Me…power-lifting, bargain-shopping, streetcar-riding Debbie, off to a polo match on a sweltering Saturday afternoon? Not even I would have guessed it. Yet there I was, planning to attend the 37th annual Polo For Heart charity event, hoping to partake of some “nonstop action sprinkled with a dose of glamour”. Or as I saw it, nonstop glamour sprinkled with a dose of action. Why? Why not! It was something new. Getting dolled up to watch hockey on horses sounded like a hoot and seemed pretty straightforward, but what should have been a simple outing, soon became a hot mess with a challenge at almost every turn.
Mention polo and any North American woman who came of age in the 80’s will picture Julia Roberts in a brown polka dot dress and white gloves stealing glances with Richard Gere. That iconic Pretty Woman scene, my sole polo reference to date, excited my own ideas for the day.
I envisioned a mixed group of friends, unlikely, but willing spectators like myself, ghetto-fabbing it on the general admission sidelines at the charity event. I saw my sister spreading brie on crackers, my friend Manny and husband Anthony swigging rum from flasks, and gal pal Onika and I perched on a picnic blanket with our feet tucked to the side like 50’s pin up girls. Meanwhile the pony parade, best hat contest and main attraction match would fill the background.
You see, if you’re going to do polo, that’s the way you do it. You either splurge on a $2500 catered table, settle for $300 table, or assemble a pretty DIY picnic behind the sidelines. Do it really well and you can even win a prize. Ground level seating at Toronto Polo Club was fine by me. While I was curious to learn about the “sport of kings”, the real draw was in dressing up to enjoy a novel day out laughing, talking and buzzing with good friends.
With five friends and my fifteen dollar ticket confirmed, I was all about the outfit of the day. Tap, tap, click. I queried Google: “what to wear to a polo match”. A Town & Country article suggested:
“Tip 1. Play it safe (and chic!) with an all-white or mixed neutral ensemble.
Tip 2. If you decide to opt for a topper, try a simple straw boater wrapped in a silk scarf.”
I had neither.
I contemplated the exquisitely adorned hats that dress the heads of vintage store mannequins and Caribbean church women. Then I contemplated my shopping budget and bustling schedule. There was no time for foraging around the city. Between combing my hair and brushing my teeth, I messaged Mitzi, a savvy stylist I know. Duh, of course – Winners, Marshalls or Ardene. Dufferin Mall it is!
In true Guthrie-sister fashion, Arlene and I strolled into Marshall’s fifteen minutes before closing time. We blitzed through two rows of sunhats and fedoras hung from wall-mounted rods. There was a rhythm…Hat on. Look to sister. Shaking head. Hat goes back. Hat on. Look to sister. Shaking wrist. Hat goes back.
The vibrant colours and feminine bows complemented Arlene’s face and stature, whereas the wide brims swallowed me and hid my best features. I didn’t feel regal or ladylike. Every hat made me feel two inches shorter and five pounds heavier – like a stalky Russian nesting doll under a shady awning.
Not enough minutes later, the words last-minute shoppers know well, sounded from the speaker, “Attention Marshall’s shoppers, the time is now…”. In desperation I settled for a hay-coloured hat with a stiff brim and brown ribbon that I mostly liked. At $14.99 it fit my budget and I trusted I could pair it with a new dress. Still, in the not-so-back of my mind, I thought it more suited for a fashionable migrant farm worker. Kidding aside, I’d soon come to appreciate that flat brim and the wide area of shade it cast over my neck and shoulders on a scorching day.
Next came the dress. Or, rather, seventeen dresses: maxis too long, empire waists too wide, and tunics that just weren’t right. In hindsight, I should have started at H&M where I found the cutest safari print dress, clearance-priced at seven dollars! It fit well, was comfortable and matched my hat and shoes. Done! It wasn’t until I saw it under my bedroom light that I realized it was completely sheer. Oh shit, it’s not a dress, it’s a beach cover up! Are you kidding me?! With no time to reconsider the outfit I decided that if I saw a dress, that’s what everyone else would see too. What they weren’t going to see were my hot pink undies underneath, so I slinked into black running shorts before slipping into on my sunrise orange and gold sandals. I topped it off with the hat and Lole Lilyanna tote. It worked. I think.
It’s super cool when our parents do things like book spontaneous trips to Florida, except when we’re counting on them for babysitting. That’s what happened to Onika and Manny. A definite change of plans and not what I had envisioned but no biggie. They’d bring their seven year-old son and we’d bring our six year-old daughter, counting on the pony parade kids’ activities and a bouncy castle to help entertain. Yep, we’d all have tons of G-rated fun. And to be honest, this relieved that bit of guilt I originally felt about not bringing my munchkin. A new turquoise butterfly dress hung in her closet ready to wear on Saturday.
I touched the back of my hand to her skin on Saturday morning. First her forehead, then her arm, then her leg. She was burning up. We were just a few hours away from opening ceremonies. Now what? I texted Arlene, Onika and my mother, shuffling plans and playing with the pieces of this life-size Rubix cube. While the situation was still touch and go, Onika and Manny decided not to go. It was down to Arlene, Anthony and me.
Can we bring her and stay in the shade? Should I take her to my mom’s? Maybe not. Maybe Anthony could stay home. But this was our date day. Could we all go tomorrow instead? Is it horrible that I still want to go? What kind of mother doesn’t drop everything at a dime to stay home with her sick child? Am I a horrible person? Finally, my husband put the spinning to an end. With a kiss in place of judgment, he said, “get the story”, and stayed behind to care for our little munchkin. I left the apartment with a lump in my throat. As she started the car, Arlene handed me a Passion Flake and a Perrier to make me feel better, because that’s what good sisters do.
