It’s a bright sunny morning when I meet with Peter Arundel, the owner of The Loudoun Times-Mirror, the longest running newspaper in Northern Virginia’s thriving Loudoun County. We are meeting to talk about all things polo, especially Arundel’s role in helping develop polo as a spectator event right here in Northern Virginia’s Hunt Country. Since 2017, Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia is host to arena style polo. It is the second polo program in Northern Virginia that Arundel has helped establish.
If you haven’t yet attended an arena polo match in Northern Virginia, you are in for a treat. At Morven Park, take in the sights of the gorgeous rolling landscape, over 1,000 acres of open space. At the newly built polo facility at Morven Park, you’ll be able to sip wine and picnic on a hilly knoll overlooking the arena. You’ll hear the sounds of horse hooves pounding against the ground and the sounds of a polo mallet thwacking the ball.
Polo players ride their horses fast and up close to the fans and to each other. The action is aggressive. “It’s like hockey played on horseback,” explains Arundel. Players wear white jeans and a polo jersey with boots. Spectators wear casual clothing, sometimes dresses, but always flat and comfortable shoes as heels can get stuck in grass.
Wine is for sale by the glass or bottle and food trucks serve delicious local cuisine, however spectators are welcome to bring their own beverages and food. The picnic space is great for socializing; many spectators will be seated on blankets or camp chairs. Box seats are also available and are located at the edge of the arena. VIP tents sit at the top of the picnic area.
Long known as a game played by kings and royals, polo players have tended to be wealthy. Arena polo, which is played in an enclosure much like a hockey rink, is easier than the traditional game which is played on an enormous grass field. It’s also much more affordable. “We tried to make the sport more accessible to spectators and players alike.”
At Morven Park’s Polo in the Park and Great Meadow’s Twilight Polo, you can expect to watch professional players out on the field—with many pros hailing from Argentina. “Polo is a part of Argentina’s national heritage and culture. The players come with immense talent,” comments Arundel. The good news for fans is that polo players welcome the public to play with them and watch them play. Spectators, including children, can enjoy meeting the polo players and their horses, as well as mingling afterwards at parties. Music is played after the match and some polo matches even host fashion shows.
Oddly enough, polo was virtually nonexistent in a thriving equestrian community until the early 1990s. It was then that Arundel invented Twilight Polo at Great Meadow to popularize the sport. He’s played for 20 plus years now, and rides horses with his bride Anne Sittmann Arundel, a fox hunter and side saddle rider. But making it accessible to our county would not have been possible without undeveloped land. And that is thanks to an intergenerational commitment.
Land preservation was a major issue that Arundel’s dad invested in and supported. Among “Nick” Arthur W. Arundel’s many accomplishments was establishing the Great Meadow Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of open land and community space. He donated land originally slated for the development of more than 500 homes. Arundel says of his father, “Dad was a real visionary in purchasing the land, designing the [steeple chase] course and building the operation. It’s been a tremendous success.”
Initially, Great Meadow did not include polo. “Steeplechase racing was [my dad’s] passion.” But Polo was Peter’s passion. Today, Great Meadow is an open space that hosts The Virginia Gold Cup, Twilight Polo, The Sheila C. Johnson Grass Polo Field, as well as community events.
The Westmoreland Davis Memorial Foundation, founded by Morven Park’s last owner Marguerite Davis, shares the Arundel’s family commitment to preserving the land. Marguerite and her husband Westmoreland Davis, a Governor of Virginia, were prominent members of foxhunting societies and also bred horses. Davis also owned a newspaper. In 1921, Davis purchased the Loudoun Times-Mirror, the very newspaper that Arundel and his family have owned since 1963. Almost 100 years later, Arundel continues his father’s and the Davis’ legacy of both the paper the commitment to land preservation.
In the early 1990s, Arundel and his father decided to develop a polo program at Great Meadow. He researched, designed and marketed the summer arena polo program with the help of a lot of friends. Arena style polo and a polo education program does not just benefit those who love the sport, but also provides summer entertainment for those in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding suburbs.
Peter Arundel pictured on his horse in the 1990s after a polo match in Washington, D.C.
Arundel explains the link between the growth of polo and its influence for the local economies: “The sport has had a profound and positive impact on the local economy. To put it simply, it’s a team sport that requires dozens of horses for one game. Those horses require tack, stabling, veterinarians and all the professionals that take care of them. Polo employs dozens and dozens of people in the summer months and sends business to the local shops.”
Likewise, Sheryl Williams the Executive Director of Morven Park, notes that Morven Park’s Polo in the Park is drawing people from Alexandria, Arlington, Reston, and Sterling out to Leesburg. “After the polo match, they are stopping in Historic Leesburg to enjoy the thriving night life that Leesburg now has.” It’s a great way for spectators to spend a night.
Initially, it was Suzanne Sakai Musgrove worked at the park that recognized the success at Great Meadows and saw the potential. “I thought that Polo at Morven Park would be a great thing for Loudoun County. It’s an outdoor evening event that people of all ages can enjoy.”
And so began the development of Polo in the Park at Morven Park. Williams emphasizes that its success has been a team effort. “Our entire team has worked hard to get this program off the ground.”
Two years ago, Morven Park approached Arundel for help, knowing of his efforts in making Great Meadow Polo successful. They wanted the same business model so he wrote up a business and operations plan. He introduced them to Juan Salinas-Bentley from Wellington, Florida to run the operation as Juan and Arundel had started Great Meadow together. “Juan’s an awesome player and inspiration for a lot of new players around the region,” says Arundel.
Juan Salinas-Bentley is not just any polo player. He’s played with all 3 royals, including Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince Harry, not to mention the Ralph Lauren Polo model Nacho Figueras. Luckily for anyone who attends a match at Great Meadow and at Morven Park, they will get to see the acclaimed player in action.
Salinas-Bentley notes “There was a need for polo to expand and hit a new demographic and the Leesburg area just made sense. Morven Park covers all the other equestrian sports but hadn’t had polo as a mainstay. Polo now rounds them out.” And for fans who enjoy attending horse racing, Morven Park’s legendary steeplechase course is undergoing renovation with the goal of bring racing back as a Point-to-Point in the near future.
The polo arena at Morven Park includes a 300 ft by 150 ft field. And the cost to picnic or tailgate at a polo match is inexpensive—just $40 per car. Scott Mayer, the Director of Strategic Partnerships at Morven Park, adds that spectators at a polo match can enjoy up close action. “Sometimes you’ll be so close that you have to watch out for the horses kicking up dirt into your wine glass.”
Of course, there is a substantial amount of education that goes into being able to ride a horse and play polo. Players first need to learn how to ride and then, how to play polo. Fortunately, polo lessons are available through the Great Meadow Polo Club and Morven Park is developing an education program. Currently, anyone who wants to learn how to play may take lessons with Destination Polo, who offers a one hour lesson that include horses, tack, all equipment, including protective headgear, and mallets for just $30.
The polo season at Great Meadow and at Morven Park lasts from June through August. It promises to be a fun, easygoing night out for locals and visitors alike of all ages. Developing polo on Northern Virginia took generations of vision, talent, and dedication. If it weren’t for the Great Meadow Foundation, the Westmoreland Davis Foundation, and Peter Arundel’s passion, our community would lack such an exciting and engaging past time. This summer, attend matches at both Great Meadow and at Morven Park. The sport is just one more reason that life in Northern Virginia is spectacular.
Article by Jessica Monte
Photos by Chris Weber and Vincent Sales