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Beach Polo Returns To Hotel Del Coronado

 Frankly, my knowledge of polo, the sport which involves polo ponies and not swimming pools, is limited. But covering the first Polo America Beach Polo event at the Hotel Del Coronado last year was a memorable event on several fronts. This year the Beach Polo event is spread over three days, Friday through Sunday, Sept. 1 through 3, and allows the ticket buyer an opportunity to see one of the best polo players in the world in Mike Azzaro.

Born in Chicago and raised primarily in San Antonio where he still resides, Azzaro has been a professional polo player for 36 years. Azzaro explained the initial portion of his journey to polo stardom, “I started in Chicago and was riding when I was two years old and playing when I was five. My Dad started playing five years before I was born and I had an uncle in the Cavalry who got him into it. My uncle conditioned horses for the Calvary by playing polo. He got my Dad hooked and he got all of us playing. I started playing professionally at the age of 15 in San Antonio and have been playing since. I have had a long career and at the highest levels now, I am the oldest player competing by 15 years. I have stayed fit and with God’s hand over me, I have been healthy, with only one injury my whole career. I have been pretty blessed.”

Polo has a unique financial structure, which Azzaro explained. “On the professional level, in the United States, polo is purely sponsored by multi-millionaires and billionaires who love to play the game. They play at the highest levels with us. Other than yachting, we are the only sport where the owner can be on the team. It’s a very family-oriented spectator sport and also playing-wise. Families have been in polo for 50 to 100 years. It’s a unique sport in that you have to be a physical athlete and an equestrian athlete. You have a 1,000-pound, fine-tuned, horse beneath you and as either a professional or an amateur you have to become a good horseman. Polo can be played on all levels, at your local club with three horses and you can play it like a hobby.”

To appreciate how good Azzaro was and is, an understanding of the polo player rating system is necessary. Azzaro said, “Players are rated on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest rating you can achieve. When I was 10 goals, there were just six players in the world with that rating and I was 10 goals in the United States, England and Argentina, the three countries where major tournaments are played. I held 10 goals for 15 years and besides a player who competed in the 1930’s, that is the longest holding of 10 goals ever. I was No. 2 in the world for eight years. In polo, horses are 80 percent of our ability. Every cent I made in my early years was invested in horses. The horse power really helped me over the years. It’s a big part of the game.”

Some of that may sound like Azzaro is bragging, but during our interview it came across as a well-told recitation of the facts. When you’re that good, you don’t really need to embellish the details.

Azzaro provided further insight into his sport and his career. “I own 25 horses now, but when I was a 10-goal player, playing 11 months a year, I had 85. I would play in England for two months in the Queens Cup and the Gold Cup and then in the fall I would travel to Argentina and play during the winters in Florida. It takes a lot of horses to sustain that. A game (outdoor polo is played on a field nine times the size of a football field and covers 10 acres) lasts two hours and you can use between seven and 10 horses a day. Normally you never go to a polo field without nine horses. In Florida, I would play the entire season from January through the first of May.”

If you believe in goal-setting, Azzaro is living proof of dreams coming true from an early age. When asked when he realized that he could compete on the international level in polo, Azzaro responded, “Probably at 12. I always had goals and set goals. I wanted to be the youngest American to be rated 10 goals, the youngest American to be inducted into the Polo Hall of Fame and to be the American to win the most U.S. Opens. I accomplished all three goals. I was inducted into the Hall of Fame 10 years ago, won eight U.S. Opens and was 25 years of age when I reached 10 goals.”

Two of the best players ever and according to Azzaro, the two best Mexican-born players ever were brothers Memo and Carlos Garcia. “I met Memo in San Antonio when I moved there and I got a job working for him. I trained underneath him for a year and he was always a perfectionist, just a master at organization, a genius on strategy and a great horseman. Mostly I absorbed everything from him I could. He is 10 years older than I am and he is 61. He is still tough on the field and he’s still got it. He understood that with horses, the approach is quality and not quantity. It’s always better to buy two or three horses with quality than 20 mediocre ones. Memo won more U.S. Opens than anybody by far and his brother Carlos was the all-time Grand Slam winner world-wide. Right now, the greatest at this moment would be Adolfo Cambiaso. He is a player with freakish ability and freakish financial support from the best sponsors in polo. He has created a huge dynasty of horse flesh and organization. He is 42 now and he can probably still dominate for a few more years.”

