September 24, 2018

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Re: Cornell Polo Coach Retires as University Vows to Investigate Misconduct Claims

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To the Editor:

The article by Dylan McDevitt in September 13’s Sun is, in my opinion, unbalanced, gleefully disparaging and extremely disrespectful of Cornell’s winningest coach and his many successes.

The fact that the article has nothing to say about the “misconduct investigation” suggests that the Athletics Department is thankfully handling its investigation following proper privacy protocols. With nothing new to say, the author of the article instead dredges up some truck driving issue from 10 years ago of which Coach Eldredge was cleared and an instance, also from ten years ago, for which Coach Eldredge apologized, where he was simply teaching sportsmanship and players how to be respectful of umpires no matter how inflammatory those umpires might be on a given day.  There is a reason the law has a principle called double jeopardy. Don’t conduct a trial by media for something the coach was cleared of ten years ago!

As to the present, the article seems to assume that Coach Eldredge is guilty unless proven innocent. Why the trial by media? How can the Sun slur anyone like that, never mind a stunningly successful coach and athlete who has done so much for Cornell?  Why is the coach’s phenomenal success of winning 988 games and 15 national championships buried in the penultimate paragraph?! Why is there no mention of the great things Coach Eldredge has done? To that end I offer some balance:

I have been coached by David Eldredge and Tony Condo for the last two winters (with my 13 year old daughter) and played in the Wednesday night games as well.  I can say firsthand that Coach Eldredge demystifies an extremely complex game and successfully introduces even nine-year-olds to the sport of kings. He has trained his horses with great precision, making the fast paced game as safe as it can be with his zero-tolerance policy towards bad behavior. That is essential in a team where large animals are galloping in a confined space and players are hitting a ball with long mallets. Coach Eldredge stresses over and over again during training that the golden rule is to ensure the safety of the animals. That is why you have to observe the line of play rule.  The horses he has trained are so wicked smart and skilled that even if a novice tries to do something against the rules, the horse oftentimes won’t do it.  Off the field, if a novice player forgets to put on front leg protection, the horse lifts its hoof as a reminder.  Some of them even know how to take off their own bridles!

I have witnessed Coach Eldredge demonstrating great care for his horses. As he should, he yells at me if I don’t warm up my horse sufficiently before a chukker. He talks sternly to anyone even opposing teams if they do not walk their horses in between chukkers which is necessary to stop them stiffening up as they cool down. He knows every hair on all of the horses. You are supposed to inform people at the barn if your horse has an injury or there is something unusual. But if there is, David always already knows. He has a sixth sense for anything to do with horses and nothing escapes his observant eyes.

On the rare occasions I have played on Coach Eldredge’s team on Wednesday nights, you have to change your game strategy because he never misses.  You have to anticipate that he will be five moves ahead because he can see into the polo game future. Many plays flash through his mind for any one situation. Yet he is generous with his ability and encouragingly suggests plays I could have done to improve my game. This has also been true of his kind and well mannered daughter on the few occasions when I have had the pleasure to play with her. Watching Coach Eldredge play polo is a joy to behold as he is such an athlete and his polo mallet is a perfect extension of his arm, so he can do incredible trick shots that leave one’s mouth gaping open.

Coach Eldredge makes a sport, which is reputedly elitist, accessible and in addition to begin the best college polo coach in the country, helps bridge the town and gown gap.  60-year-old strong men can ride with fourteen year old girls and children of local farmers and compete fairly with each other while at the same time, money is brought to the program and horses are kept at peak fitness. He invites the polo players to his home each year for a holiday party which is not only a laugh a minute but builds camaraderie. People of all different political persuasions get together and have a truly great time. One player shared with me an act of extraordinary generosity Coach Eldredge showed her when she had some domestic issues. When he returns from away competitions you can hear the audible sigh of relief at the barn because he manages so much — leading a polo team and running a polo herd are herculean and unrelenting tasks.

There is simply nothing in the world more fun and exciting than the adrenaline rush of playing polo. You forget you are a human and you think with the horse. The horse listens for instructions on where you want to go and do and the three horses I have had the pleasure to ride (Alfalfa, Juanita and Maestra) love the game as much as I do.  They are better at anticipating plays than I am and sometimes it is all I can do to stay aboard when they turn on the proverbial sixpence. There is a reason the higher ups in the military played polo and it was the training ground for military leaders — polo rewards and improves strategic yet lightening quick thinking, agility, courage, being bomb-proof and team spirit.  Polo is something that is very very special about Cornell and living in Ithaca and, I think, flows from the fact that historically, cavalry horses were stabled here. Let our students and children escape computer games and the cottonwoolification of growing up and play something (sur)real like polo.  Please be more careful with what you write about a Cornell sporting superstar.

Deirdre L. Hay, Esq.