Tom Biddle doesn’t call polo a sport. He calls it a disease.
Why else would men endure broken bones and busted jaws, only to get back on the horse again for another shot of adrenaline rush?
Face it, chasing around a three-inch ball on a field with a bunch of mallet-swinging men on horses running 40 miles an hour isn’t exactly sane.
Nonetheless, in Aiken County, polo is spreading contagiously.
There, developers are rapidly transforming the rural landscape into farms and subdivisions associated with the elite, equestrian pastime.
Biddle has witnessed most of this growth first-hand in his capacity as owner of Biddle Realty, Inc., a real estate firm specializing in land and investment property.
He is also president of the U.S. Polo Association and has been involved in the sport for more than 40 years.
Biddle says much of the rural property snapped up in the last decade in outlying Aiken County is being utilized for polo endeavors.
Otherwise stagnant or neglected pastures are sprouting pristine bungalows, wooden fences and clubhouses.
“In 10 years — equestrian property –the land has gone from $1,000 an acre to $10,000-plus an acre,” Biddle says. “In that period of time, we have gone from five established polo fields in Aiken County to 35 established polo fields.”
Biddle estimates roughly 8,000 acres have been purchased for polo farms or fields.
Though no agency in Aiken County has formally measured polo’s economic impact, Biddle figures that the land purchased for the enterprise, along with associated improvements such as barns and homes, amounts to an investment of more than $25 million.
Polo is big in Aiken County, and its growth as an industry is galloping along at a steady clip.
For the first time this fall, Aiken hosted the U.S. Polo Association’s Gold Cup Polo Championship, a 26-goal tournament that represents the highest caliber of polo play in the world.
Among the players at the tournament was Adolfo Cambiaso, an Argentine whom many consider the best polo player in the world.
As a testament to the Gold Cup’s clout, Cambiaso jetted in six of his horses from England in order to play in the tournament.
The Gold Cup was played during four consecutive Sundays, Oct. 2 through Sept. 11, at the New Bridge Polo and Country Club, about 10 miles east of the Aiken city limits. The New Bridge Polo and Country Club is one of more than a dozen “equestrian subdivisions” that have cropped up in recent years, Biddle says.
In the case of New Bridge, the development is typical of a golf retirement community. Rather than facing a golf course, however, the homes face polo fields.
“You’ve got right now, 15 equestrian subdivisions either completed, or on the books or being developed in Aiken County,” Biddle says. “That’s large lots, five to 20 acres, with or without amenities — bridle paths, jumping rings, clubhouses.”
Aiken is situated roughly halfway between New York and South Florida, two hubs of polo activity throughout the year.
That has made it a prime location for those involved in the sport who seek to play polo and train polo ponies year-round.
Aiken’s other draw for polo operations has been the cost of its land.
Though acreage has increased ten-fold over the last decade in Aiken County, land is still far less expensive there than in polo communities in New York and Florida.
“Land in Florida is from $300,000 to $1 million an acre. Land in New York is probably in the same ballpark,” says Biddle, who regularly advertises Aiken properties in ritzy magazines devoted to the sport, circulated in places like West Palm Beach. “So when somebody comes to Aiken, South Carolina and finds something for $10,000 an acre, they think they’ve died and gone to heaven.”
Biddle says the horse developments don’t necessarily represent the property tax boon to the county that the retirement community does, since many of the equine properties are granted agricultural exemptions.
But Biddle says the county does benefit aesthetically from the types of polo developments that are cropping up in places along State Highway 302 and New Bridge Road, in the eastern section of the county.
“It’s been a pleasant thing, I think, for Aiken County, because what these people are putting on their properties is appealing to the eye,” Biddle says. “They’re not building junk; they’re building board fences and horse barns. The economy smiles on this kind of development.”
Janet Morris, director of the Aiken Downtown Development Association, says she sees more activity at shops and restaurants downtown as a result of polo players moving to the county or visiting during polo events.
Though acknowledging other equine endeavors in the county, such as the training of jumper and dressage horses, Morris says polo is definitely moving to the forefront as an economic driver.
“It’s kind of a two-pronged look at it,” Morris says. “I see more polo players and their families here and I see them downtown more often because they are here. The other side of that: there are a growing number of polo tournaments, there is now a polo pony sale, there is the return of high-goal polo to Aiken with the Gold Cup. And those events themselves draw people in that, again, have an impact on our downtown business economy.”
“The game of kings”
Polo is arguably the most aristocratic of sports.
Sure, there are wealthy golfers. And pro football and basketball players certainly make their share of millions.
But polo has been played by kings and nobility for hundreds of years.
