Polo in Skaneateles

:: Our First Polo Player ::

Alexander Sinclair Reynolds was born in Skaneateles in 1896, the son of attorney John Reynolds and Lillian Sinclair Reynolds. Lillian’s father was Capt. Francis A. Sinclair, a veteran of the Civil War and founder of the Union Chair Works in nearby Mottville, N.Y., where he manufactured his “Common Sense” chairs and rockers.

In spite of his lineage, Alexander Reynolds did not display a disposition for sitting still. Early in his youth he raced his sailboat Ghost on Skaneateles Lake. After two years at Syracuse University, he went to officer’s training at Plattsburgh and served in the U.S. Army Field Artillery during and after World War I. He moved from base to base, serving at Camp Taylor in Kentucky, Fort Sill in Oklahoma and at Schofield Barracks on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.

At some point, Lt. Reynolds took up polo, considered by the Army to be an excellent training exercise for officers. In 1926, his regimental team won the Post Championship of Schofield Barracks. With teammate Lt. L.E. Jacoby, Reynolds was selected to play on the Hawaiian Department Army Team, which won the Inter-Island Championship. The other two players on the team were Capt. Wesley J. White – who went on to become the dean of American polo umpires – and Maj. George S. Patton, a hard-charging polo player who would make something of a name for himself as a General in World War II.

When Reynolds left the Army in the early 1930s, he returned to Skaneateles and picked up where he left off, racing sailboats on the lake and living in the family home on West Lake Street. And he continued to play polo, traveling to the closest club, in Cortland, N.Y., where polo had been played as early as 1925.

In June of 1932, he hosted his former teammate, Wesley J. White, in Skaneateles, and they played polo in Cortland. Since their time in the Army, White had become polo royalty. In 1927, in front of 40,000 spectators at Meadow Brook, he umpired the first game of the Westchester Cup, laying down the law for Americans J. Watson Webb, Malcolm Stevenson, Devereux Milburn and Tommy Hitchcock, and four of Great Britain’s best. In 1928, he umpired at the U.S. Open and the Waterbury Cup, sharing the polo field with Hitchcock, Stevenson, C.V. Whitney, Winston Guest, Stephen “Laddie” Sanford, Stewart Iglehart, Lewis Lacey and Averell Harriman, a virtual “who’s who” of the Golden Age of Polo. Within a year, White would author a polo rule book that would be the authority for decades to come.

In August of 1936, undoubtedly bearing a copy of White’s Guide for Polo Umpires (1933), Reynolds refereed a match between the Cortland Polo Club and the Ikalka Polo Club of Albany, N.Y.

:: The First Attempt ::

In 1936, interest in polo was growing in Skaneateles. In the autumn, Dwight Brainard, Purcell Ludington and Bob Hoffman practiced with polo mallets and balls on the Skaneateles High School Athletic Field.

In November, the Skaneateles Press reported, “The local polo players journeyed to the Cortland Polo Club last Sunday afternoon for mallet practice. Those who went to the Cortland Club were Dwight Brainard, Bob Hoffman and Waller Thorne.”

In December, a meeting was held at the (Fire) Engine House for all interested in a “horse and polo club.” Alexander Reynolds brought films he had obtained from the United States Polo Association (USPA), and a speaker came from the Cortland Polo Club. Eleven people attended, including Emogene Clapp, Dwight Brainard, Verne Landon, John Waller Thorne, Dr. Frank G. Dye and his son Frank Jr., Bob Hoffman, Purcell “Purc” Ludington and Warren Perkins.

At the meeting, the Cortland Polo Club extended an invitation for all prospects to join them for practice each week in the riding hall of Cornell University. However, the effort did not lead to a local team.

In 1939, Reynolds was still playing for the Cortland Polo Club, but now with a second player from Skaneateles, Harry Townsend “Ty” Yardley, who would prove to be a link with polo’s future in Skaneateles. An athletic man, Yardley had lettered in baseball at Syracuse University (Class of 1930) and then had the good fortune to marry Julia Pease, whose father, John A. Pease of the Netherland Dairy, had invented the cap on the milk bottle (U.S. Patent No. 1,595,614). Having landed in clover, Yardley wintered in Palm Beach, where he played polo.