Games are our thing. Arlene and I make them up and bust them out during long drives and intolerable waits, like the time we went to the Bank of Jamaica with our mother! I’d studied up on the sport by way of Wikipedia and a few paragraphs on the Polo for Heart website beforehand, then quizzed her during the drive. Players, chukkers, ponies, mallets – we’re good.
Where the busy 404 route ended, the rolling country roads began. Laneway billboards with high end logos led us in the right direction. Cadillac Fairview. Graywood Investments. Mercedes Benz. Beyond the flat grass parking lot, were the tops of white tents lined up in a row alongside a vast green field. As we approached, I saw many colourful hats and dresses dotting the field. “I love it already!”
The one o’clock sun beamed down over the open field with nowhere to go. I was already thankful for my wide brim as we headed into the heat. We strolled past the general admission Mallet Lounge (a section of patio tables with umbrella shading reserved for those who paid $300/table) to the middle of the field where the hat contest was about to begin. Slowly, men with preppy short sleeve shirts and women with heavy champagne bottles took the field. With a little coaxing, Arlene seized the moment and stepped on to the platform to have her gorgeous blue sunhat judged among the rest. I watched my big sister laugh and mingle with a jolly woman in a statement red hat, and a blonde in an ocean blue, Jane Jetson inspired design that took first place. Everyone clapped, more champagne flowed and just like that, we were thrust into the wonderful world of polo.
Once the high-pitched laughter quieted, the best players and ponies from the first match were awarded. Riding the “best pony” was quite the honour, as I understood it. What I didn’t get was laying a quilted Purina blanket on Sophia’s back in that blazing heat. By the time the Canadian Cowgirl Drill Team took the field, beads of sweat were ready to slide down the small of my back. The announcer introduced the troupe of women with a reverence shared by the on-looking crowd. The expert equestrians (basically highly respected nationalist cheerleaders) led their horses through perfectly synchronized formations, with precision and bright smiles. And in full on show make up, as Arlene pointed out. “How are they not boiling?”, I questioned.
“Me too. Let’s get a drink.”
The Cheap Seats
We strolled to the far side of the field where groups of friends dined in rounds of ten under a shaded tent. I stayed strategically angled beside Arlene for fear my cover-up would be called out by a critical eye. Flowers and candles adorned the tables under the tent, the entrance of which was guarded by staff who smiled warmly at those with a rightful seat at the $2500 tables.
The silent auction display and TAG vodka shots were just steps away. Already parched in the midday heat, I asked the TAG girl, “Where can I find a bar with other beverages?”
“Oh, are you from across the way?”
Back ‘across the way’, I enjoyed a hot dog and cream ale on the uncovered metal bleachers with Arlene. (We never did get the brie and crackers). My beer was soon as warm as my buns and the match was set to begin. Wikipedia had prepared us well. It was basically four-man hockey on horses and without goalies. Aside from the novelty of watching a gamed played on horseback, the sport itself seemed dull at first. The action often happened at the opposite end of the large field and the small white ball was hard to keep track of among the cluster of ponies. I saw mallets held high overhead and swiveled around in what appeared from the distance to be more misses than hits. The heat continued to pour down with only an occasional breeze for relief. I was thankful for not bringing the munchkin and wistful over the thought of her combined with the comfort that taunted me across the way.
An older woman in a blue dress had sat on the bleacher beside me. “My boss is playing right now. Derek Sifton. This is his property.” she volunteered matter- of-factly. Oh wow. Now here’s a woman who must know the game! Perfect. “Is Mayfield in the orange or blue?” I asked completely oblivious to the revelence of her employer’s name.
“Derek’s in a blue shirt on a white horse. No, in an orange shirt on a brown horse. Argh, I’m so confused!”
Closer to the sidelines, I heard the conversation between two other women clearly not there for the glamour. “I’m really not invested in this game”, one said standing smugly in an forgettable outfit with her arms crossed.
The game was fast and slow at the same time. Fast when ponies galloped and jostled with one another and slow during tact breaks. Scoring was straight-forward though the switching of sides after every goal made it hard to keep track of. Nobody really clapped or cheered. Spectators just chattered and commented among themselves. Then there was the voice of the actual commentator. His tone was mellower than a race track announcers and remained steady each time he uttered “getting ridden hard” and “getting wood”, phrases that made me giggle like a school girl every time.
Then, with a long shot, the action quickly moved down field. The ponies came thundering by us, their hooves beating rhythmically as they chased the ball. In those dramatic few seconds, we could feel the their sprinting power pounding in our chests. I had immediate appreciation for the athleticism of the players handling the long mallet while moving in sync with their animals at top speed. Looking on, I could see the strength and stability required through their core, glutes and shoulders, as the agile thoroughbreds made daring changes in direction that sent the riders sideways and suspended at challenging angles. Incredible.
We eventually identified the Mayfair team and were more or less following the game to the end. In an exciting finish (well, as exciting as polo gets) the opposing team scored their sixth goal with only seconds left in the game, winning the match 6-2. Derek Sifton, happened to play for the winning team. And for the record, was in an orange shirt.
After twenty eight minutes of play, the match was over. My beer can was hot and my head heavy. We took a final jaunt across the grass to watch the award ceremonies and stomp divots (the big ceremonious thing that didn’t happen the way I’d imagined). Turns out, stomping pieces of dirt that lay surrounded by fresh manure, with your open-toe sandals, isn’t so glamorous after all. The players popped champagne, the patio chairs were turned over and the Haagen-Dazs cart wheeled away. And just like that, we headed back toward the city limit, a little sweatier and a little worldlier after a hot mess of polo action.
Would you go to a polo match?
This one felt like a bit of a bust for me. Here’s what I’d do differently next time and what I’d suggest to you.
Happy hat shopping!
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