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Fire destroys Sarasota Polo Club's clubhouse

The building was empty at 1 a.m. Saturday when the fire was reported. No cause for the fire has been determined.

  • By Jay Heater
  • | 12:00 p.m. January 28, 2023
  • | Updated 12:53 p.m. January 28, 2023
A fire, the cause still unknown, destroyed the Sarasota Polo Club's clubhouse early Saturday morning.
A fire, the cause still unknown, destroyed the Sarasota Polo Club's clubhouse early Saturday morning.
Photo by Jay Heater
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It was only 36 hours after fire was reported raging through the Sarasota Polo Club's clubhouse, yet both sidelines of the main polo field were lined with thousands of polo spectators who had come to enjoy one of their favorite outings.

The fire took about two hours to completely destroy the clubhouse early Jan. 28 and state fire inspectors didn't release the scene to Sarasota Polo Club owners James and Misdee Miller until that Saturday evening. Even so, the club's staff quickly secured the area with fencing as the prepared to host Sunday polo.

The next day, with the Sunday polo ball ready to drop, James Miller addressed the crowd.

He thanked everyone for their care and understanding following the fire, and ended his brief address by quoting the rock band Queen by saying, "The Show Must Go On."

With that, it was like any other Sunday of polo, other than the charred, gutted building just off the west end of the main polo field.

Sarasota Polo Club members slowly walked past the ruins, talking about how beautiful it was this season after the major renovation. They talked about how traumatic it had to be for the owners because of the effort involved.

One member, who didn't want to be identified, talked about the pain the Millers had to be experiencing.

"I can't even imagine," he said.

"This is obviously a tragic loss, but we have been lucky to have had the opportunity and the means to improve the club in the first place," James Miller said. "And there are far more people with far greater losses, and it is most important to keep all things in perspective."

The Millers had just finished the renovation of the clubhouse and were planning special events this season. 

"I have suffered plenty of loses and setbacks in my career and I have remained positive and focused on the next opportunity," James Miller said.

He said both he and Misdee would be saddened by the loss of the clubhouse for years because it has served as the main gathering place for the members for more than 20 years.

"We lost some club history, we lost some fancy new surroundings, but we did not lose the memories," he said.

Former Schroeder-Manatee Ranch CEO John Clarke was trying to enjoy his spot along the sideline on Sunday, but the day was dampened by what the fire left behind.

"It's very sad," Clarke said. "Over the years, there have been many events here. And they had done such a great job refurbishing it. This is just terrible, hard luck."

The clubhouse had a seating capacity of 120 with a 40-foot by 40-foot main room. It had a 64-foot by 15-foot, wrap-around porch that the members packed to watch polo.

Features included a stone fireplace with a raised hearth, high-beamed ceilings, a new bar area and a catering kitchen. 

The club was founded in 1991 and Clarke said he thought the clubhouse was built in 1992.

James Miller said rebuilding the club would occur in time, but he asked the community "be patient with us." The focus will be on cleaning up the mess while maintaining the polo environment the fans have come to know.

The Millers wanted everyone to know they appreciate that people care.

Twenty units responded to the fire, including seven engines, a ladder truck and two tankers. Sarasota County Fire Department Battalion 2 Chief Michael Huff said the fire was reported at 12:57 a.m. and firefighters from Station 7 (4754 17th St., Sarasota) were the first to respond.

No one was in the building.

No barns are near the area, so no animals were affected.

The building was engulfed when firefighters arrived, so there was no "interior" firefighting.

State fire inspectors were on the scene to determine the cause of the fire. Huff said Saturday morning that a unit would remain at the scene to make sure no one enters the remains of the building until inspectors determine it is safe to turn it over to the owners. That happened Saturday evening.

Misdee Miller, who owns the Sarasota Polo Club with her husband, James Miller, looks into the burnt remains of her clubhouse that was just renovated.
Photo by Jay Heater

Huff said the remains of the building would cause no danger as long as people are kept a safe distance away.

The Millers purchased the polo club in 2018 to save the facility from being developed so the community could continue to enjoy polo.

Misdee Miller, who walked the perimeter Saturday morning with Paige Lautzenheiser, the Sarasota Polo Club's director of operations, was emotional as she looked into the destroyed clubhouse.

"My heart is breaking," Misdee Miller said softly. "Thank God no one was here."

Sarasota firefighters were still on the scene late Saturday morning of a fire that consumed the Sarasota Polo Club's clubhouse.
Photo by Jay Heater

By early that afternoon, she and James decided that Sunday's polo match would go on as scheduled.

The fire had no affect on the playing field or any of the other seating.

Misdee Miller said that she and James needed to let "their hearts heal a little" before deciding how to rebuild the clubhouse.

"James is understandably devastated," she said. "It might take us a while."



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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