Skip to content

‘Biggest and best ever’ polo event

More than 24 hours after the return of Niagara Polo to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Common, George Dell was still riding a natural high. “That was the biggest and best ever,” the affable NOTL resident raved about the event.

More than 24 hours after the return of Niagara Polo to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Common, George Dell was still riding a natural high.

“That was the biggest and best ever,” the affable NOTL resident raved about the event. “I’ve been involved in every one of these since 1993 and we’ve never had this many people here. I don’t think the Toronto Polo Club has ever hosted this many people, either.” 

Dell told The Local they held back the start of the first game to accommodate the many interested last-minute walk-ups who were still approaching the entry gate facing John Street East. 

“The cars were lined up and down the street,” he said. “We pre-sold all the tables, but they were still coming in at the last minute. We actually had to lengthen the field to accommodate the crowd.”

Indeed, the goal posts on the south side were set at least 20 metres behind the end line as guests, decked out in their Sunday best and topped with their finest hats and fascinators, found space along the sideline.

Dell, who moved to town about 10 years ago with his wife, Wendy Irwing-Dell, a former Olympic equestrian, acted as emcee and sage for the event, calling the play-by-play and explaining the intricacies of the game to the neophytes.

Before the games could start, though, the afternoon began with the requisite pomp and circumstance. That included a tribute to the recently departed Queen Elizabeth II, a major horse enthusiast and polo fan. The estimated 3,000 in attendance were encouraged to raise their glasses to the late monarch, and then a parade of British cars - Jaguars, Morgans, Triumphs and more — encircled the Common. 

The cars were followed by a fife and drum trio, then a pipe band. Mona Babin, president of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum’s board of directors, thanked the guests for their support. Then Lord Mayor Betty Disero disembarked from a Sentineal Carriage to address the crowd and welcome them to the first polo match on the grounds since 2018. The anthem was sung brilliantly by local teen Hannah Otta. 

Museum managing director and curator Sarah Kaufman was also amazed with the turnout. 

“We didn’t know what to expect. It’s been four years since we have done this,” said Kaufman. “We wanted to pack the sides because the players love to see a full crowd. It’s a fun event, so the more the merrier. There’s nothing like this in Niagara.”

A team of more than 100 volunteers helped the day go smoothly, along with Mother Nature who cooperated with a perfect day weather-wise. That was a relief to the organizers who were worried after early week forecasts predicted rain as a possibility Saturday. 

Funds raised will support the operations of the NOTL Museum. 

“It’s to keep the lights on, to keep those heritage buildings intact,” added Kaufman. “It helps in preserving the collection itself, and it provides funding for us to host our kids programs, our lecture series and other things like that.”

Kaufman was quick to give credit to Dell, whose connection with players out of the Toronto Polo Club has been the impetus for the event that has become a highlight of the summer in NOTL every second year.

The players, who each bring six horses with them for competition, donate their time to play in the charity fundraiser. 

“This is a real treat, almost a reward for them to come down here,” Dell explained. “They love to get out and spread their love for the game.”

Local realtor Nancy Bailey threw out the first ball for each of the two polo games, an honour she said made her just a bit nervous. 

“It was scary,” Bailey laughed. “And the second time, I hit the guy on my own team, the Nancy Bailey team I sponsored. It was great, and it’s so much fun to present the winners their trophies. It’s such a well-run event that I’m happy to support. It brings so much of the community together.”

The first game was an exciting match between two teams of experienced, high-handicap polo players. The action went back and forth and from end to end as the lead alternated between the Niagara B ‘n’ B (in white) and the VRG Capital (in blue) teams. Skilful moves and shots from either side left things tied 3-3  after the second chukka (or period).

The horses, their sinewy muscles displaying their strength, were a marvel to watch as the eight riders led them into on-a-dime turns in their efforts to better position themselves to strike the ball with their mallets. The ball used Saturday, Dell explained, was actually a softer, inflated indoor ball to ensure the safety of spectators sitting close to the sides. 

Niagara B ‘n’ B quickly went up 5-3 in the third chukka, while VRG, on the strength of a late goal by Jennifer Buchan, the lone female rider on the field, tied it up at 5-5 with just over a minute left in the final chukka. Niagara B ‘n’ B bounced back with the final marker to win the game 6-5.

Between games, Brian O’Leary, referred to by Dell as “Mr. Polo”, led an information session shedding light on the equipment, rules and techniques of the game. Two young riders, who were to compete in game two, were happy to show off some of their equestrian skills. 

Then awards were handed out to the Most Valuable Player (Ben Weir of Niagara B ‘n’ B) and Most Valuable Pony (Mandarina, who was ridden by Mitch Ward of VRG). As well, the crowd was invited onto the polo field for a glass of champagne and the traditional divot stomp. 

“I think that is my favourite part of the event,” Kaufman told The Local. “Everyone gets to come out with their free glass of champagne and they go out and stomp. These are the things people see in the movies. They get to go out and enjoy it, all dressed up. They really love to get involved in the event.”

A little bit of cloud cover rolled in to cool down the spectators before the start of game two. That match featured more inexperienced, low handicap riders, with less end to end action and fewer fast breaks. It ended in a tie between the two teams. 

At press time, Kaufman and the organizing committee were still tabulating the results of the silent auction, ticket sales and sponsorship, so a total amount raised for the event was not yet available.

Dell, who ran Norbram Group Insurance in York Region before moving to Niagara, is looking forward to the next Niagara Polo event.

“We can’t believe how successful it was this year,” he said. “You know, polo was played right on that field as far back as the 1830s. Today, Parks Canada with their new equipment keeps the field in excellent shape. I hope that this event continues for a long, long time.”

The Most Valuable Pony award was given to Mandarina, with King Ward, sponsor Nancy Bailey, John Foreman of the B&B Association, and trainer Mitch Ward. (Mike Balsom)