:: Polo Takes Root ::

In 1961, Don Cross of Skaneateles saw the U.S. Open Polo Championship on television, and decided he wanted to play, too. His interest led him to Cornell University’s indoor arena and evening sessions led by Dr. Stephen “Doc” Roberts. Catching Cross’s enthusiasm, his friends Peter Winkelman and Tim Gridley also journeyed to Cornell. Peter’s father, Dwight Winkelman, had played polo since prep school, and in 1962, the four men decided to bring the sport to Skaneateles.

Dwight Winkelman was president of D.W. Winkelman Construction, an energetic man who enjoyed 16-hour work days, as long as they were in the field and not behind a desk.  His favorite exercise was riding. He kept both polo ponies and hunters for fox hunting at his second home in North Carolina.

In Skaneateles, Winkelman built the first polo field next to his airplane hanger on West Lake Road. He knew how to build things, like the original atom bomb plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as well as airport runways and Route 81. Compared to most of his projects, a polo field was a piece of cake. But there wasn’t enough room for a regulation-size field (300 x 160 yards—the size of nine football fields). And so, for the first few years, the Skaneateles club’s smaller field had room for just three players per team, rather than the usual four.

In 1965, the club hosted a polo school under the auspices of the USPA. Cyril Harrison, a 7-goaler from Camden, South Carolina, taught the finer points to 20 students who came from up and down the eastern seaboard. Also that year, SPC hosted Myopia, the oldest active polo club in the nation, founded in 1891 as one of the five charter members of the USPA.

In 1966, Ty Yardley served as the club’s manager and coach. For many years, he umpired the club’s matches.

:: David Chase: Polo Player, Teacher, Evangelist ::

Also in 1966, David O. Chase, who as a young man had been introduced to riding by Ty Yardley, joined the club. After his first polo match, Chase said that polo was the most fun he ever had on a horse. In the years to come, the founder and president of Chase Design in Skaneateles would be a major contributor to the club’s growth and success. And one of the things that gave him the greatest pleasure was teaching others how to play and enjoy polo.

One of Chase’s early students, Juann Cunningham, described him as “a fabulous man who knew how to bring out the best in the horse and rider.” Her description of one of his first polo clinics is worth sharing:

“It was arranged to rent horses from Cornell University for the summer for everyone’s first year of polo. You have to understand that these horses had all been donated to Cornell and a were a variety of breeds and backgrounds and your name went into a hat for each practice. Sometimes you’d get a runaway, a slow poke you couldn’t move, an old hunter, a show horse or a reiner [a horse trained in a western form of dressage].

“Everyone was given a mallet and ball and the fun began, the reins in one hand and mallet in the other. Poor Seymour [an older lesson horse], who had been dragged into the clinic so everyone would have a horse, just wouldn’t move. It wasn’t a lesson. What were we doing here? The girl on his back was paddling his sides so hard to get to the ball she looked like a canoer desperately trying to avoid the waterfall. Actually, the ball could be found underneath her…

“Some of the horses who had done some polo before had such good brakes the novice riders didn’t expect the obedient stops. We called the result an emergency terrain check. It was a comedy of errors… But they could only get better, and they did – better and better… Dave made everything seem easy, ‘Of course you can, anyone can do it,’ he would say.”

In 1967, the club had grown to 12 playing members, and the string of ponies grew from 14 to 26. In July of 1968, both WHEN and WSYR, Syracuse television stations, taped and broadcast portions of a game with the Cleveland Polo Club.

In 1972, the club built a new, regulation-size polo field (the field in use today) and finally had room to play with four to a team. The first match on the new field was with the Cleveland Polo Club. The “three player field” however, was still used for games with smaller polo clubs, such as Loudonville.

