Equestrian center in North Carolina offers polo for the masses

  • Tracey Teo
  • For the AJC
12:00 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017 Travel
For the AJC
A Gladiator Polo match at Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, N.C. CONTRIBUTED BY UNITED STATES POLO ASSOCIATION

Astride a polo pony named Karma, I swing my long mallet in a pendulum as instructed by Gates Gridley, manager of the new Tryon Polo School that opened in June in tiny Mill Spring, N.C., and try to make contact with a ball that seems miles below me. The school is part of the sprawling, 1,600-acre Tryon International Equestrian Center at Tryon Resort that opened in 2015 near the foothills of the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains.

It comprises nine all-weather competition rings, a derby field, a cross-country course and seven barns with 1,200 stalls, a revolutionary design concept that equips the year-round venue to accommodate practically any equestrian sport or competition. Most equestrian centers around the world are built for a specific discipline.

So, I’m taking my first polo lesson at the same facility that has hunter-jumpers leaping over fences just down the road. It’s little wonder it was chosen as the venue for the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games, the Olympics of horse-related sports.

For the AJC
A hunter-jumper practices at Tryon International Equestrian Center at Tryon Resort in Spring Mill, N.C. CONTRIBUTED BY WESLEY K.H. TEO

As I practice swinging my mallet with a straight arm, I’m suddenly terrified I will knock poor Karma in the head. Fortunately for her, I begin to make some marginal improvements, and she remains concussion-free. Occasionally, I succeed in getting that obstinate, microscopic ball to move a foot or two.

Holding the reins in my left hand while trying to hit the ball with my right is sort of like playing golf while leaning out of the window of a moving pickup truck, trying to steer all the while.

Gridley strikes me as a no-nonsense, suck-it-up kind of guy (he didn’t get to be captain of his college polo team by being a whiner), so I hesitate to tell him that my arm is going fall off if we practice this pendulum thing much longer. Finally, the throbbing in my wrist and forearm is severe enough that I muster the courage to say the polo stick is much heavier than I thought it would be.

Gridley’s only comment is, “That’s a woman’s mallet.”

Well, I am a woman, but message received. No pain, no gain. Get over it.

Apparently, I’ve enrolled in polo boot camp.

After practicing other basic moves, Gridley announces it’s time to literally kick Karma into action. What? I look at him as though he has asked me to fly to the moon on horseback. My equestrian experience is limited mostly to trail rides on quarter horses that plod along like geriatric mall walkers. I’ve never tried to get one to gallop. Karma must sense this, because she won’t. Gridley says kick harder. She finally gets the message and takes off like a shot. It’s the most exhilarating three seconds of my life before I panic and rein her in.

Wow! That was cool. Am I still alive?

I straighten my helmet and thank God I’m still seated on this 1,000-pound animal. I’m flustered, thrilled, terrified and ready to do it again.

I suddenly have a new admiration for professional players that race across the field at 35 mph, easily guiding their mount side to side while swinging a polo stick overhead like a knight charging into battle. I’ll never make it to the pros, but I had fun, and I thank Gridley for the lesson. Off the field, he’s not a drill sergeant, but a laid-back, nice guy. He says considering my limited experience with horses, I did well. I’m not sure I believe him, but I smile sheepishly and take the compliment.

Polo has long been known as the sport of kings, but Boston native Mark Bellissimo, the center’s billionaire developer and founder, is turning the highbrow sport on its head with his brainchild, Gladiator Polo. A variant of arena polo, the game is a lightning-fast, action-packed frenzy Bellissimo compares to hockey on horseback.

For the AJC
Mark Bellissimo is developer and founder of the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina. CONTRIBUTED BY WESLEY K.H. TEO

Tryon’s inaugural Gladiator Polo match on June 24 drew thousands of curious spectators, filling the George H. Morris Arena to capacity. Team Greenville narrowly beat Team Charlotte in a riveting 6-chukker (playing interval) match.

“I wanted to create something that would appeal to a broader audience,” Bellissimo said. “I think equestrian sport in general is considered to be pretty elitist.”

Champagne, big hats and haute couture are part of traditional field polo’s allure, but those posh trappings can be a deterrent for those who don’t have a closet full of designer duds. Here, a carnival atmosphere and a come-as-you-are dress code make everyone feel welcome — even those more familiar with NASCAR than the Nasdaq.

That’s important in Polk County.

Insider: Palm Beach Polo (Franker)

Gladiator Polo was initially launched in January at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Fla., where Bellissimo is a managing partner. Unlike wealthy Palm Beach County, Polk County does not have a multimillionaire on every corner. Until the equestrian center came along, creating a major economic driver, this corner of western North Carolina was still reeling from the closure of textile mills during the Great Recession.

That’s one reason there’s free admission to all events. Even in upper-crust Wellington, not everyone is on the Forbes 400, so Bellissimo waives admission there, too.

“I thought it (charging admission) was a mechanism to keep people out versus generating revenue,” Bellissimo said.

And that really put a burr under his saddle.

“That was very offensive to me personally and professionally. We decided to do the opposite. We were going to make sure there was a magnet to bring as many kids to this venue as we could.”

For the AJC
Mark Bellissimo, developer and founder of the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina, stands in front of an elaborate carousel meant to entertain the youngest visitors. CONTRIBUTED BY WESLEY K.H. TEO

That “magnet” came in the form of an elaborate Italian-made carousel and free pony rides at both equestrian centers. People who come for those attractions often drift over to a show ring to watch a competition. That’s exactly what Bellissimo wants — for people outside the usual equestrian circles to develop an appreciation for the awe-inspiring athleticism of horses and their riders.

The center is the embodiment of Bellissimo’s dream — a place where anyone and everyone can “celebrate and access the horse in a way that’s profound.”

Tryon International Equestrian Center at Tryon Resort, 25 International Blvd., Mill Spring, N.C. 828-863-1000, tryon.coth.com. The FEI World Equestrian Games will be held here Sept. 11-23, 2018.

For the AJC
The Tryon International Equestrian Center opened in 2015 near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. CONTRIBUTED BY WESLEY K.H. TEO
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