It sounds like a Monty Python sketch: a bunch of cowboys, after a hard week of herding cattle out on the range, lay down their lariats and have themselves a polo game. But at the Maui Polo Club on the beautiful Olinda polo field just north of Makawao, the reigning club pro, Herman Louis DeCoite, has been a bull-riding champion and a ranch hand for the Baldwin family—and once played polo against the Sultan of Brunei. DeCoite, his sons, and other members of the Maui Polo Club carry on a paniolo (cowboy) polo tradition that goes back almost 40 years—part of a history of Hawaiian polo that predates the game’s arrival in the continental United States, and embraces a record of numerous victories in polo tournaments around the world.
I have no idea of this history as I arrive at the Oskie Rice Arena, and the images I have of polo as a “rodeo of the rich” don’t jibe with my initial experience of Ka‘ono‘ulu Ranch and the Olinda polo field. My car joins a dusty procession of horse trailers and trucks filing into a grassy area where horses wait patiently at hitching posts. Club members in blue jeans and tank tops talk story and children play soccer on the grass.
But there’s nothing makeshift or laid back about the polo field. It’s professional length, which means you can fit nine football fields into it, and beautifully manicured. And this is the day Team DeCoite takes on a challenger, Team Brandywine—led by another club pro, Kimo Huddleston—for the Abilena Ilima DeCoite Cup, a trophy named in memory of the matriarch of the DeCoite ‘ohana (family). This may be a lazy Sunday in Upcountry Maui, but some serious polo is about to be played.
I watch the horses—no longer ponies as in the early days of the sport, but an assortment of sturdy quarter horses, Appaloosas, and thoroughbreds—as they’re “tacked” with their English saddles, bridles, martingales, and colorful protective foreleg wraps. It’s a ritual that has been repeated for centuries, for polo has been around about as long as cavalry and warfare. The sport is thought to have originated in China or Persia about 2,000 years ago, and the name probably derives from the Tibetan word for “ball” or “ballgame”: pulu. Over the centuries the game spread to India, where it was discovered by British tea planters, who established the world’s first polo club at Silchar. John Watson, a British officer, framed the first true rules of the game in 1870.
According to Bob Logan, a former Maui Polo Club player, current announcer of the Hawai‘i Polo Club of Mokule‘ia, and a dedicated student of the game, polo first came to Hawai‘i via the British and U.S. upper classes (who learned it in England), and was initially a rich man’s sport. The interisland competition that began in the early 1900s pitted Maui families like the Rices and the Baldwins against O‘ahu industrialists like the Dillinghams, the Walkers, and the Waterhouses on the old polo fields of H¯ali‘imaile. Paniolo of Hawaiian blood, like George Manoa Sr., were the horse trainers.
But after World War II drained the life out of Maui polo, the ranching families, trying to spur the game’s recovery, and needing new man-and horsepower, turned to their loyal paniolo at Haleakal¯a and ‘Ulupalakua. Ranchers like Richard “Manduke” Baldwin, Harold “Oskie” Rice, and Gordon “Boy” von Tempsky led the “Black and Gold” team of the late ‘50s; by the ‘70s, paniolo players like George “Sonny Boy” Manoa and Lionel “Raki” Santos were gaining prominence. It was paniolo who dominated the winning Maui team Peter Baldwin took to the Pacific Coast Open, and who later competed in the U.S. Open several times, using a freewheeling but aggressive and skillful style of play all their own.
Twenty-first-century Maui polo is played not just by ranchers and paniolo, but by men and women from all walks of life, who have the dedication it takes to practice regularly, and the wherewithal to maintain two to four horses at $10,000 to $30,000 per horse, per year. (Those are the amateurs. To turn pro, you need a stable of more than 20 horses.)
Each outdoor polo team has four players, who each employ four horses through five chukkers (periods of play) of five minutes and one of seven minutes. In arena polo, there are three players and four periods of seven minutes each. As one player tells me, in the arena, the walls “are your teammate or your enemy,” as players hit the ball off its angles; but outdoor polo has boundary lines, requiring speed and teamwork amid jostling horses on fast, difficult straight-ahead drives. No wonder the club amateur three-team, round-robin play that begins Sunday afternoon is called “low goal” polo, with the term “high goal” reserved for the pros’ Ilima Cup play.
