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Polo match brings sport of kings to Hartwood Acres

| Friday, Sept. 5, 2003

It's the same story every year: There's a tailgate party at Hartwood Acres, and a polo match breaks out.

The National City Family House Polo Match has long been a place to seen and be seen, where men can wear ascots with impunity and women can sport the last sheath dresses and floppy hats of the season. Tailgating can reach Gatsby-esque proportions, with the occasional candelabra among the champagne and strawberries, Rolls Royces and vintage sports cars that are parked on the green.

But the main event -- the polo match between the Great Meadows Team from Virginia and the Potomac Team from Maryland -- is played with the kind of speed and gusto one might encounter at a Pittsburgh Steelers game. These riders come to play.

"It's very much like in hockey," says Paul Singer, director and general counsel for Family House and a polo player himself.

This year's 20th-anniversary event, titled "Twenty Years of Noble Play and Spirited Fun," will feature vintage automobile displays, boutiques, stilt-walkers, balloon artists and caricature artists for the kids. Proceeds benefit Family House, a charity that provides housing for patients and their families who must travel to Pittsburgh to receive medical treatment at UPMC Hospitals or West Penn Hospital.

Polo might be the sport of kings, but few realize that it is also a contact sport. Just as a hockey player might throw a body check to his opponent during a fight for the puck, a polo player can use physical contact to push his opponent away from the ball. A rider may turn his horse, lift his knee and leg out of danger and drive his horse into the side of his opponent's.

In polo parlance, this is known as "bumping." But, says Singer, "If you saw it, you'd call it a collision. When you have a 1,000-pound horse with a guy on it knocking into another horse to get the ball, it can be dangerous."

Singer, an attorney at Reed Smith LLP, Downtown, helped the organizers of the Family House Polo match design a game on the limited acreage at Hartwood.

The land wasn't large enough for regulation outdoor polo, so they grafted aspects of indoor polo, which uses an inflatable ball similar to a miniature soccer ball. They also set up sideboards.

"If the ball hits the sideboard, it stays in play. From a spectator perspective, it's a wonderful game to watch. If you've gone to see the Steelers, it's hard to see both end zones. We've been able to, in effect, make this work on a field. The players love it, because it's large enough to gallop but it's contained enough to see the ball and for spectators to see the whole game."

Maggsie Sliger of Fox Chapel is chairwoman of the teams committee, but a more accurate title might be stage manager.

Sliger, a 20-year veteran of the event, books hotel accommodations for the visiting teams. And because places such as the Holiday Inn RIDC won't let the horses stay in the same room as the players, she also arranges to put up the polo ponies at local stables and farms. Singer is boarding several of the ponies at his Indiana Township farm.

Cell phones and e-mails have made Sliger's job easier, but emergencies occur.

"Years ago, we had a horse trailer that became disabled in the middle of the Pennsylvania Turnpike," Sliger says. "We had 12 horses on the side of the road. It was a nightmare. But we found somebody up in that area who picked up the horses. The truck had to be towed. It was a mess."

Additional Information:

Details

National City Family House Polo Match

When: Saturday, Sept. 6. Gates open at 11 a.m. Match begins at 1 p.m.

Admission: $150 includes a parking space; admittance for four people, with children 12 and younger admitted free; admission to polo match and the Backstage Pass Party at 4 p.m. at Hartwood Amphitheatre.

Where: Hartwood Acres, Hampton.

Details: (412) 647-7656 or familyhousepolo.com .

The event raises money for the housing of hospitalized children and their families.

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