November 7, 2001

Go to Oxley for a Chukker

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With just about five minutes left in the second period of the men’s hockey game last Saturday night, I made my move. Excusing myself from the Lynah press box, I made for the entrance on the west end of the rink and broke into a jog, heading toward the parking garage. I had everything planned down to the micro-second. I had been looking forward to my intermission plans for the last few weeks. In many ways, my twenty-minute side trip would be a sort of homecoming.

To those unfamiliar with its significance, Oxley Equestrian Center will attract only the most intrepid traveler. Although structurally imposing, it emits just a flickering of light to the passerby even during match time. Located just past East Hill Plaza, Oxley’s setting is perhaps foreign to all but the most venturesome Cornellians. Yet having had the fortune of covering the nationally eminent men’s and women’s polo teams for the past two seasons, it was a place that I have been luckily enough to consider my journalistic home. Although assuming a position as a beat writer for men’s hockey is likely the pinnacle to most Cornell sports journalists, I felt as if I had been away from polo for too long, and therefore, when I learned the nine time national champion women’s team would be playing one of its first home contests on Saturday, I knew that I would have to make the trip to Oxley between periods.

Cornell polo fans are a unique community. While the small cadre of supporters, many of whom have not missed a game in decades, may never claim to have the vocal might of the Lynah faithful, they lack nothing in spirit and devotion for their team. Intermissions are a unique sight as fans descend from the stands to mingle with one another. Nearly all know each other and they share stories of days past, mixing the “Wow, that was a great chukker for Cornell” talk right along with the “So, how are the kids doing talk?”

The sense of family undoubtedly has its origins at the top with head coach David Eldredge ’81. The engine that makes Cornell polo function, he is arguably one of the top men’s players in the world. As I watch the second chukker of play, he is perched in his traditional spot — on a seat situated on a beam elevated above the playing surface. As one of his players loses control of a ball along the end walls, he yells out directions and during the next stoppage of play he beckons for the rider to approach him.

He explains the error and attempts to teach her how to avoid it — the zeal he has for teaching is easily detected from his facial expression. Despite the extensive hardware collection that adorns his office — his teams have won 19 national titles together, his most distinct trait is his work ethic. Often working 60 hour weeks, Eldredge drives the family spirit of Cornell polo. During intermission, he himself does maintenance work on the playing surface, while balancing the limited ten minute time slot with hugs for his two daughters, greetings for the fans, and instructions for his team. After practices and the games, back in the barn, it is clear the players have internalized his message. Dozens of riders, many of whom will never see playing time, work in harmony with one another on the multitude of tasks needed to upkeep perhaps the most highly acclaimed pony string in the nation.

Overall, the polo family is still relatively small and perhaps its better that way. But I would suggest that there is definitely room for a missing component — more student fans. Why not be adventurous and see a game for yourself? There are several key motivators for attending a game. If college is supposed to be about exposure to new experiences, why should your sports spectatorship be any different Polo combines intensity, speed and methodology in away that will be attractive to fans from a variety of backgrounds? Said to be the oldest sport in historical records, it has been called “Hockey on Horses,” by former Cornell captain Heather Torrey ’00, and indeed it is replete with horses checking one another, dirt getting kicked up in the air and balls flying around the arena. Plus, you’ll get to use words like “chukker,” and what word from sports lingo can top that? Cornell polo is unique among its sports peers on East Hill because the teams win — a lot. In fact, if your lucky enough to catch a women’s game it’s a good bet they’ll emerge victorious. The team, coming off consecutive national titles, hasn’t lost a regular season collegiate match in well over three years. Plus, there are no signs the women’s polo team’s dominance is abating. The team, which returns all of its starters from last season, just pummeled No. 2 Virginia, its closest competition, last weekend.

But above all the victories, it is the sense of community that should make polo most attractive to Cornellians. And in times likes the ones before us, we could all benefit from an increased sense of family and togetherness.

Archived article by Gary Schueller