Inscribed in stone next to an ancient polo field near Kashmir is the saying: “Let other people play at other things. The king of games is still the game of kings.”
Take a glance at any publication devoted to polo and you’ll find it filled with beautiful people and expensive toys.
Polo games are typically accessorized with the best in terms of liquor, food, fashion — and, of course, tent parties.
But the elitist image surrounding the sport, albeit accurate, irks Biddle.
“That’s the image that we’re trying to get rid of, but it’s very difficult and it bothers me,” Biddle says.
“But hell,” Biddle concedes, “how many poor people are there playing polo? Not very many.”
Biddle’s own son, Tommy, is a professional polo player who’s played side-by-side with Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
And Tom Biddle, though no pauper himself, typically rubs elbows with some of the world’s wealthiest men in his capacity as president of the USPA.
“I sit on a board at the USPA … and I’m sitting around there with these Fortune 500 guys that are on the thing,” Biddle says, “and we get in arguments and I have to (bang the gavel) and go, ‘Hey fellas, let’s quit this shit about how much money somebody’s got. You’ve got $10 million, you’ve got $50 million, you’ve got a billion. Who gives a shit? We have to make the right decision.”
In defense of the horseless
Indeed, Aiken has quietly wrestled to maintain a harmonious balance between its status quo citizens and the “horse people” as they are sometimes called.
It’s a city in which traffic on the most congested thoroughfare, Whiskey Road, can be brought to a standstill by a crossing button specifically installed for horse riders.
The horse community doesn’t mind its admirers. But when tour buses recently began rolling through the red-clay Two Notch Road — a dusty path dissecting a hub of tracks and stables in an area where the first leg of the annual Triple Crown equestrian event takes place — the horse people waged a campaign to stop them on grounds of privacy and the fact that the buses were making the local roads too rough for horses’ sensitive hooves.
Restrictions were eventually placed on the tours.
In this city of roughly 30,000, horse breeches are worn as much for utilitarian purposes as status symbol. It’s not unusual to see residents clad in riding pants for a trip to the grocery or while perusing the single-malt scotch aisle at the local liquor store.
But with the rise in polo — the ritziest of horse sports — is Aiken about to become too good for its own good?
Todd Stilp doesn’t think so.
A lifelong resident of Aiken, Stilp has seen polo from both sides. As owner of Enviroscape, a landscape management company, Stilp has maintained and helped design layouts for the homes and barns of some of Aiken’s most prominent horse people.
This year, Stilp was also tapped to serve as co-chair on the Gold Cup tournament committee.
Like Tom Biddle, Stilp has worked to make polo an everyman sport.
His late friend, an insurance salesman, managed to play polo with four horses he had invested less than $10,000 in.
“He had a beat-up old truck and he probably had some used trailer that someone paid him to haul off his property,” Stilp says. “He played polo.”
Despite the prestige of this year’s Gold Cup, Stilp notes it only cost spectators $10 to get in.
But Stilp realizes there’s no denying that polo is primarily a sport for the wealthy.
“Some of these guys, like you and I would put a horse on a trailer, they put them on damn jets,” Stilp says. “Adolfo Cambiaso, top player in the world who was on the New Bridge Team … he keeps a set of ponies in Argentina. He flew his ones from England over to Aiken. He had six main horses. I guarantee you it cost about $25,000 or $30,000, one way. And that probably does not even include all the clean-up and all the prep work the local guys have to do.”
“Let’s face it,” Stilp adds, “everybody watches ‘Cribs’ on MTV, and ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.’ Well, they exist, and some of them come to Aiken.”
The difference, Stilp says, is when those rich and famous come to Aiken, it’s usually so they can leave the trappings of wealth and prestige back home.
“You know, for the past 100, 150 years, people have been coming to Aiken — famous people; all the money in the world — they’ve been coming to Aiken because they can come here and be themselves,” Stilp says. “You and I could go dressed like this (casual) into any restaurant, any day of the year, and nobody would say anything to us. You can’t walk into some high-end club or restaurant in South Florida, you can’t do that in Santa Barbara, you can’t do that up in the Hamptons.
Down here, it’s unpretentious. It’s understated elegance. I think that’s one of the nice things about Aiken, that everything’s laid back.”
Stilp doesn’t think that’s going to change anytime soon, despite the growing presences of the game of kings.
“I have a client that’s worth tens and tens of millions of dollars,” Stilp says. “She mucks her own stalls, they paint their own barns, they build their own fences. I’m going to say 98 percent of the people who have horses are like that.
“You get out and meet these people one-on-one, they’re real people.”