Polo Player’s Edition: “An Oasis of Polo”
By: Mark Miller
Eldorado Polo Club, the largest club in the country, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The club, in the California desert at Indio, California, has a rich history and a vibrant present-day status in American polo.
The club has 200 members and 10 playing fields. Even 10 fields aren’t enough, though, as the club leases two playing fields and a stick-and-ball field from the nearby Empire Polo Club. “We are physically side by side of the Empire club, and we have been leasing their fields now for over 10 years,” says Eldorado polo manager Susan Stovall. “We lease two of their fields, and so we just overflow into their situation. So with that we have 12 playing fields, and then we have one other field that we lease from them for stick and ball.”
At Eldorado people can play in low-, medium- and high-goal polo, and in seniors’ tournaments, ladies’ tournaments and, for the kids, junior polo. The women also play a lot in the other leagues and tournaments with the men.
The club wasn’t always this large. In 1979, the land the club was sitting on, also in the Coachella Valley, became too valuable for use as a polo club and it was sold to developers. Just a couple of years earlier, in 1977, the club had just 24 members and grossed just $42,000, according to the 50th anniversary club magazine recently published by Randy Russell’s Polo America. The club moved farther out of town to its present location, where, again, the land has become extremely valuable.
Club general manager Alex Jacoy explained: “It’s the nature of the beast. The nature of polo clubs, if you look around, they’re located in a remote location when it starts and then everything builds up around them, and consequently the land’s so valuable that they do move farther down the road. Where we were located in Palm Desert off of Cook Street and 111, where the original club was when I started running it … the facility now is one of the most prestigious country clubs in the desert, called the Vintage Club. I mean, Bill Gates lives there. That’s how good it is. And you now, when we came out here to our current facility, it was a long way. You know it was only seven miles, but it was a long way out here, and there was nothing around. And eventually … there’s no fire sale here.”
The same thing is happening again. A deal recently fell through to develop the land into housing, but Jacoy and Stovall say the club will be sold to developers sooner or later, but that won’t necessarily be the end of the club.
“We aren’t going to say ‘have a nice day’ and not build another polo club,” said Jacoy, who has been manager for 30 years. “We’ll form a new group and build another polo club. There’ll always be polo in the Coachella Valley, in the desert. There’ll always be an Eldorado. So you’re going to drive seven to 10 miles down the road and find another piece of property. That’s all right. Form a new group. That’s what happens.”
Stovall concurred that it will be developed. “Oh, of course. This land is very valuable. I have been here for 25 years, and Alex has been here about 30. And the surrounding area, literally all the way around us, is housing. And that has come to fruition say in the last five to eight years. Across the street is a housing development. They’re all high end. They’re all $500,000 and up, and Eldorado certainly will be developed.”
Land was cheap when the club was founded, in 1957. Then, 11 polo players got together and bought the original parcel of land. They were Willie Tevis, Peter Hitchcock, Erwin Anisz, Willis Allen, Larry Tailor, L.C. Smith, Gayle Medicott, Bob Haney, Bill Gilmore, Ted Pierce and Frank Yturria. They had a meeting in San Francisco, at the Olympic Club, to purchase 38 acres from Bob McCulloch for $500 an acre. McCulloch was the developer of the Eldorado Country Club. He had some extra land that didn’t fit into his master plan. “Fortunately for thousands of polo players,” says the Eldorado magazine article written by Russell, “the land was perfect for polo.”
Each of the men contributed $5,000 to build the Eldorado Polo Club. Homes starting in the low millions now occupy the land the club originally sat on.
It was McCulloch’s idea to name the club Eldorado. He offered the founders a membership in his country club if they did so. “A funny anecdote regarding the free social memberships came after a polo game,” Russell wrote. “Five players rode their horses down the wash over to the Eldorado Country Club. They tied the horses to the trees at the main entrance; at that time there were orange trees at the club entrance where there are palm trees today. The five players in dirty shirts, britches and boots went straight to the bar. As they relived the game, they had a little too much to drink and the group became a little rowdy. As the players partied in the clubhouse, the horses left their calling cards at the entrance, and with that came the flies. The ladies and club members began to arrive after church and were absolutely disgusted. Several days later Tony Veen informed them that Mr. McCulloch, upset over their behavior, had revoked their social memberships.”
When the Eldorado Country Club bought the old club in 1979 to build housing, a new group of owners plus the old owners bought 180 acres farther out of town. The new owners were Glen Holden, John Leary, Henry Trione, John Emery and Paul Von Gontard. Russell wrote that as the club grew, an anonymous donor offered to match money raised to build a new clubhouse. The late Carlton Beal heard the news and announced he would match the amount raised. In the end he and his wife, Keleen, matched the money put up by a large group of other donors, and a 3,500- square-foot clubhouse was constructed.
“We have one clubhouse, and that is it, other than the stables and the fields,” said Stovall. “When we have an event, we can seat up to 500. And obviously there is fieldside seating, and tailgating, that sort of thing. We have … a raised berm, on each side of the clubhouse. So I’d say it’s about 15 to 20 feet above the level of our No. 1 field, and that is the only place we have that type of situation.”
The club also built the Cantina in 1981. Breakfast, lunch and drinks are served there. The Beals donated the scoreboard on the field outside the clubhouse in 1986, one of just two electronic scoreboards in polo at the time.
