It had been 37 years since the United States had seen a Triple Crown. That all changed this summer when American Pharoah thrilled the country and broke the elusive record. The beauty and grandeur of the race horse is awe-inspiring. Horses have played an integral part in sports for more than 2,000 years. In fact, the game of polo is one of the oldest known sports. During the polo hey day in the 1930s, the game made all the big newspapers’ sports pages. In New York at Meadowbrook, the stands would be filled with 40,000 spectators regularly. The game had a place in the national consciousness until World War II when nearly all of the good players were killed. Locally, it’s a game that has had its roots in Columbia since the 1950s and still evokes fond memories to those in the Capital City who played it all those years ago.
The game of polo is nothing without a highly trained horse of good breeding. These ponies must be fast, capable of stopping on a dime and comfortable crashing into other horses, while also having a great deal of agility and endurance. A team consists of four players, all holding different positions on the field. Number one is the offensive forward, number two is also on offense, number three is often the strongest player while also considered the captain and number four is the back. These four players must act as a team with one objective — to get the ball between the goal posts. A match is composed of four to eight chukkers, or periods — four in England, six in the United States and eight in Argentina — that each last seven minutes, and is played on a field that is 300 yards long and 160 yards wide with side boards and 300 by 200 without, akin to the area of about nine and a half football fields.
While the basic rules are simple, playing the game is not. It takes a tremendous amount of skill and training — skills many Columbia residents so deftly applied during polo’s local heyday from the 1950s to the late 1980s. The Columbia Polo Association was established around the early 1950s by Tom Matlack, Sinkler Manning and Burwell Manning, with the first matches being held on fields off of Bluff Road.
The Columbia Centaurs — Heath Manning, Billy Boyd, Donny Boyd and Cyril Harrison — gained a 5 to 2 victory over Wateree in a Sunday afternoon polo match on the Bluff Road field.
Bill Cain was one of the early polo players in Columbia and still looks back on those times with great fondness. He began his polo days on those fields off of Bluff Road. “I was in high school when I started playing,” he says. “They had a clubhouse, and on the fields we would have cocktail parties where I would bring my dates; they were very impressed. I will never forget my first game. They threw in the ball, and I was playing the number one position closest to the referee. I hit the ball on a bounce to my left, pulled up my horse, went behind another player, hit it two or three more times and scored a goal! I thought, ‘Well, this is easy.’ I don’t know how many times I touched the ball after that, but I still have the ball I scored with, and I can still see the impressions on the ball from where I hit it.”
Top: Officers of the Columbia Polo Association gather for planning tournaments. Sinkler Manning, president; Peter Manigault, secretary-treasurer; and Col. Tom Matlack, manager. Center: Taylor Boyd, Darnall Boyd, Jr., Jimmie Flerx and Terry Snow, members of the Wildewood team, triumphed over Aiken. Bottom: In traveling to England for various competitions, including against royalty, the Columbia Polo Club chartered a DC-8 to fly their 32 horses and five grooms over for the games.
For the Columbia families who played polo, the game was ingrained in their lives from the time they were children. “I remember polo my whole life,” says Mary Locke Oliphant, whose late uncle, Burle Manning, developed the fields off of Bluff Road and whose late father, Heath Manning, was later one of the developers of the polo fields in what is now Wildewood neighborhood off of Polo Road. “We grew up on the fields, because during that time polo was a family affair. It was a great way of life for the men in our family.”
In the 1960s, Heath purchased land in the Wildewood area. The fields off of Bluff Road were experiencing continuous wet conditions, and Heath and the late Donny Boyd, his co-developer, made the decision to create two polo fields in this new neighborhood, which at the time, had not yet become the thriving subdivision that it is today. Donny, Heath and their team constructed two polo fields, one main field and one practice — on what are now Running Fox and Mallett Hill roads.