The next year, they hosted the USPA’s Northeast Circuit 8-Goal championship. The winner was Fairfield, a Connecticut team which included Peter Orthwein, future polo Hall of Famer George Haas, and team manager Tommy Glynn, who in 2001 would be honored with the Iglehart Award for Lifetime Contributions to the Sport of Polo. Orthwein scored seven goals and Haas two more as they put away Cortland 10-5. (The tenth goal was kicked in by a Fairfield pony.)

Very notably, the tournament’s umpire/referee was Robert Skene, a 10-goal legend, who had played for the British Westchester Cup team, the Beverly Hills Polo Club, and the Santa Barbara Polo Club. He held his 10-goal ranking for 17 years, won three U.S. Opens, and twice went to Argentina to play (and win) on Argentine teams in the Argentine Open. Known as “Hurricane Bob,” he was swept into the U.S. Polo Hall of Fame in 1990 on the first ballot. While in Skaneateles, he gave a polo clinic where everyone paid attention.

Twice in July of 1974, WCNY-TV of Syracuse, N.Y., gamely attempted to videotape Skaneateles polo matches, but the results were less than one might hope for. Given the fact that a polo ball travels three times as fast as a horse and rider, and the flow of play shifts continually, the camera crew can be forgiven.

In 1976, David Chase offered a polo school for women, focusing on the basics of technique, teamwork, strategy, and the care and training of polo ponies. A graduation game between the blue squad (Carolyn DeGroff, Stephanie Nans, Jennifer Nash) and the orange squad (Lynne McIntosh, Mary Jane Jacobson, Gayle Flerx) saw Blue emerge triumphant 8-5.

Also that year, David Chase captained the U.S. polo team at the Summer Olympics in Montreal, where polo was an exhibition sport, and the Skaneateles Polo Club hosted the USPA Intracircuit Eight-Goal tournament.

In 1979, the SPC hosted its first benefit for the Syracuse Opera Theater. It was called a “Four Pony Opera,” a playful allusion to “Three Penny Opera.” The benefit’s title would eventually be shortened to “Polo for Opera,” most likely because there weren’t enough fans of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill to appreciate the play on words.

Other matches over the years have benefited ASTRIDE (a therapeutic riding program for the physically and mentally challenged), the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Skaneateles Fire Department, the Skaneateles Jaycees, and SAVES, the Skaneateles ambulance service.

In 1981, Syracuse’s WSYR television station filmed an SPC scrimmage for “Bud’s Journal,” hosted by Bud Hedinger.

Over the years, matches have been cancelled for a number of reasons – soggy field conditions caused by rain before or during the match being the most common – but in July of 1982, a match with Binghamton was called during play due to lightning.

On Saturday, July 20, 1985, CBS Evening News aired a feature story on the Skaneateles Polo Club. Reporter Chris Kelley interviewed David Chase, Robert Fragnoli, Harry Jackson and Susan Blakney.

In 1995, club president David Chase died of an apparent heart attack while schooling a polo pony at his home in Florida. He was remembered for his professional achievements, for his contributions to the community, and for his involvement in many aspects of equestrian sport. Chase served as Master of the Hounds with the Limestone Creek Hunt Club of Cazenovia, founded and led the Carousel Farms Precision Drill Team, and served as president of the New York State Horse Council. His Madison Barracks polo team won the National Seniors Tournament every year from 1991 to 1995. He also served as the president of the Museum of Polo in Lake Worth, Florida, and on its Polo Hall of Fame selection committee.

:: Skaneateles Polo Today ::

Marty Cregg, who Chase introduced to polo in 1978, became the president of the SPC, a position he holds today. In addition to hosting home matches on Sunday afternoons in July and August, the club team plays in leagues and tournaments in Lake Worth, Florida, and Aiken, South Carolina, during the rest of the year.

In 2001, writer Coleen Hoselton captured the nature of the SPC in her piece “Polo: It’s a Family Thing,” describing how generations of players’ children had grown up selling programs, waving flags to indicate when a goal has been scored (or missed), and changing the scoreboard. Or repairing the scoreboard in mid-game.

