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Sarasota Polo Club brings in thrill seekers

Side of Ranch: Jay Heater

Myakka City's Denny Woodruff works in preparation for the new polo season.
Myakka City's Denny Woodruff works in preparation for the new polo season.
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With the polo season almost upon us in Lakewood Ranch, I thought I would head over to the Sarasota Polo Club and watch the players prepare and find out a little more about the sport's draw.

On hand, as always, was Scott Lancaster, head instructor of the club's polo school. Scott told me about his students who were on the practice field and explained how much goes into developing a "smart" player.

As he was speaking, I watched a guy twisting and turning as he tried to retain his balance aboard his horse. In a few seconds, he was flat on the ground, not looking very smart.

This wasn't some daredevil maneuver by an overzealous rider. No, this horse was simply walking along, and the guy, who was not one of Lancaster's students, slipped off as if he was attempting to ride a greased pig.

It was obvious riding needs your full attention. Let you concentration wander and you can look like Larry, Moe or Curly, in a hurry. 

I should add this was more of a plop than fall. The only thing injured was pride. Unconcerned, the rider was back in the saddle and moving along in an instant.

As with any discipline, the early learning stages of polo can be humbling.

Denny Woodruff, who grew up around horses in Old Myakka, went through some trials and tribulations learning the sport in 2009 at age 32. He took up the sport for "the thrill, the adrenaline rush and the horses," he said.

It's been worth the ride.

Besides playing in intermediate leagues, Woodruff has found a spot in the top-level Sunday action at times.

"It's a rush to have 3,500 people watching you," he said. "The competition is totally different. It's a lot faster and you truly have to play your position."

"It's like playing chess, only you are smashing into people on giant horses."

In intermediate league play, Woodruff said the players tend to be undisciplined at times, with everyone chasing the ball instead of adhering to a position. That doesn't work against the top players. Of course, many players don't want to put in the effort to earn a spot in Sunday's action.

Woodruff, who owns a ranch in Myakka City, admitted he didn't put much effort into getting ready for the season a few times over the last eight years. He said that was a mistake.

"I would recommend a lot of ride time for anyone who wants to play," he said. "I also picked up boxing, because it involves a lot of agility. I'm 240 pounds, so I need it. I would tell anyone to be confident, be in shape and have good hand-eye coordination."

Lancaster noted that "it's never too late to start polo," whether you get the itch at 32 like Woodruff, and even in your 40s or 50s. The Sarasota Polo Club has polo activities for beginners all the way to top-rated players. Lancaster said anyone can call the polo office at 907-0000 to get information about taking up the sport. 

Working at the St. Louis Polo Club during the summers, Lancaster began his lessons Nov. 8, but noted that the club accepts new students anytime.

"Membership in U.S. Polo is at an all-time high," he said. "Youth polo and women's polo are the fastest growing groups."

Lancaster said he can teach any adult how to ride and then play polo. "If you are 8 or 9, though, you need some riding skills first," he said. "I provide the horses, which are selected in mind of the rider's level." The club offers riding lessons for those who want to prepare before trying polo.

The first Sunday polo match of the season is 1 p.m., Jan. 8 if you want to check out the sport at its higher levels. The matches run every Sunday through April 8. Admission is $12 and children 12 and under are free.

After watching it, you just might want to try it out.

"It's like playing chess, only you are smashing into people on giant horses," player Breanden Beneschott said. "You're out there chasing a little, white ball. It becomes an addiction."


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