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July 30, 2015
A Soggy Summer Polo Season in Kentucky
By Darlene Ricker
Thursday, July 30, 2015 :: Posted 10:39:16 AM UTC

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Lexington, Kentucky - July 30, 2015 - It’s pouring rain at patron James Miller’s Hillcroft Farm. Actually no, that’s a huge understatement. I can’t even think of a word that describes how apocalyptic this swirling cauldron of wind, water, brimstone and damnation is—except maybe the Spanish word for storm: “tormenta.” You get the idea.

Tano Vial, a 6-goaler from Argentina, and teammate Tomas (“Tommy”) Collingwood, a 5-goaler from Wellington, Florida, walk into the barn, cloaked in disappointment but wearing a steel belt of resolve. Both are tall and lanky. Vial glances downward, softly shaking his head, tousles of sun-streaked hair sweeping across his forehead. Collingwood sighs, almost imperceptibly. Vial looks up. They share a wry, “so-okay-we’re-screwed-but-let’s-make-the-best-of-it” grin. No words needed.

© Courtesy of Tommy Collingwood: Team and patron James MillerTeam Hillcroft finds a break from the rainy weather to play some polo.
Photo: Courtesy of Teresa Collingwood

They’re supposed to be out practicing for tomorrow’s game in the 14-goal Kentucky Horse Park Invitational tournament. Neither the practice nor the game will go off as scheduled. Even their backup plan, practice rides in a nearby indoor arena, is on the skids today.

Whatever, this team takes it in stride. Collingwood is philosophical—yet at the same time practical—about it. While he admits a lengthy washout “affects you big-time; you lose your momentum, and the horses get heavy,” he also says, “But it’s the same for everybody, not just us. We’ll all be in the same boat.”

Still, it will be especially tough for the Hillcroft Polo Team to get their mojo back. Given the unrelenting rains, they have only played one-and-a-half games here in the past three weeks (and there’s only one more week left in the short Kentucky summer season). Their second game was rained out at halftime.

“We had lost our first game of the tournament, and we had to win this second game for sure,” said Collingwood. “We were playing really well and just had some momentum going . . . mentally, physically, mostly mentally of course, because you were just focused right there and everything is starting to fall into place.”

It’s even harder on the horses, he said. “That’s where you’ll feel it most. We had them perfectly tuned up. They had just played a game, so they were getting to their peak of excellent condition. And now we’re set back; it’s like back to zero.”

That was remedied the following week with a private practice session in the covered arena at the Kentucky Horse Park. Four rigs, each with a dozen horses, rolled in from Hillcroft at 9:30 in the morning. The players, some of their grooms and Collingwood’s father (Dennis Collingwood, who works full time for his son) rode in an hours-long procession in and out of the arena. The footing was great, they said, as they methodically warmed up the horses, eventually working into the canter for a series of figure eights, stops and turns. If it weren’t for the saddles and the attire (and the Castellano banter), you’d have thought you were watching a bunch of world champion reiners.

“Watch this! This is the mare I told you about that has an attitude,” Collingwood said with a grin as he rode in on his newest horse, Chismosa, which he talked Sebastian Merlos into selling him at the end of the 2015 Wellington season. Without warning, the mare threw in an athletic series of bucks, back hooves almost as high as the rider’s head. A few minutes later, just as suddenly, she called it off. “She does this every time. But she’s an amazing horse to play. Once she goes to work, she’s a machine.”

© Courtesy of Tommy Collingwood: Tommy Collingwood_horse buckingCollingwood and the quirky mare Chismosa warm-up in Kentucky. Photo: Courtesy of Tommy Collingwood.

Back at the barn, it started raining again. A little tornado (if there is such a thing) touched down in a gully about 75 feet from the barn for a few seconds that felt like an eternity. The horses watched nonchalantly from their stalls, munching hay. An angry burst of wind wreaked havoc with a tree lining the driveway (a winding stretch of pavement as wide as and in better condition than most of Lexington’s two-lane roads).

A handful of grooms, players, friends and family members took turns at a table, slapping a ping-pong ball back and forth with a paddle. It was the brainchild of team manager Herndon Ratcliff, an American 2-goaler, who sprung some funds to buy the set. It sits unobtrusively on the side of a super-wide barn aisle long enough to fit a couple of semis nose-to-nose if you wanted to (even with the patron’s helicopter that is already parked at the far end).

With the day winding to a close, the question of the hour arose: What’s up for tonight? It didn’t take long before someone shouted, “a party!” Unanimous agreement. How the party came together so quickly and so well, I don’t know. Polo people just seem to be born with that talent.

Good thing, because no one was up for going off campus, although that’s always an attractive option. “I love Lexington!” said Collingwood. “It’s such a huge horse community. There’s always something to do—if it’s not with polo, you have the races to go see, and at the Kentucky Horse Park you have the top jumpers, three-day event riders and everything,” he said.