In keeping with David Chase’s spirit, the SPC continues to involve newcomers in the sport, and plays benefit games for local charities. Admission to the games is $2 a car, making an afternoon of Skaneateles polo one of the most extraordinary cultural values in Central New York.

* * *

Sources: “Eighth Field Artillery in Hawaii, 1926,” Field Artillery Journal, Jan.-Feb. 1927; “When Good Riders Get Together,” Binghamton Press, June 9, 1932; “Chance for Local Sports Lovers to See Polo Game,” Auburn Citizen-Advertiser, August 29, 1936; “Local Horsemen Take Interest in Polo,” Skaneateles Press, October 15, 1936; “Polo Players Practice at Cortland Field” Skaneateles Press, November 1936; “Local Horsemen to Have Meeting,” Skaneateles Press, December 4, 1936; “Discuss Polo Prospects” Skaneateles Press, December 11, 1936; “Two Local Men on Polo Team,” Skaneateles Press, August 18, 1939; “Lt. Alexander Sinclair Reynolds,” Press-Observer, January 8, 1975; “Chase Plans NSF Event” by Jean Rademacher, Auburn Citizen, July 19, 1981; “Polo for Opera” Auburn Citizen, August 6, 1984; “Polo Anyone? Sport of Kings Not for the Faint-hearted” by Nancy Ward, Auburn Citizen, July 6, 1987; “David Chase Was Friend to Polo” by David W. Hollis, “Stars Magazine” Syracuse Herald-Journal, March 26, 1995; Skaneateles Polo Club programs from the collection of the Skaneateles Historical Society; Unbridled: Horse Thoughts and Tales (1999) by Juann Cunningham; Vanderbilt Television News Archive, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN; “Polo Gets Off Its High Horse” by Jamie Murphy, Time magazine, April 12, 2005.

Also, articles from the Marcellus/Skaneateles Press-Observer including: “Polo Season Opens on the Fourth,” July 4, 1968; “Skaneateles Hosts Eastern Circuit Polo Tournament,” July 18, 1973; “Fairfield Wins Polo Championship,” July 25, 1973; “One Full Week of Polo at Skaneateles,” August 1, 1973; “Polo Team Ends Its Best Season,” October 10, 1973; “A Game for Warriors and Royalty” by Vicki Ferstel, July 16, 1975; “Great Enthusiasm for Women’s Polo School,” April 14, 1976; “Polo: Getting Set,” July 27, 1977; “David O. Chase: View from the Saddle,” November 29, 1978; “Polo Truly Sports ‘Fun for All’ Image” by Kathleen Jacques, July 21, 1982; “Dwight W. Winkelman” (Obituary), August 18, 1982; “Skaneateles Polo Draws Picnic Crowd,” September 11, 1991; “Cystic Fibrosis Foundation Plans Polo Match in Skaneateles,” July 21, 1993; “Community Mourns David Chase” by Amber Spain, March (n.d.),1995; “Polo Club Has Been in Skaneateles for 38 Years” by Megan Ladd, July 26, 2000; “Polo: It’s a Family Thing” by Coleen Hoselton, July 18, 2001

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4 thoughts on “Polo in Skaneateles

  1. A great story for Polo enthusists. Young John O’neil played with Don Cross, Cappy and Peter Winkleman. I believe he was the youngest player at that time. John Walsh is an avid player now among many others. Polo has grown in to a major spectator sport which we enjoy in Wellington, Florida every year. Thank you for your article much of which I did not know. Always interested in the history of Skaneateles! Tell us more.

  2. Very nice article on polo in Skaneateles; my daughter and I saw the polo game last week. It was the first time I had ever seen polo played and it was exciting to watch. It was my good fortune to meet John and Hayden Walsh and learn about how the game is played. Thanks again, Pat

  3. I was there in the summer of 2010 and was able to meet Marty Creeg, Byron Wilson and Family from Midland, Texas and Phil Romano from Dallas, Texas (Originally Auburn, NY). I also got to see John Walsh again and met his wife Reva and his son Hayden. What a great day it was spent at the polo fields and then off to the lake!

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