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East County Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018 2 years ago

High times for polo in Lakewood Ranch

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Sarasota Polo Club opens under new owners, James and Misdee Miller.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

James and Misdee Miller, the new owners of the 158-acre Sarasota Polo Club, were talking dirt.

Well, at least James was talking dirt.

He was sitting inside the clubhouse, looking a bit anxious as workers were busy outside preparing for the Dec. 2 season opener.

"Here in Florida, it's a harsh environment on everything," he said. "Turf is no exception. And you have insects, disease, weeds. You are trying to maintain an ideal surface as difficult as a golf course. You need to know what the ground is like below the roots ... it's the most important thing for horses, because it gives stability when they take a step."

He went rapid fire into other dirt-related subjects.

"You have to keep track when the armyworm arrives," he said. "They start as a moth, then they fly into the turf and go subterranean. We have people monitoring the field on a daily basis. But there are good nematodes and bad nematodes."

Across from James, Misdee sat quietly, and finally interjected.

"You see what my life has become?" Misdee said with a smile. "That's why I begged him not to do it. It's going to be a lot of heavy lifting over several years."

The "it" was buying the Sarasota Polo Club in June from Schroeder-Manatee Ranch.

Misdee was afraid buying the Sarasota Polo Club would turn her husband's love of polo into a grind. 

She took a big sigh.

"He is an expert on how roots grow," she said, nodding.

Whatever side Misdee took before the decision was made, it's obvious she is fully on board now. She talks about the difference the two of them can make.

"We have the opportunity to create a world class equestrian facility in one of the nicest cities in America," she said. "It would be an amazing legacy to have other people enjoy."

It was in October, 2017, when developer David Meunier pulled out of his plans to purchase the Sarasota Polo Club, which was founded in 1991. He said a study by fields expert Alejandro Battro of Argentina showed the turf would take more than $1 million to get into world class condition. That was just the fields, not the rest of the property. In the end, he said time and effort were even a tougher investment he simply didn't want to make.

The Millers thought they would be one of the few buyers who would stay the course.

"People involved in equestrian sports often are preservationists," James Miller said. "We have been involved in preserving the art of horsemanship. It came time for someone to shepherd this club into the next era."

He said SMR had built a world class facility when it was new and maintained it well for years. However, as the fields aged, SMR didn't have the expertise to keep it rolling.

"SMR tried its best," he said. "They are experts in maintaining golf courses."

The Millers, meanwhile, own the 1,400-acre Hillcroft Farm in Paris, Kentucky, where they anchor their polo operations along with saddlebred and thoroughbred breeding. They also grow crops such as soy beans, corn, wheat and alfalfa.

James Miller is an accomplished polo player who competes worldwide and also is the president of Lexington (Kentucky) Polo Club. Misdee Miller is a world champion in saddlebred show horses and is one of the world's most accomplished competitors in Pleasure Driving and Combined Driving.

They love horses.

They also love the Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota areas, once James' love of polo brought them to the area.

Their own love affair began because of their love of horses. His mother, Ann Miller, introduced them at a dinner in 2004 after Misdee had just moved to Lexington, Kentucky.

"His mom was this charming lady who knew everyone in Kentucky," Misdee recalled. "She said, 'I don't know you.' The conversation eventually turned toward James, and she said he was a polo player.

They missed signals, though, and weeks passed before they got together through emails. Those mostly involved horses of one kind or another and eventually James asked Misdee if they could meet at a horse show. She was competing in driving, and protested because she didn't want that to be their first face-to-face meeting.

"I told him, 'Please don't come to the show,'" she said. "It's not the best look for a girl."

James came anyway, and told Misdee of his intentions by email. She asked how she would know him, and he told her he would be the guy with the dog.

She looked around the arena that day. "There was this attractive guy with a black lab," she said.

They were married in 2006.

"He was a fun guy and we built a farm together," she said. "But he was looking to play polo in Sarasota. He brought me down and put me up at the Ritz. I was sold. We love this community."

They bought their current family home at the Country Club and bought two properties in the Polo Club for their horses.

That was more than a decade ago. Now saying they know it won't be easy, James and Misdee Miller have forged into their new project.

One improvement was spending $500,000 on a new three-quarter of a mile training track that is 25 feet wide. He said the old track, for the horses, was like training in a sand pit.

He made improvements to the stalls in the barn areas, changed the mowers from rotary mowers to reel mowers and hired a polo turf expert to assess the fields. "The good news is we have managed to drastically improve the root system," he said. "The root system is more than double. We've made other improvements, such as the general sprinkler system, most people probably won't notice, but the existing members will notice. We don't want to bother the public about what goes on behind the scenes."

But a lot of work continues, although James Miller said most of the heavy lifting has been done since June on the seven fields and 90 acres of grass.

"This place has needed new life for a while," James Miller said. "This is like a Super Bowl champion that now is not as great. But you look at sports facilities, and everyone has upped their game. Every facility feels the pressure to be better."

James Miller said his primary goals are twofold. One is to provide a world class and safe facility for members and those who use the polo club. The other goal is to enhance the experience for the spectators.

"We want to make the spectator experience second-to-none," Misdee Miller said. "We want to build a spectator pavilion, and as a woman, I want to redo this clubhouse so it is a little more upscale. We want to make this the place to be on a Sunday afternoon, and maybe a Friday evening.

"Eventually we would like to build an all-weather stadium. An important next piece of this for us is to increase the infrastructure for the spectators. It is unique we have a community that enjoys the matches."

James Miller said, as a player, he finds performing in Sarasota to be on a par or better than any of the top polo clubs in the world.

"The community here has embraced this sport," he said. "Here, it's like a green beach. You back up, open the trunk, pull out the dogs, the chairs and the kids. You are in the sun having fun. Families are looking for something different.

"And when you go to the beach, you don't stair at the beach the whole time. You look at a school of fish, or a turtle. Here, a herd of horses comes by. Whoa!"

It's an atmosphere that actually attracts more players.

"Playing in front of a crowd brings out the best in every competitive athlete," he said. "That's priceless to some players. The experience here is few and far between. I want to preserve that."

All of the work is pointed toward the Dec. 2 opener.

"We're going to start off with a bang," James Miller said. "As a player, I can't wait."

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