The father of three children with wife Amy, Azzaro described his family life. “I met Amy when I moved to San Antonio and I have known her since I was 11 years old. We knew each other through church and when she turned 18, we got married, which was 28 years ago this November. Our first child was Alexandra and when she was two years old, she was at the Finals of the Queens Cup in England and I carried her to the trophy presentation. Ever since, children are not allowed to meet the Queen, so she was the first and only child to meet her in that setting. We have a son Michael Harrison who is 17 and just played his first winter professionally in Florida. He’s going to be a super player and he has more talent at that age than I had, by far. Our youngest is Hunter and he is 11 and has been playing for three or four years. He also has unbelievable ability, is left-handed, naturally picked up the mallet and has the potential to be awesome. They both love it. My wife’s ability on a horse is pretty mind-boggling. She has great eye-hand coordination and her dad Butch Newman was the head tennis coach at Trinity University in San Antonio for 35 years. So, the kids were destined to be good.”

Azzaro streamlined his polo schedule about 15 years ago due to his family obligations, and no longer hops continents to play. His season this year includes Florida from January 1 through the first of May, and this year he has substituted Aspen, Colorado for Santa Barbara in July and August. “The Ganzis have a crew in Aspen and this is their club. It’s in a town called Carbondale, which is 15 miles outside of Aspen. They have beautiful barns and polo fields. Santa Barbara is one of the best places to play in the summer and Aspen is growing to be the best, if not the best.”

When asked the most famous people he has played polo with, Azzaro rattled off a series of pretty impressive names. “I played three summers in England with Prince Charles, him and his boys. Charles played quite a bit and was playing in some of the top tournaments in England at the time. His highest rating was a ‘4’ which is very respectable for an amateur player. I also played against the Sultan of Brunei. Win or lose there, you get an incredible trophy. And I played with Adolphus Busch IV, who is the son of (former Anheuser-Busch Chairman) August Busch III. They were a huge polo family.”

The Polo America Beach Polo Cup is promoted by Randy Russell, who as luck would have it is a family friend of Azzaro. Russell added some context to the discussion of Azzaro’s polo ability. “Very few Americans have played in the Argentine Open and he was at the top of the top. He would lean far off the neck of the horse and fly down the field at 40 miles an hour. Mike was hard to stop and fun to watch.”

Russell has assembled a strong list of sponsors for Polo America Beach Polo, including Platinum Sponsor The Hotel Del Coronado. Gold Sponsors are: Porsche of San Diego, who will display one of just 500 cars built from their 911 Turbo S Exclusive Series; Westime Watches; KYXY 96.5 FM; Schubach Aviation; Peter Lik Fine Art; Grayse Women’s Clothiers; Brady’s Menswear located in the Hotel Del Coronado; Silver Seas Yachts; the U.S. Polo Association; Discover Coronado; and the Aspen Valley Polo Club.

Azzaro will compete for the Porsche San Diego Team, which has the highest combined total goal ranking for their three players. I’m not saying they are going to win, but they would be the way to bet. Porsche San Diego will play the U.S. Polo Association Friday night. The gates open at 5 p.m. and the game is expected to start at 5:45 p.m. Saturday there will be one game at 2 p.m., which will feature the Aspen Valley Polo Club against Westime. The losers of the first two games will play at 12 noon Sunday, with the winners of the first two games competing at 2 p.m.

Randy Russell has also included a golf cart polo match for Saturday, along with some Jack Russell Terrier races. Said Russell the promoter of the Russell the canine racers, “They are so cute. They have starting gates and they run six at a time. They chase a rabbit tail and run into bales of hay. The winners fly through and the rest get bunched up into a pile. Plus, we get to let a few people get the feel of playing polo on the golf carts.”

Another potentially fun element would be polo lessons, which cost $200 per person, with the horse, mallet and helmet provided. This is for children 12 and over. The lessons will be held Friday, Sept. 1, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 2 from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 3 from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. For polo lessons, please call 818-558-POLO.

Coronado artist and Emerald C Gallery Owner Penny Rothschild has combined with artists Kayleigh Chomiczewski and Meghan Miklavic to create the statue “Azure Fields,” which features a multi-colored polo player and pony, is made of fiberglass and layered with acrylic paint and varnish. The statue will be auctioned Sunday, Sept. 3 and will benefit Rady Children’s Hospital.

Ticket prices per day for Polo America Beach Polo cost $35 for grandstand seats in the two end zones; $250 each for Gold Tickets; $2,500 for Gold Tables; Millionaires Row Boxes are $2,000 each; or a combination of both for $4,000.

To purchase tickets, please call 760-668-6093 or go to www.poloamerica.com.