Casa de Campo makes no apologies for the luxuries it purveys, and so it should come as no surprise that the resort serves as a sort of Mecca for Caribbean polo, the sport of kings (and anyone else who can afford to show up to a match with the requisite 6-7 horses). If you play polo, odds are you already know that Casa manages some 300 horses for guest play, for all manner of recreational riding, for breeding and sale. For the neophyte, it’s a fascinating window on a sport we hear about (mainly through Prince Charles references) but rarely see.
Cali Garcia-Velez is the man who manages all things equine at Casa de Campo, and he would appear well suited to the role. A Dominican native, Garcia-Velez is tall and dashing (a dead ringer for the actor Will Arnett), a son of the rancher who used to manage the cattle on this vast property, and a former polo professional in his own right. While Casa has its own polo fields, today Garcia-Velez ably escorted a few of us media scum to a match held at a private ranch some 15 minutes from the resort.
“You see that guy there,” he said, pointing to #4 in black. “He’s riding one of our horses. I sold it to him. He came to me for an upgrade and he couldn’t be happier… In polo, it’s all about the horses. And the guys who can afford it will always have the best horses. That’s just the way it is.”
This was no arms race we witnessed today, as the late afternoon sun bathed the field and surrounding sea of sugar cane in a soft, pale-pink light. In the DR, there are maybe 30 polo players of a high standard and they converge on fields like this one, and those at Casa de Campo, for a match or two each week during winter, the high season. They come from all over the island but mainly from here, Greater La Romana, and Santo Domingo some 90 minutes away.
The action is non-stop, as Red and Black (four players to a side) gambol from one end to the other, flailing and bumping, at speeds you cannot appreciate until you’re this close. Outside the lines, the mood is decidedly more casual and festive, with families spread out on blankets behind one goal and still more gathered in the thatch-roofed clubhouse at midfield. They all greet Garcia-Velez with familiarity. The drinks/conversation flow as play proceeds through the first three chukkers, or periods, which last some 7 minutes apiece.
A proper match is six chukkers; the players change horses after each one. On one level the game is simple: whack the ball between posts 24 feet apart, positioned at each end of a field 300 yards long and 150 wide. On another level, there is great nuance to the strategy, the game’s physicality and officiating. It’s good to have an expert sitting close by, imparting the finer points.
But again, this is a casual Saturday afternoon match in January. The week of Presidents Day, and again over Easter, the polo communities from across the Caribbean and Florida will descend on La Romana for the two biggest tournaments of the year. As Garcia-Velez is telling me about this, along with the reasons for Argentinian Polo dominance, and what a polo pony really costs, the players thunder past en masse. The conversations — ours and those taking place all around us — come to a studious halt, as all eyes follow the action to the north goal.