Watching polo ponies thunder across a 10-acre field, one might assume the majestic animals provide nothing more than raw horsepower to support the skilled players on their backs.
That would be a mistake.
“The horses are incredibly intuitive,” says Joan Lewis Kennedy, longtime co-chair of Howard County’s biggest polo match, the Ten Oaks Cup. “They can stop on a dime [to change direction], and they can even kick the ball in for a goal.
The family-run benefit polo match for Our Daily Bread is now in its 10th year, drawing crowds of roughly 1,000 spectators who’ve come to see a sport that isn’t played anywhere else in the county, organizers say. Originally named for the location of the Lewis Family Farm — the 99-acre property on Ten Oaks Road in Clarksville where Dr. Fred and Mary Agnes Lewis raised 10 kids and where the annual event was held for seven years — the Ten Oaks Cup will be held for the third time at nearby Marama Farm on Sept. 26.
“People think of Prince Charles of England when they think of polo,” says Kennedy, a real estate agent who took up the sport again 10 years ago after a 20-year hiatus to focus on raising her family.
“It appears to be elitist,” she says, adding that it’s widely believed to be the oldest team sport with roots dating back 2,500 years to the training of mounted forces for battle. “Anything horse-related seems exclusive.”
It isn’t an inexpensive sport, Kennedy admits. In a professional game, which is often grueling and intense, players must have a different horse for each of the six chukkers, the 7 ½-minute periods in each match. The object of a polo game is to drive the ball down the field to score goals against the opposing team, not unlike soccer. Four mounted riders hit the ball with long-handled mallets while following right-of-way rules established by the “line” of the traveling ball.
To allow more players to participate in the family’s benefit match, where teams are composed of pros and amateurs, players take turns on the field. This permits the horses to rest between chukkers and allows most players to use fewer horses.
Tim Lewis, a Baltimore executive who co-chairs of the benefit match with Kennedy, his sister, plays polo on many weekends between spring and fall. He says he and his nine siblings all learned to ride horses because their father, a practicing veterinarian, raised thoroughbreds all their lives — and still does at age 88.
“Jim, Ted, Joan and I all took up polo [later in life], and before that, we three brothers used to exercise the horses” at Pimlico and Laurel racetracks, he says. “Jim, who’s an equine veterinarian, plays the most actively, and he’s even announced the match in past years.”
What really heightens the crowd’s enjoyment of the sport is the know-how of the professional players who play alongside amateurs at the Ten Oaks Cup, Kennedy says.
“The pros can make anybody look good,” she says. “They put the ball where it’s needed and put on a good show.”
Polo pro Charlie Muldoon originally suggested that the Lewises hold a benefit polo match. Muldoon, whose family owns three farms with private polo fields in Montgomery County, plays polo around the world and has been presented with trophies by many heads of state. He still helps organize the Ten Oaks Cup, plays in the local match and recruits the players, who hail from as close as the Capitol Polo Club in Poolesville and as far away as Chile, Russia and the United Kingdom.
“The Ten Oaks Cup is one of the most fun games I play in all year, with a Lewis on every team, and the crowd really gets into it,” he says. “We work to make it exciting, and the Lewises make sure everyone feels like a part of the family and has a good time.”
If scheduling works out, halftime may include an amateur exhibition of polocrosse, a new but growing sport best described as lacrosse played on horseback. (It’s contingent upon on players’ availability, Kennedy says.) Regardless, spectators are always invited to take part in divot stomping, a polo tradition in which many feet take to the field to help replace chunks of turf torn up by horses’ hooves and mallets.
“It’s usually done while drinking wine or champagne,” she says.
Fashionable female spectators relish the opportunity to wear unique hats and fascinators to the match, reminiscent of the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore.
Bob Wieder, a private money manager in Ellicott City, has been to every Ten Oaks Cup.
“You can see the power of the animals since they run close to you some of the time,” Wieder says. “It’s a great place for the community to come together to support a good cause and to see something they haven’t seen before.”
One of the most heartwarming moments comes when the polo match has ended and it’s time for Mary Agnes Lewis, the family matriarch, to award the trophy to the winning team with Dr. Lewis at her side.
“We keep this Mom’s show — she’s the hostess,” Kennedy says of her mother’s role as honorary chairwoman.
Mary Agnes Lewis, who is 87, says the event means a lot to her, in part because the members of her family all get involved, but mainly because it benefits Our Daily Bread, a hot meal and employment program in Baltimore.
The program is supported locally by St. Louis Catholic Church in Clarksville, where Fred and Mary Agnes Lewis have been parishioners for more than 60 years.
“[Our Daily Bread] is such a great facility with dedicated volunteers who help people who’ve lost their jobs, who are fighting alcoholism or who are just down on their luck,” she says. “It’s close to my heart because I feel the need is there, and you can see how much people appreciate it.”
Since its inception in 2006, the Ten Oaks Cup has raised nearly $450,000 for the charity.
“It’s also a really special event because 100 percent of the money is donated, not just the net proceeds,” Muldoon says.
But the thrill of the match isn’t lost on Mary Agnes Lewis; she and her husband used to watch polo matches as students at Cornell University in New York.
“It’s such a fast game, and the camaraderie of the players and the sense of just being happy to be there make it a wonderful experience,” she says.
The revelry and tailgating continue after the match until the gates close at 6 p.m.
“It’s an exciting event and such a family-friendly day,” Kennedy says. “No one wants it to end.”