Polo with a purpose


Tickets were sold, the tent was raised, the players were pumped. What could possibly go wrong?

The night before the 4th Annual Galloping Pig polo match, a storm that could swamp an ark swept through Wilshire Farm in Goshen, Ohio. The wind toyed with, then shredded a 400-foot-long tent, the umbrella for activities. Rain turned the polo field into a mucky mess.

At 8 p.m. planners assessed the damage. At 11 p.m. they decided, "We’re gonna make this happen," says Jeanette Altenau, co-chair of the event. Implementing Plan B, they raised a smaller tent in a less soppy spot and moved the polo match off the treacherous field and into the barn. The match, catering, logistics, "Every aspect of the event had to be rethought."

All this, for the love of Friars Club.

Hang out and cheer

Proceeds from the Galloping Pig benefit underprivileged youth. This year, "Our goal from the start was to provide a van for Friars Club," says Jeanette, Director of Community Relations for event co-sponsor TriHealth and a volunteer whose heart belongs to Friars.

On the dazzling day after the storm Br. Scott Obrecht, the "Friar at Friars Club", mans a check-in table at ALP Stables, greeting arrivals oblivious to the drama behind the scenes. Br. Phil Robinette, the new Office Manager for Friars, is getting to know the people. No one seems fazed by the sight of two guys in brown robes. Guests are here to dine on barbecue, sip champagne and admire the two- and four-legged athletes.

Former Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones, co-chair with Jeanette and host of the event through his philanthropic BowTie Foundation, is a booster of both polo and Friars Club. "I’m a big fan of sports that have the same type of culture as football," he says. "It’s the game itself, the outdoors, the atmosphere that makes polo so fantastic. Polo is an upscale sport that allows everyone to participate, to tailgate, to hang around with their families and cheer."

As for his own involvement, "It’s the responsibility of those who’ve had good fortune to help those who maybe did not. Friars Club exposes young people to opportunities they didn’t know about. It combines academics and athletics, whites and blacks, haves and have-nots. Until those worlds coincide, you don’t have the opportunity to learn from each other."

"All walks of life"

Those worlds coincide at the Galloping Pig. Outside the barn, women in finery suitable for the Kentucky Derby tap the toes of their boots to songs like The Sheik of Araby, performed by the Cajun group, Lagniappe. Traditionally, polo fans wear boots to "stomp divots" at halftime, replacing the dirt and clumps of grass dislodged during play. If they tried that today the mud would suck the shoes off their feet. Browsing silent auction items, they tread carefully under the tent, staying on strips of carpeting that surround the tables.

Jeanette is everywhere, hobnobbing with patrons, consulting with Dhani, patrolling the silent auction table. "We have people here from all walks of life," she says, all drawn together for Friars Club. She recalls her first visit to the gym. "They opened the doors and opened my heart. It truly changed my life." And meeting the friars was a bonus. "Br. Scott has been a great influence. When I’m having a bad day, Scott sends me prayers."

A half-dozen kids wearing Friars Club t-shirts mingle with guests, politely answering questions before they dash off to run amok through the fields and barn. Handlers prepare the horses, braiding the tails so they won’t swoosh in the way of mallets and wrapping legs with Ace-style bandages. Girls in sundresses petting the steeds – "polo ponies" is a misnomer for these racing thoroughbreds – learn how the game is played.

Polo 101

For most, their knowledge of polo was gleaned from images of Prince Charles at play (it’s "The Sport of Kings"). Beyond that, "Everybody’s first polo match is Pretty Woman," says Dhani, referring to the sporting scene in the popular Julia Roberts movie. "I’ve never seen a polo match," says guest Danice Shirley, whose husband and son grew up playing ball at Friars Club. "I’m here to support them."

Moving into the barn for the match between the Queen City Polo Club and Hickory Hall of Indianapolis, Scott shares what he knows about the sport. "It’s divided into ‘chukkers’," four periods 7½ minutes long. Typically, teams of four square off on a 300-foot-long playing field. Today, however, they’re galloping around a 100-foot arena. Even in close quarters the acrobatics are impressive. Players holding reins in one hand lean way off the horse to smack a plastic ball toward the goal at each end, moving so fast that cameras can’t keep up.

"It’s interesting to see the interaction between jockeys and their horses," says Mike Besl, Chair of the Board of Trustees for Friars Club, here with his family. "The horses are very athletic."

Friars Club’s Executive Director is learning as she watches. "It’s delightful, fun, different," says Annie Timmons, relaxing today after an evening of basketball at Friars. This all came about, she says, when "Jeanette asked me what my dream is for Friars Club." Annie responded, "I’d love to get transportation to get kids to games. A lot of times with [inner-city] kids, that’s our biggest challenge."

After the match ends in a tie, 8 to 8, polo fans gather outside as an artist’s rendering of the 12-passenger Friars Club van is unveiled.

Eyeing the remnants of the tent torn to pieces by last night’s storm, Mike shakes his head in admiration. "I can’t believe they pulled this off."

Jeanette, who stayed up all night to make it happen, is relieved. "God was good to us," she says. "This will change children’s lives."

More photos on our Flickr page.