PaperCity Magazine

June 2018- Dallas

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58 I n 1976, a story in The Wall Street Journal proclaimed polo as America's new booming spectator sport. Polo centers popped up across the country and throughout Texas — but nowhere was polo a bigger deal than in Dallas. Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club, which opened in 1973 on the site of a former turkey farm, was the epicenter of Lone Star polo fever, drawing hundreds — and later thousands — to its Sunday spring and summer matches. If it wasn't a scene from Pretty Woman, it was close. Matches were elegant affairs, with a wealthy contingency in breezy dresses and pressed khaki trousers, sipping cocktails from private boxes. Regular folks dressed in shorts or jeans and boots crowded the stands. When actor and polo player Tommy Lee Jones wasn't on horseback, galloping across the manicured Bermuda-grass field during a match, fans were hoping to get a glimpse of him in the VIP box. Restaurateur Norman Brinker, who founded Willow Bend with real estate developer Danny Robinowitz, was an Olympic equestrian and a charismatic force behind popularizing the sport. From Highland Park, the club was an easy 20-minute dash up the North Texas Tollway until it fizzled out at country road FM 544, now Plano's heavily congested Park Road. It offered amenities the sporting set was used to: tennis courts, a swimming pool, stables, and a clubhouse with a full-service restaurant and bar. Most significantly, it was a serious equestrian center with hunter-jumper facilities, five polo fields, polo and riding instruction, and a multilevel coaching program to develop new players. Brinker, who became chairman of the United States Polo Association, recruited high-goal players from around the world, and hosted prestigious tournaments at the club, including the U.S. Polo Association's Silver Cup. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Willow Bend was one of the top polo clubs in the country, says Charles Smith, who started playing there in 1973 and later became a coach. He's now a member of the U.S. Polo Association Hall of Fame. "Norman's involvement was key to all that success," Smith says. "But polo clubs have a history of coming and going, and it rests on whether they have a strong person behind them." In 1993, Brinker was seriously injured during a match, and permanently sidelined. Willow Bend — and local polo in general — lost much of its momentum. By 1996, Willow Bend had shuttered, and its five polo fields — each the size of nine NFL football fields — had been turned into a housing development. Former Willow Bend members established the Las Colinas Polo Club on land managed by the city of Irving for equestrian use, and polo continued as a spectator sport there until 2011, when the land was sold. Local polo has since been relegated to mostly invitation-only matches on private land. An hour north of Dallas in Little Elm, there's a cluster of 10 polo farms, including a large spread owned by billionaire and polo enthusiast John Muse, chairman of Lucchese Bootmaker, and sponsor of the top-ranked Lucchese polo team. Robert Payne, Jr., a pro whose father was a partner at Willow Bend with Brinker, offers lessons and matches in Little Elm under the Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club name. Polo clubs worldwide have struggled to stay afloat as fewer young players enter BLAZING SADDLES FORTY YEARS AGO, DALLAS REIGNED AS AN INTERNATIONALLY RENOWNED POLO DESTINATION. TODAY, THERE'S A NEW CLUB IN TOWN — AND IT'S STRIVING TO BRING THE ELITE SPORT TO THE MASSES. BY REBECCA SHERMAN. PHOTOGRAPHY WALTER WORKMAN. Norman Brinker, an Olympic equestrian, at Willow Bend, circa 1980

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