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East County Friday, Feb. 22, 2019 4 months ago

Horse Play

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When James Miller ponied up to buy the Sarasota Polo Club last year, he set out to prove to his wife that you can lead a horse to water and make it drink.
by: Heidi Kurpiela Managing Editor

James Miller and Misdee Wrigley Miller have officially hit their stride at the Sarasota Polo Club. Midway through their first season as owners of the 158-acre Lakewood Ranch mainstay, the couple is more energized than ever, thanks to the addition of live tailgating music, Sunday brunch and a total field makeover. 

Two years ago, speculation surfaced over whether the 28-year-old polo grounds would cease to exist after Schroeder-Manatee Ranch nearly sold the property. When that deal fell through and the Millers — internationally known equestrians and longtime club members — made an offer, the local polo community breathed a sigh of relief. 

“Everyone in the club was anxious for an insider to step forward and take a leadership role,” says James Miller, who dumped big bucks into improving the club’s nine fields, which had degraded significantly over the years. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say bringing the fields back to life was a challenge. It was like rehabbing a historic home.”

A power couple on and off the field, the Millers are like the Jay-Z and Beyoncé of equestrian sports. 

James is the former president of the Lexington Polo Club and a veteran polo player who competes in tournaments all over Europe and Barbados. Misdee is a fourth-generation horsewoman and a decorated combined and pleasure driving competitor. The great-granddaughter of Wrigley chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., Misdee won the gold medal in combined driving last September at the FEI World Equestrian Games, making her the first female to win gold in the history of the sport. A former reporter, she owns the Kentucky-based Wrigley Media Group.

The couple owns and operates the 1,400-acre Hillcroft Farm in Kentucky, home to a world-class polo operation, saddlebred and thoroughbred racehorse breeding and a smattering of agricultural crops. They keep two barns and two dozen horses in the Sarasota Polo Club and a home in the Lakewood Ranch Country Club. They met in 2004 and were married in 2006. 

How did you meet?

James: “My mother had met Misdee at an event in Kentucky. We were both divorced  and equestrians, so my mother, being my mother, was trying to marry me off.”

Misdee: “But James never called.” 

James: “She didn’t give me a phone number or a last name. It was just, ‘I met this nice woman. She competes in saddlebreds, and she’s interested in polo. Give her a call.’”

Misdee: “I bumped into his mother again at an art walk and we finally connected.”

James: “Misdee was on her way out of town, so we ended up having this email correspondence for a month. We didn’t know anything about each other personally, so it was a really cool way to start a romance.”

Misdee: “It was very old-fashioned.”  

What compelled you to buy the Polo Club?

James: “Like any club, it had its heyday. When we started coming here in 2004 it was coming off its apex. The club was vivacious and healthy, but the decline had already begun. A lot of the members were aging out, and when the recession hit it undercut the people who were on their way to building polo organizations. There was a lot of uncertainty. As a member and player, it was difficult to see. Rumors started to swirl that the club was going to be shut down.”

So you decided to save it?

James: “Everyone was worried it was going to get cut up and subdivided. That’s when I went to Misdee and said, ‘You know, we’re one of those equestrian families that people look to for support in situations like this.’ There aren’t a lot of people who have the energy, resources and knowledge to make something like this work. I was passionate about it.”

Misdee: “I wasn’t. It sounded like a migraine waiting to happen.”

Why?

Misdee: “James is one of those visionary, outside-of-the-box, big-picture thinkers. I ask ‘why’ and he asks ‘why not?’ I was worried it would be too much stress because he doesn’t do anything halfway, and we’re at a point in our lives when you start to dial it down.”

And how do you feel about the decision now?

Misdee: “I didn’t understand what the club meant to Lakewood Ranch and to Sarasota, in general. Seeing the response from the community has turned my heart around and helped me see what a jewel this is. It’s worth every penny, and I’m enjoying the challenge.”

James: “It’s been very gratifying. I’ve played polo all over the world and this is one of the nicest facilities I’ve ever seen.”

Misdee: “I’m so glad he didn’t listen to me.”

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