Top: Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth presenting The Jaipur Trophy to Michael Butler, Heath Manning, Billy Linfoot and Ronnie Tongg, winning members of the Columbia team at Windsor Park in London. Bottom: Columbia Polo Club members (L to R) Heath Manning, Jr., Heath Manning, Ronnie Tongg, Michael Butler, Bengi Toda, Tony Devitch, Corky Linfoot and Dr. Billy Linfoot are photographed with a vast array of trophies in Windsor Park London, England. They won numerous tournaments that included games against Prince Charles and Prince Philip.
The Wildewood fields were created with great attention to detail, including the highest-quality water systems, the best grass for the area, convenient spectator seating and prime parking. Jeff McMahan, a local polo player and enthusiast, penned a book on the sport and noted in this book that after the Wildewood fields were built, the sport took off in the area with the Columbia Polo Association playing eight home games in the fall.
Polo matches at the Wildewood fields were entertaining even when a match wasn’t in session. Halftime shows featured parachutists and air shows, keeping spectators captivated for hours on end.
Columbia was an ideal location for polo, as people traveling to Florida to play in the winter would stop first to play in South Carolina. On the way home, they would again make a visit to the state for a few more matches. “It’s a seasonal thing,” adds Mary Locke. “We usually played in the dead of winter. I still remember our family playing on those fields all through my college years. People were out there playing the guitar, drinking beer and watching the matches.”
Both Heath and Donny were astute polo players. Heath was in his 70s when he stopped playing. His love for the game wasn’t lost on Mary Locke, who also holds a passion for the game. She went on to run polo clubs across the country, while her brother played professionally.
While the beauty of the horses is captivating, the true competitiveness of a polo match cannot be underestimated. “Polo is a lot of fun, but it is also extremely combative,” says Susan Boyd, Donny Boyd’s wife. “Knowing how to truly ride a horse is imperative. When people start off riding and can’t do it well, they soon discover that they had better learn quickly. It’s a very dangerous sport, and it takes skill. You’re hitting that ball while riding a horse at full gallop.”
Top: Taylor Boyd with his “string.” (L to R): Goaltender, Pompita, Smokey, Roland, Boernie, Spotless. Middle: Taylor Boyd takes possession deep in enemy territory riding “Pateca.” While also known as “Old Reliable,” Pateca was not very fast. Bottom: Donny Boyd talking with his son, Darnall Boyd, Jr., rated at five goals, during half time.
While the power and grace of the polo horses are evident in their stride, their sinewy legs and their unparalleled control, the polo player must also possess strength in spirit and in body. “I had to learn how to ride with my legs rather than holding on to the reins which I was able to do,” says Bill Cain. “But you had to ride well enough so you didn’t think about riding; it had to become second nature.” The horses are mostly thoroughbreds and are held with the utmost esteem, care and respect. “I finally got the hang of hitting the ball from the seat of the saddle, going at a full gallop in the game,” he continues. “We would do a workout before the game, and the horses were always under control, but when the game started, it was like a full-on horse race. It was an interesting, yet intense competition. You had to prepare yourself for anything that might happen.”
An acute awareness for the game was a necessity. All players had heard of terrible accidents that had occurred, and the possibility for potential harm was surely in the back of the minds of the players. Fortunately for Bill, he never had a fall. “I knew it had the potential for danger, and I certainly thought if I fell off I would be in trouble,” he says. “I sometimes look back and wonder how I ever did that.”
To be sure, a polo player is equipped with a great deal of safety equipment. From wearing knee guards to helmets, players strive to reduce potential injury to both themselves and their prized ponies. In addition, the goal posts on a polo field are collapsible, as riders on occasion collide or are pushed into them. “Polo is so much about the horse,” says Mary Locke. “If you can’t get to the ball, you can’t play. Today, it’s athletes riding horses. It’s like a ballet, and if it’s done properly and no one gets hurt, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
While the Wildewood Polo fields are no longer around, the game of polo lives on in South Carolina with matches still being held in Aiken today — a city that held its first polo match in 1882 and still finds the sport as a way of life. It’s a storied game that evokes memories of a more refined, sophisticated time. A time when the rider and pony become one, a simplistic beauty — but still with a dangerous side.