In 1986, Prince Charles played polo at Eldorado and the club hosted the U.S. Open in 1987, 1992 and 1993. Rain fell just before the 1987 Open final, and it was almost canceled that day. But Jacoy came up with the idea of having a helicopter fly low over the field to dry it out. It worked, and the game went on. The Aloha team, with Bob Fell, Memo and Carlos Gracida and Warren Scherer won that year. In 1992 it was Hanalei Bay, with Ron Bonaguidi, Memo and Carlos and Julio Arellano. In 1993 Glen Holden’s team Gehache won. Backing up Holden were Mike Azzaro, Memo Gracida and Ruben Gracida.
The club has had many charity games over the years with millions of dollars raised for good causes. Still played is the Barbara Sinatra Skins Polo Game, which raises money for her center for abused and neglected children. Teams play a tournament to qualify for the skins game final, in which the winners of each chukker take $4,000. Usually, said Stovall, the winners donate one chukker’s worth of prize money to the Sinatra center. Many stars have come out to see the event, including Frank Sinatra, Robert Wagner, Robert Stack, Gary Collins, Mary Ann Mobley, Merv Griffin, Jerry Vale, Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, Stefanie Powers, William Devane and Jill St. John.
“We have also sponsored great charities for the College of the Desert, and that is our local college here,” said Stovall. “It’s a small state-supported school but very, very active here in the community.” Club members have also been very generous to causes within the polo community. The club typically raises more than $100,000 each year for the Polo Training Foundation through a dinner and auction.
The club is well-known for its fun, relaxed atmosphere and offers a full social calendar for its members. Some of the more fun events include the Governor’s Ball, “Crash and Burn” parties, cocktail parties and barbecues. For the 50th anniversary celebration in January, the club had a lobster bake, a visual presentation of the club’s history, a hot-air balloon glow and a fireworks display.
The club was a club for players right from the beginning. In its first few years, members had a hard time mustering eight players and sometimes played three on three, Russell wrote. But word spread and the club began to grow.
In later years, the club’s growth exploded. Said Jacoy: “At the old club, when I was there in ’76, ’77, Ambassador Holden was governor of the circuit at that time, and I think we had like 24 players. And we used to open in the middle of January and close in the middle of March. It was a very short season. And the big tournament in those days was the Governor’s Cup. And in fact Santa Barbara in those days, that was a winter club. And all the guys used to come from like Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, you know, just all around the circuit to play in the Governor’s Cup and it just built up over the years. The one year I had it here was the largest—I had 42 teams. That was in the ’80s … Now we get about 24 teams. But the reason for that is because there is more going on. The high-goal goes on during that time, there is a 2-goal going on during that time, there’s a lot of tournaments going on in conjunction with the Governor’s Cup, competition wise.”
Even today the club is huge. Said Stovall: “And as we speak [in early February], last weekend we had 39 teams playing here, and that’s all on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And on Saturday we had 21 polo games, and on Sunday we had 16. Just so you know how much polo we have here, at 9:30 on Sunday morning, which [was] Super Bowl Sunday, we had nine games starting, and that went from 16-goal down to 2-goal. That’s a lot of polo. We are the biggest club in the United States as far as members, I mean as far as polo going on. No [other] club has nine games going on at the same time.”
Eldorado has had just two long-term managers. Tony Veen managed it from 1959 to 1979, and Jacoy from 1979 to the present. Veen had been a player since 1939 and played with many Hollywood stars, including Spencer Tracy, Walt Disney, Errol Flynn, Jack Warner, Charlie Farrell, Darryl Zanuck and Robert Stack, Russell wrote. Veen also was in several John Wayne movies and drove a chariot during the chariot race scene in Ben Hur.
Jacoy, too, played polo. “I played polo at both clubs,” he said. “But once it got to be such a big business, you now, there was no more polo. Susan Stovall still plays polo, and she’s kind of my pulse on the community in that she works with all of the polo players and so on. It’s too big of an operation to be playing polo.”
Jacoy was asked what makes the club special. “Several things,” he said. “One of them is the fact that it is the winter capital of polo in the United States on the West Coast because of the fact there’s no competition. You know, Santa Barbara, San Diego all the summertime clubs are closed down except for the little arena clubs, because of the weather, No 1.
“And No. 2, we built this club on the premise of something for everybody in terms of polo players, whether it’s the 2- goal or coaching league or Junior Polo program or a seniors’ tournament or a ladies’ tournament or the high-goal or leagues. I mean there’s always plenty of polo for everybody.
“And it’s a great family atmosphere. We encouraged, years ago … if the husband is playing polo and the wife isn’t happy and the kids, this guy is not going to be a returning member year after year. So we make it so that kids are playing every Saturday and Sunday at 9 o’clock, and the husband can play, and a lot of the wives play in the coaching league and the 2-goal. And also I throw two ladies’ tournaments here.” Stovall credits the owners with bringing such a great club to Southern California: “We have 21 owners. And I think each of them in their own way have made very special contributions to our club simply because they, for the love of polo, they have made our facility possible for our players. “We are definitely a lower-goal polo club. But that’s our sponsors, who have the economics to play at higher than 10 goals, but they don’t want to. They really don’t choose to. They are very, very happy, convenience-wise and that sort of thing, to be here. They get to hit the ball.” Sooner or later, the owners will be made an offer too good to pass up, and the club will be sold to a developer and close at its present site so the land can be developed. But if Jacoy is right, that will be just another turn in the history of Eldorado Polo Club. With 200 members, there is definitely a demand to keep it going well into the future.