As the games begin, a tailgate pupu party stretches along the field. Comfortably dressed Mainland spectators gather at the front of the clubhouse porch, while in back, sitting on old couches, the regulars—buddies of the paniolo players—nosh on chips and sodas, cheer on plays, and chortle at misplays. Capturing the funky atmosphere perfectly is announcer Franklin Crozier, a burly, jovial man with a Hawaiian-inflected patois. His easygoing patter changes, with the ring of the chukker bell, to a rapid-fire delivery worthy of ESPN. Rain clouds roll over the surrounding hills and occasionally drop a gentle mist on the field to cool it down, making it, according to Crozier, a perfect polo day.
During the low-goal contests I slowly make out the patterns of the game. Imagine hockey on horseback, with other players trying to hook your mallet or bump your horse out of the play. Each player has his clearly defined role: No. 1 is the forward, the main attacker of the goal, and No. 2 backs up his charge. No. 3 is the equivalent of a football quarterback; he can turn the tide of play with long drives to the forwards or back shots towards the opposing team’s goal. No. 4 is the main goal protector. Somehow, in the midst of a furious charge, players must respect the line of play—once the ball is traveling on a line down the field, no player can cross it without incurring a penalty call from the two mounted umpires or the referee in the grandstand.
Numerous penalties are called, resulting in defended or undefended shots on the goal, and reflecting the scrupulosity of a game where too many violations could lead to devastating injuries for both horses and riders. Crozier cracks jokes during the penalty breaks, and turns up the heat when the players surge into high gear—“Oh! And he is on the run! Let’s see who has control over that ball downtown!” His patter is so infectious that he has the spectators joining his serenade of any ball that goes out of bounds behind the goal line: “AND WE HAVE A KNOOOOCK IIIIIN.”
The Liolani Club team wins the three-team round robin, and after the intermission (and some country-music line dancing between Crozier and a female spectator) there’s a definite ratcheting up of tension as Team Brandywine in red, and Team DeCoite in green, led by Herman and his sons, Ka‘aina and Ka‘eo, gallop one by one before the spectators.
From the opening drop-in, this is slash-and-burn polo, horses at full gallop, the ball whipping back and forth across the field. The DeCoites are granted a traditional Ilima Cup handicap of one goal, which Kimo “the Poi Pounder” Huddleston quickly erases with a fast shot. A few minutes later, he scores another one on a great windmilling swing of the mallet for a long “bomb.” In the second chukker, Brandywine scores twice, but then Ka‘aina DeCoite rallies on two straight penalty shots on goal.
It becomes an even harder-fought game, as Ka‘aina, whom Crozier dubs “the young buck,” scores a third penalty shot and later, in a frightening moment, crashes to the ground with his horse. Fortunately, neither he nor the animal is injured. After a mandatory timeout, the accident seems to fire up the DeCoites; thanks to Herman’s great passing shots, they rally to within 6–5. But it’s not in the cards for the DeCoites to win their matriarch’s cup this year. The winners’ memorial ‘ilima lei—the favorite lei of Abilena DeCoite—go to Brandywine, and in a distinctly Hawaiian touch, Herman DeCoite graciously thanks not only the other team, but “the lio [horses], the athletes of the game. We’re just the pilots.”
Then athletes, pilots, and onlookers dine gloriously when Herman and his sons invite the spectators to the after-game party. As twilight gently settles in, I help myself to three kinds of ‘ahi poke, chicken hekka from Herman DeCoite Sr.’s recipe, and some of the best beef lau lau I’ve had in a long time, as I bask in the welcoming spirit of the Maui Polo Club and paniolo polo. In the words of Franklin Crozier, saluting the conclusion of the Ilima Cup game, “The DeCoites are here and all their ‘ohana. And all of you here at the polo field, consider yourselves ‘ohana today!”