers of young women in the audience are there to watch the game or Mexican film star Gael Garcia Bernal look-alikes playing it. Or are the players themselves simply the cherry on top of the social opportunity a polo match affords celebutantes and aspirants? While for serious polophiles such as Orthwein the social scene never eclipses the action on the field, many attendees do devote more studied attention to the off-field action. But what are hospitality tents, lavish buffets and open bars for if not socializing? Club management seems to realize the social importance of the matches to many of their attendees — men and women alike – and, with the nonstop flow of champagne in the grandstand boxes, the mingle-friendly fieldside tables and loungey feel to the billowing tent, the club offers its tacit approval to those who come primarily to see and be seen.

Increasingly, active members of the Greenwich Polo Club's social scene have included many twentysomething jetsetters who one might expect to show more interest in sleeping off a hangover on Sunday afternoon than arriving at the field fresh and ready for a day of equestrian mastery. Although the gloriously epic-scale hats (Peter Beaton and Philip Treacy, if you please) still dominate the audience, they mingle with the Frédéric Fekkai pin-straight blowouts and the tousled locks of career partiers. The fact that polo's appeal crosses generations is precisely what has guaranteed its longevity. And while the numbers of devotees it attracts may be growing, with tournament sponsors that include Mercedes-Benz of Greenwich, Veuve Clicquot and Baccarat, the Greenwich Polo Club has hardly gone common. Under Brant's formidable leadership, the club has, since its first season, attracted a hobnobbing mix of upper-crust patricians, foreign dignitaries, nouveau Manhattan socialites of the art world and public relations variety, and the sprinkling of celebrities that make any party just a smidge more fun.

This is certainly no surprise coming from Brant, who, in an arena that includes fellow team patrons, actor Tommy Lee Jones and leading global business magnates, is arguably the nation's polo tour de force. Along with friend and financier Neil Hirsch, Brant established the Bridgehampton Polo Club in the 80s, the same period during which he revived the Saratoga Polo Association. His fortuitous meeting with Thomas Glynn, a now-deceased polo luminary for whom a memorial match is held at the Greenwich Polo Club every August, cemented Brant's long-lasting dedication to the game. In between the entrepreneurial projects ranging from film producing to publishing and a jet-set lifestyle with supermodel wife Stephanie Seymour, Brant has devoted extensive resources to developing the Greenwich Polo Club as the center of not only polo but star-studded events for prominent national charities. The Hole in the Wall Gang annual gala to raise funds for a summer camp for children with cancer and other illnesses is known to attract a celeb-heavy crowd along with the social set's usual suspects, as do the Children's Health Fund and the Children's Hospital Montefiore fundraisers.

According to Director of Special Events for The Hole in the Wall Gang Tammy Young, the club provides the kind of involvement in planning the Polo for Children day that is completely uncharacteristic of event venues. In fact, the polo match itself, the culmination of a full day's activities – which include auctions and a lavish lunch – features White Birch players in a game arranged by the club. It is no wonder that Young describes the club as “the most exquisite and ideal environment for the leading families of Manhattan, and Fairfield and Westchester counties to enjoy the highest end of amenities and activities.” Co-founder of The Hole in the Wall Gang with Newman and A.E. Hotchner, Ursula Gwynne wholeheartedly agrees, which is why this June marks the third year the event will take place at the Greenwich Polo Club.

But make no mistake: At the heart of Brant's enterprise is the sport of polo. At one point the highest rated amateur in his division, Brant is clearly more than a casual player himself. As the patron of White Birch, Brant wields his stick on the field with as much alacrity, precision and style as his young recruits. The fact that patrons play alongside team members is a key point in the game, setting it apart from, say, baseball, in which the idea of George Steinbrenner playing alongside Derek Jeter is worthy of a few chuckles. Steinbrenner likens owning the Yankees to owning the Mona Lisa, but for Brant, perhaps his relationship to White Birch is more like leading a team of da Vincis – and adding key strokes on the canvas besides.

The patron is one of four players on each team on the field at any point in a match, which is divided into six seven-minute periods, or chukkers, as they are known. The basic goal – hitting the ball with a mallet through the opponent's goalpost – is straightforward enough in theory, but add collisions between fiercely strong horses and swinging mallets, and it is no surprise that many players leave the field with broken noses, fractured jaws and other bumps, bruises and general blood-spill. But rather than considered mars on their often pretty faces, the battle wounds are worn like badges of honor – often increasing the dangerous appeal players have for swooning fans.

And swoon they will this summer at the Greenwich Polo Club.
Jasmine Mir is a writer and editor living in New York City.
Photo credit: polo action shots, J. Gregory Raymond; social scene, courtesy of Hole in the Wall Gang
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