Byline: FRANCES INGRAHAM Staff writer
Polo, as a sport and vocation, is by all accounts a family affair.
When husbands head off to work, most wives either go to their own jobs or stay home with the children. But many men who are called to the polo fields eat, sleep and work with their families as they travel the world to compete in tournaments.
``Polo is not like baseball, football or golf, where most of the players' wives stay behind at home or fly in just for the game,'' says Joanna Smicklas, wife of Dale Smicklas, captain of the Wellington, Fla.-based Outback team, and whose skills have earned him a lofty eight-goal ranking (out of a possible 10).
It's ``a family-consuming type of sport,'' she adds. ``You get used to the packing and traveling . . . After a while, you always get a bit of that feeling of it's time to move on. I've never not traveled with my husband, not even when (daughter) Tiana was born. She was at her first game two hours after leaving the hospital.''
There is a greater ``polo family'' as well.
Because there are four players to a polo team, some families not only travel together, but share a house when on the road.
``We're all very friendly on this team,'' says Polly Fawcett, wife of one-goal player Mike Fawcett, who owns and sponsors the Cold Comfort team, playing in Saratoga Springs this summer.
Fifteen people including the Fawcetts, their 10-year-old daughter Madeleine, and the family of team colleague nine-goal player Esteban Panalo are sharing a house in Saratoga for the third consecutive season.
When the Cold Comfort team plays in Florida, the families live inside the compound of the Palm Beach Club. They also live near each other in their home base in Hamilton, Mass.
Most of the players are married and have children of all ages. For these children, schedules are flexible, and life loses its sense of routine.
Because the children watch their fathers play polo, their bedtime usually comes later than that for children on a more traditional schedule. A polo match usually begins at 6 p.m. and lasts up to 2 hours. After returning to the bar, the horses must be tended.
``The children have dinner before the match but sometimes they don't get to bed until between 11 p.m. or 1 a.m.,'' says Joanna Smicklas.
``Because they don't have to get up early, they can sleep until 9 a.m. or 11 a.m. They usually go with the flow because there's no schedule, and it works beautifully,'' she adds.
Parents must take special measures when it comes to schooling their children.
In Argentina, where Esteban and Victoria Panalo own a farm, children attend school from March through December. Victoria Panalo explains that teachers there work with polo parents to ensure that a child's education isn't interrupted.
``Traveling is an education in itself for the children,'' adds Joanna Smicklas. ``They usually have perception beyond their young years and can change with any situation because they spend a lot of time around adults.''
Madeleine Fawcett's teachers prepare her study requirements so she can tend to them while they're traveling among matches, says Polly Fawcett.
``She has five books to read before heading back to school in September, one of which is the ``Odyssey.'' She's been handling it by reading for an hour or two every morning when she gets up. She has picked Spanish up on our trips to Argentina,'' says Polly Fawcett.
``The rest of our day is spent with Mike at the stable to tend to the horses and then we do different things following lunch before we have to go back to the stable and get ready for a match.''
Children who show an interest in the game start playing polo at an early age. In between her father's games, Tiana Smicklas, 6, goes through the paces of her own imaginary polo game.
Straightening her Victorian pinafore dress and large white bow in her blond hair, Joanna Smicklas quips, ``I let her play like a boy but she has to dress like a girl.''
As for the wives, their lives are dedicated to the needs of their families.
``I spend almost all of my waking hours with my children,'' says Victoria Panalo, mother of Esteban Jr., 3, and 5-month-old Joaquin.
``We have a nanny who also travels around the world with us. We need her to watch the children at night. There are so many social events to attend when you're involved with polo, from business people to friends. It depends on where the tournament is, but sometimes there are 15 to 20 families from Argentina who converge in the same place at one time.''
Panalo says she enjoys shopping when she travels to the United States. ``I like to go on house tours, the houses are so beautiful in Connecticut and Boston,'' she adds.
``We also play a lot of tennis and swim at the Golf and Polo Club here in Saratoga. And I spend time at the barn with my husband and sometimes we go for a leisurely ride on the horses. After the games, I like to cook pasta dishes with light sauces. I don't cook heavy foods because the players have to all stay in shape. So they like to eat a lot of carbohydrates.''
Panalo also likes to sew children's clothing while on their farm in Argentina, about 1 hours from Buenos Aires.
When she has free time, Fawcett enjoys reading. ``I do a lot of picture-taking,'' she adds. ``I give Michael an album every Christmas that's filled with pictures of all of his tournaments and other memories throughoutthe year.''
A typical day for the Smicklases involves tending to the horses mornings and afternoons, seven days a week. They usually ride together daily, and go to the races when in Saratoga Springs. ``On a professional basis, the horses are No. 1 in your life,'' says Joanna Smicklas.
Tim Gannon, co-owner with Dale Smicklas of the Outback team and a single parent, also rents a house in Saratoga for the polo season. Accompanying him are daughter Kathleen, 9; son Christopher, 10, who has just started taking polo lessons; and manager Phil Heatley, of El Paso, Texas. Gannon lives in Sarasota, Fla., where he manages a chain of 186 Outback restaurants, which he co-founded.
To field a high-goal polo team, like those in Saratoga Springs, it costs $150,000 to $2 million for a six-month season, Gannon says. Polo horses can cost from $10,000 to $50,000, and a team needs at least 10 in top shape, he adds.
The game can be dangerous, which is a source of concern for some wives.
``It would be devastating if anything happened to my husband,'' says Joanna Smicklas. ``But then again, it would be more devastating if I asked Dale to stop playing. It's a Catch-22 situation. I sit through a game and get very tense, while the spectators may only be thinking in terms of the player or team winning or loosing. My only concern is for my husband to be safe and come off of the field in one healthy piece.''
Such concerns aside, the life of a polo family is a full one.
``We meet and make friends all over the globe,'' says Joanna Smicklas. ``Polo is like a passport to the world. There's always something to do.''