- June 15, 2018
When the Sarasota Polo Club was established in 1991, Lakewood Ranch was still an outlandish idea conceived by Schroeder-Manatee Ranch to build communities in an area where only cows, coyotes and birds thrived.
But, as the master-planned community began to grow, and development exploded all around the 158 acres of polo fields, it only seemed a matter of time before a developer would scoop up that land and build more houses. Fortunately for polo fans, that didn’t happen. Instead, James and Misdee Miller stepped forward to buy the Sarasota Polo Club in 2018. They wanted to preserve it as a polo facility for years to come.
James, an avid, two-goal player and the former president of the Lexington (Kentucky) Polo Club, and Misdee, a fourth-generation horsewoman who competes in combined driving, coaching, and American Saddlebred competitions throughout the world, have put their love of the sport and their financial resources behind making the Sarasota Polo Club one of the top facilities in the United States.
As the 2023 season was about to begin, James and Misdee talked about their cherished facility and its future.
James: Probably not. A friend had told me about it and I specifically came down to see the club in 2003. In 2004, I played a tournament. The next season, I came back for a full season. We had been playing at the Villages.
Misdee: I was thinking that we had a perfectly good farm in Lexington. But James knew just how to do it. He brought me here in the dead of winter and I was staying at The Ritz.
James: Main Street at Lakewood Ranch was still quiet then. In 2006, the market was hot. Then everything hit the skids in 2007. That time was tough on Lakewood Ranch. Everyone lost their home values. The Polo Club went through tough times, too.
James: Around 2015. The rumors were out there. Robin Uihlein had sold his managing ownership back to SMR. The writing was on the wall. We knew if that message (that the Polo Club might be sold and developed) got out to the community, it would make it hard to recruit new members. It was written into the covenants of the HOA that there could be a time in which the club could be shut down.
James: Everyone who wanted to buy it wanted to develop it. So, I asked Misdee, “If you love Sarasota and Lakewood Ranch, we have the means to purchase it. Is this where we want to spend the rest of our lives?”
Misdee: I realized this was the place we love and a lifestyle we love. All right, here we go!
James: Saving it was a relief to everyone, but when COVID hit, it was a gut punch. We’re still suffering from it now with supply chain problems. All our costs have gone up.
James: Yes. It was important for the players to see. We got the turf improved; they could see how we irrigate the fields and how we built a safer exercise track (more than $1 million by itself). They saw improvements we wouldn’t have been doing if we weren’t committed to maintaining the club.
James: The Brits spread polo around the world, so there was a connection. The bus arrived from England this summer at the port in Jacksonville. It was supposed to be in top running condition, but it wasn’t. A couple of my friends who are mechanics fixed it and we drove it down here.
Misdee: I thought, what has he done now? But it’s great.
James: We’ve been doing better than breaking even operationally. The first season I was concerned, for sure. Of course, you put capital in, and no, you don’t get the money you spend for capital improvements back. But Misdee and I do improvements incrementally.
Misdee: That’s where I put my foot down. We can’t go into the restaurant business.
James: The Uihlein family built this 30 years ago. It was the handing off of the baton. We’re young enough that we have a lot of years left in us. It is unique to have a polo club entrenched in a thriving community and we had an opportunity to preserve something. We can give new life to it, a new meaning. So far, so good.
Misdee: I love it. It was something that needed to happen. Is there another James and Misdee Miller out there? I would like to think so.