© Courtesy of Tommy Collingwood: Tommy Collingwood_helicopterPatron James Miller arrives with Tommy Collingwood in style. Photo: Courtesy of Teresa Collingwood.

“The other night we went to the Red Mile (race track) and saw the Saddlebred show, which was really neat. Then you can go and get tours of these amazing Thoroughbred farms—it’s ridiculous! It makes polo look really small compared to race horses.”

This evening the action took place a couple miles away at the impeccable yet inviting Mt. Brilliant Farm party barn. Yes, it is specifically for social events, and as Collingwood intimated to me, “Everyone has a lot of class in Kentucky.”

Some of them also have very large farms. Mt. Brilliant is at least 1,000 acres, with a complex road system that winds past several houses, barns and outbuildings. There are a few signs, but unless you’ve been there before, they can be pretty cryptic. Teresa’s husband Dennis Collingwood, and their daughter, Sofi Collingwood, knew my penchant for getting lost and texted me directions.

We were guests at what I guess you could call the Kentucky version of an asado. There was a seemingly endless buffet packed with meats galore (steak, pork, turkey, chicken, sausages); fish; Kentucky-favorite sides of baked beans, cole slaw and caramelized vegetables (which clearly puzzled a couple of Argentines, but they tried them anyway), and cupcakes on a side table. Rather than the copious carafes of vino tinto at an asado, there were two open bars, with formal bartenders serving just about any premium liquor you could want, including a slew of competing Kentucky bourbons.

As with any polo party, there was the usual amount of flirting, dancing, laughing—even some deep conversations—among players, grooms, patrons, friends and whoever else wandered in. A charming young player from an Argentine polo dynasty sat across from me at a dining table, sharing his deepest feelings about life and love with Teresa Collingwood (Tommy’s mom), his longtime friend and confidante, who had brought me to the party.

Later that evening, Tommy Collingwood and his teammates headed back to a beautiful compound, an historic Kentucky property, their patron had provided for them on his farm. “The team all lives together now,” said Collingwood, adding that usually isn’t  the case in Wellington. “We have breakfast together, lunch together, dinner together, so we’re just like family.”

© : Carriage ride at Hillcroft FarmKentucky isn't just for polo and racing!

Before calling it a night the guys huddled together, scrutinizing tapes of the 22-goal Jaeger-LeCoultre 2015 Gold Cup, which was taking place that week in England. Collingwood paused the video. “Tano, I was thinking maybe next game if we have a play that comes up like this, why don’t we try something like that?” he asked.

Usually that’s the type of mate-infused epiphany that sprouts up during a team meeting at the barn the day before every game. But these guys are always “on”; Collingwood went to bed that night and, as he often does, watched more game tapes, even repeating one of his favorite games from the U.S. Open a few times.

The next day it was still raining, so the teams loaded up and rolled down to Nashville, Tennessee, where the tournament resumed until Sunday. By then the Man O’ War Field at the horse park had dried out.

Kentucky’s summer season concluded July 31 on a somber note because of the previous evening’s death of Will Tankard, who played for Faraway in the tournament. After a moment of silence and words of tribute to Tankard, the final game took place, with Hillcroft defeating Mt. Brilliant 10-8.

Now it’s back to Houston for the Collingwood contingent. When the team was there in June, they got in a week of tournament play and then were rained out for a straight month. In the fifth week they won the final. Although they weren’t as lucky in the second tournament, they made it to the semis.

“All in all, everyone was pretty happy,” said Collingwood. “So we confirmed the same team for the fall.”

Onward and upward.

© Tommy Collingwood: Teams in KentuckyMt. Brilliant and Hillcroft Polo after the Finals. Photo: Courtesy of Tommy Collingwood.

© Courtesy of Tommy Collingwood: BPP Chismosa_Tommy CollingwoodTommy's mare "Chismosa" earned Best Playing Pony. Photo: Courtesy of Tommy Collingwood.

Kentucky Horse Park Invitational Team Roster

Mt. Brilliant 14
Matt Coppola 4
Juan Monteverde 5
Tomas Obregon 4
Bo Goodman 1

Faraway 13
Will Tankard 3
Juan Valerdi 4
Julian Daniels 6
Hutton Goodman 0

Hillcroft 13
James Miller 1.5
Herndon Ratcliff 2
Tommy Collingwood 5
Tano Vial 6

Orrin Ingram 1
Alan Martinez 5
Stevie Orthwein 4
James Armstrong 4



Darlene Sordillo Ricker is the chief polo writer for Phelps Media Group International in Wellington, Florida, and A longtime equestrian writer and editor for the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe, she is widely known for her coverage of major polo tournaments and behind-the-scenes interviews with the biggest names in the sport.

Ricker has also written about all FEI disciplines and is the author of published books on dressage and eventing. A graduate of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, California, she formerly practiced sports and entertainment law. Her monthly column, “Inside the Tent … With Darlene Ricker,” appears exclusively on

 © : Darlene Ricker with Facundo PieresDarlene Ricker (left) speaking with Facundo Pieres in Wellington in 2015.

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