Polo Club cancels season after losing major benefactor

Polo on Kaua‘i has a rich history dating back more than a century. But for the first time in almost 30 consecutive years, there won’t be a competitive match played here this summer.

When the sport was revived in 1979 after a long on-again, off-again relationship with Kaua‘i, it was thanks to a group of local players who built the Kaua‘i Polo Club with their own horses and money. The club thrived for decades, drawing big-name players and hundreds of spectators, until most of the founding members retired in 2002.

For the next five seasons, longtime player Ron Bonaguidi kept the club afloat. He owned the majority of the horses and funded about 75 percent of the annual costs.

But last year he, too, left.

On its own, the club, which no longer owns any polo horses, generated about $35,000 annually from admissions, merchandise and donations. But that’s a “drop in the bucket” when compared to the cost of a season, says Bill Marston, Kaua‘i Polo Club treasurer.

A polo pony costs $7,000 to $10,000, not to mention hundreds for its weekly upkeep and care.

When Bonaguidi announced his departure, and with it the financial leg the club had been standing on, Marston and club President Michael Sheehan wrote to every U.S. Polo Association member in Hawai‘i asking for their participation in or support of the forthcoming season. They’d hoped that four to six guys would come forward with as many horses each, and collectively fill Bonaguidi’s shoes.

There were no takers, so this year June quietly came and went without any fanfare or action at the beloved field abutting Anini Beach.

“There’s no formal season, and we don’t know when there will be,” Marston said.

The grounds are being modestly maintained, and the year-to-year land lease with Princeville Ranch is still current. But if interest doesn’t pick up by next year, Marston’s not sure the club will be able to keep its longtime home.

“The sport is a function of the economy,” Sheehan said. “It’s an expensive game.”

In the meantime, casual play will continue this summer with former players and guests — nothing for the public, though. Sheehan hopes it will serve to cement interest so come next year there are enough horses to revive the club.

Bette Layton, club historian and author of “Polo in Paradise: The History of Polo on Kaua‘i,” is also optimistic about a revival, given polo’s resilience over the years.

“My prediction is it will be back again,” Layton said.

First brought to the islands by the British in the 1800s, Hawai‘i’s ranch ponies took to the sport as quickly as the paniolos. Dubbed cowboy polo, it “went like wildfire,” Layton said.

The game arrived on Kaua‘i in 1887 and remained a major sport until World War II deployments weakened its presence. Later, in the 1950s, it was revived for a brief two years at Kipu Ranch, only to fade again.

In 1979, Sheehan was convinced by a group of casual players on Kaua‘i to start a club, at that time in Hanalei. It was a grassroots endeavor with loose rules and played on cow ponies that had no experience with mallets flying by their legs.

In 1980, the club set up on the front lawn of Kilohana in Puhi and continued its informal play.

As matches began with teams from other islands, a regulation field became necessary to meet U.S. Polo Association criteria. The club settled at Anini in 1982, the same year Bonaguidi’s Hanalei Bay Team won the U.S. Open Championship.

The ’80s saw the club recruit pro players and import thoroughbred horses from New Zealand, eventually reaching its heyday in 1988 by hosting national and international greats, including Memo Garcia.

Hurricane ‘Iniki slowed the momentum in 1992, but it wasn’t until several original members retired in 2002 that the structure of the club shifted. Bonaguidi took it upon himself to rebuild the organization, and it remained buoyant until his departure last year.

“They carried the club along and one by one they stepped down,” Layton said of the founders. “It’s kind of like a vacuum.”

Aficionados agree that, regardless of decade, polo on Kaua‘i has always been accessible — more rooted in fun and camaraderie than the aristocracy that fueled its popularity elsewhere.

“The beauty of Hawaiian polo is that it’s more casual than it is in other places,” Sheehan said. “We’re just regular guys over here having fun.”

Now, without the matches that fans have enjoyed for decades, Sunday afternoons seem a little empty. “They leave people wishing we were going off to polo,” Layton said.

• Blake Jones, business writer/assistant editor, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or bjones@kauaipubco.com

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