Dust rises from the ground with each stomp of a hoof. Horses gallop as riders urge them toward a small plastic ball. Wooden mallets clatter as if in swordplay. Then one connects. The ball soars across the giant field, aaaand theeeey're off! The horses run toward the ball, each rider hoping he'll knock it between his team's goal posts. "Those are the moments you live for, right?" John Mangin said. "When you hit that ball," Teena Tucker said. "Especially when it goes between those posts, the rest is meaningless," he said.
The closest most Americans get to polo, once a sport of kings, may be a Ralph Lauren store. But it's actually fairly accessible, says Dardo Iglesias, who owns DI Polo Tour, a polo club in Plant City.
Iglesias offers lessons at his 45-acre farm, and new players are welcome at the laid-back tournaments.
Mangin started in May after stumbling upon Iglesias' Web site.
"I never thought I could," said Mangin, who lives in Tampa. "It still mystifies me how I can hit a ball at that speed."
Of course, it's not cheap to ride Iglesias' Argentinian polo horses, each worth tens of thousands of dollars. It cost about $6,000 for a month's worth of games — players generally come twice a week — and the rental of Iglesias' trained horses. The price drops to $4,000 for players who bring their own horses.
On weekends between September and May, the polo season, players gather at the 300- by 170-yard polo field, which is off E Trapnell Road. On a recent Sunday afternoon, 12 players arrived for a round-robin game.
As they strapped on leather knee pads and pulled on riding boots, Frank Cunningham and Michael Batsavage swapped stories about what makes polo special.
"There's nothing like chasing a little white ball at 40 mph," said Batsavage, who lives on Davis Islands and has played for 20 years.
Batsavage, owner of the Missing Piece, a consignment furniture gallery in Tampa, took up the sport after watching polo games at Cheval Golf and Country Club in Lutz.
"It's just a bunch of egotistical boys chasing each other with sticks," said Cunningham, a 28-year veteran of the sport.
After playing the first two of six "chukkers" — the 7 1/2-minute periods that make up the game — Batsavage grabs a water bottle and a cigarette and sits in the sun.
"Ride fast. Have fun," he says to no one in particular. "It's a beautiful day."
He firmly believes polo is the best sport in the world. There's an elegance to how the horses move on the field, he says.
And don't call it "hockey on horseback," Mangin warns. In the race for which came first, polo wins by a long shot. Polo matches were recorded in Central Asia more than 2,000 years ago.
"So, you can call hockey 'polo on your feet,' " he said.
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Iglesias opened DI Polo Tour four years ago. It was the final piece in a business he had been growing for years, the culmination of ambition and skill that started when he learned how to ride on his grandfather's ranch in Buenos Aires.
Iglesias moved to the United States in 1990 and traveled the country playing polo. He settled in Plant City in the mid '90s to work as a groomer and polo pro for a St. Petersburg doctor.
Eventually, Iglesias started buying and selling horses. When the doctor wanted to sell his land, Iglesias bought it.
"I was just in the right place at the right time," he said.
A few years later, Iglesias added the polo club. Members of the former Tampa Bay Polo Club showed up, and Iglesias brought in professionals from Argentina.
These days, players travel from around the country to visit his polo grounds. Iglesias, who has 45 horses now, buys and sells them worldwide.
He breeds the horses in Argentina, and his employees get them into shape on his Plant City fields.
The best are worth as much as a luxury car.
On those horses' rumps is the "DI" brand, an unmistakable mark that links the animals with the Iglesias farm.
Iglesias gets around the 45 acres in a golf cart. As he steers, he points out his horses. In one fenced field, a mare gallops without a rider. Back on the polo practice field, one of his employees rides a horse. Iglesias watches quietly as the horse gallops, quickly stops and turns in a tight circle.
"I see the dollar signs," he says. "That's my business."
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After an hour and a half, the Sunday afternoon game is wrapping up, and the white-shirted team is hopelessly losing the last chukker.
In no time at all, the score is 0-5. As the clock ticks down, Michael Batsavage rides up to the ball. He reaches across the horse, lines up his mallet and swings.
The game ends, and even though his team lost, Batsavage beams. "It was an adrenaline rush."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.