Thousands of ponies have galloped over its expansive grass field, with riders in tow, smacking a plastic white ball for more than 116 years. But the Camden Polo Field never had a match like the one it survived in 1999.
During a period in which the sport’s popularity seemed to be waning, developers targeted the nearly 6-acre plot of land tucked away off U.S. 521 in the Dusty Bend section of Camden, seeking to use the space for a 160-unit townhouse complex. Thanks to a ground roots effort by concerned citizens from Camden and across the state, the nation’s second-oldest polo field was spared from bulldozers, the pounding of hammers and cement mixers.
Built in 1898, the Camden Polo Field is now held in perpetual trust by the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation and has been declared a National Landmark. It remains a haven for horses and other outdoor activities. First and foremost, however, it remains a picturesque polo field.
This year, a Camden tradition gets a new name and a makeover with the inaugural Aberdeen Polo Match to be played over the Camden Polo Field on Sunday, May 18. The horses and riders will take to field for the first of six 7-1/2-minute chukkers at 1 p.m. The gates to the field open at 11 a.m.
The match, pitting a pair of four-player teams, is being sponsored by The Camden Horse & Equestrian magazine, Celebrations, ClassicallyCarolina.com and Traders of Camden. Bringing the event to fruition was the brainchild of Brian Haff, who works for Aberdeen Catery, owned by Camden’s Jack Brantley.
Among those who rallied to the cry of helping save the Camden Polo Field was the late Edgar Cato, a sportsman and horseman who fox hunted until he was 84 and who played polo in Camden. The Aiken resident, who owned Thoroughbreds and several steeplechasers which he campaigned on the National Steeplechase Association circuit, joined benefactors and community leaders such as former Camden resident Austin Brown in contributing to the fund to keep the Camden Polo Field out of the hands of developers.
It is only fitting that Cato’s daughter, Christine Cato, is helping to organize the newest event on Camden’s equine calendar which takes over from where the former Camden Cup polo match left off in 2013.
Cato has received commitments from her polo-playing friends including, among others, Oliver Butterworth from Gulfstream Polo in Lake Worth, Fla.; Scotland native Davie Manuel from Ocala, Fla.; and Bill Walton, the grandson of standout polo players. Additionally, players from the polo-rich Aiken area will also tack their ponies up for a day of competition in Camden.
“It’s going to be more of a real game than the last few years, so it should be fun,” said Cato, who does not play polo any longer but remains active with the sport in promoting matches such as Aberdeen Polo.
“It’s great to keep Camden going. I played there on Saturdays for about 10 to 15 years consistently with (Camden’s) Marla and Sam Tupper. We all stayed connected through the years. It’s been good.”
Christine Cato has been surrounded by horses and other animals, especially foxhounds, her entire life. A rider and foxhunter, she started playing polo in 1984 and continued playing for some 25 years including for the championship team in a 22-goal event in Boca Raton, Fla., during her career.
“The funny thing is,” Cato said of her involvement in polo, “I’m not a sponsor anymore. It’s the love of taking care of horses and the competiveness of the teamwork … that’s the best part about it and why I like it. First, you have the animals that you’re working with, the horses. Then, you have four people on the team. It’s definitely a team sport where you have to work together.”
For those who may be taking in their first polo match at the Aberdeen Cup, Cato said, as a fan, she enjoys watching the teamwork which the sport requires and how every player on the field has a specific job. For a player who may not be the strongest on the field, their job may be to defend the best player from the other team and limit their role in the match and keep that player from scoring goals.
Defense, she said, goes a long way in the success of a team.
“Making plays and watching plays develop; that’s the main thing. I love that part,” she said of going from rider to spectator at polo matches. “Even when you’re not a great player, as long as you’re a good rider, you’re basically a defensive player. You try to do as much as you can.
“If you take a strong player out of a play, that makes it so that your team only has to work on three others. Basically, it’s helping each other out with the defensive work. And try not to chase the ball. A lot of beginners tend to chase the ball more than paying attention to everybody else.
“It’s a great sport and I’ve enjoyed it for so many years.”
Another key, Cato said, is communication on the field so that a defensive player knows which player to defend and to call out that they will, in fact, guard that player from the other side. Making sure your voice is being heard by your teammates on a change in covering a rider is also important in making sure each player is being covered by a horse and rider.
“There’s communication involved and everyone needs to communicate so that you go to this man or, you go to that man or, if the player might change suddenly, they might say, ‘Don’t worry about him, go to this man,” she explained.
“That’s what the good player is for. You always want to have the stronger professionals who will help keep it together. Usually, there’s one or two who contribute to that and inform the players while they’re playing.”
Cato also taught the game to new players at Overbrook Farms and Polo Club in Wagener. Oftentimes her students included doctors and lawyers who she termed, with as laugh, as being “weekend warriors.”
Bringing new players into a sport which was first played by the Persians centuries ago is vital to keeping polo going. When Cato first started playing, the number of polo players in this country were a few thousand. That number has since swelled to some 5,000 or more polo players.
“It’s grown so much,” she said of polo. “The equestrian world is huge, in so many different respects. We try to get the young Americans and young kids involved; the more young kids we have playing polo, the better.”
For all the talk of keeping the sport vibrant and looking toward a bright future, you cannot forget about those who kept polo going, especially through the hard times. And there was not a tougher time in Camden than when developers had their eye on the Camden facility some 15 years ago.
Since then, the sport has been given a new lease on life on a field which is the second-oldest still in use in this country. The Cato family, among others, had plenty to do with horses and riders still galloping over ground which, just as easily, could have been overrun by cars, houses and pavement.
“My dad contributed to keep the Camden Polo Field from being developed. That’s what he wanted to do, to help contribute to keeping polo in Camden forever,” said Christine Cato. “We love it and we want to continue having polo there.”
Here are the ticket options for the Aberdeen Polo match:
General Admission: $15 each (includes general parking space) with youngsters age six and under being admitted free of charge. Cars should enter on Greene Street and will be directed into the general parking lot.
Reserved Field Side Tailgate Space: $100 includes two general admission tickets.
Aberdeen Luncheon Tent (by reservation only): $75, includes general parking space, catered luncheon by Aberdeen Catery and open bar. Reservations must be made by May 15 for the Aberdeen Tent and checks should be made payable to Aberdeen Catery, P.O. Box 56, Camden, SC 29021
Tickets may be purchased at the gate the day of the match or, in advance, at the Chronicle-Independent office at 909 West DeKalb St. in Camden.
The event will be held rain or shine, and no refunds will be given.