White Swan Polo -- The Love Of Horses Drives English Gentry And Native Americans To The Same Game

Once a year, this little town in central Washington spreads a carpet of green grass atop the dust and pours the champagne in fluted glasses, all as a nod to the area's long history in the sport of princes and kings: polo.

WHITE SWAN, WASHINGTON. IT'S hot. It's dry. It's the land of vineyards, pepper farms, hops and peppermint fields that fill the air with a smell strong enough to make Mr. Wrigley's checkbook throb.

Drivers of the ubiquitous pick-up trucks in this outpost south of Yakima wear cowboy hats - and mean it. You're more likely to see a farmer hoisting a brew at the local bar than anybody ever sipping tea.

So what in the world are all these people doing dressed like an ad for Ralph Lauren? And isn't that Major Ronald Ferguson - Fergie's dad - lounging in his polo whites?

Unlikely as it seems, this town in central Washington is a changeling: Once a year, White Swan spreads a carpet of green grass atop the dust and pours the champagne in fluted glasses, all as a nod to the area's long history in the sport of princes and kings: polo.

The Heritage Cup Polo Tournament, a benefit for Heritage College in nearby Toppenish, attracts players from as far away as England and New Zealand. The good cause is less the attraction than the good time: There's as much cowboy camaraderie and valley personality on display here as there is honest competition.

When the white tents go up and the dust clears in anticipation of the tournament, White Swan becomes a theater of the desert: There's the giant bonfire with old fence posts for kindling, there's Harry Riverbottom's two-stepping horse, there's the classic smalltown feud, there's Major Ferguson's bushy eyebrows.

Setting the stage

The founder. In the 1920s, Ted Robertson, late publisher of the Yakima Herald Republic, noticed that polo was being played in New York and Chicago and he saw good horses and expert riders right in his own backyard. Not to be outdone by Easterners, he formed the Yakima Polo Club. No one knew how to play, but the mallets and helmets were ordered from the East Coast and soon the self-taught Yakima Valley polo players numbered anywhere from a dozen to 80.

The lumber baron, Maurice Hitchcock, nicknamed the "flying lumberjack" for his interest in airplanes, started playing polo in 1950, got hooked and built a field on which matches were held until he opted to pave it for his Lear jet. Now deceased, he's credited with hooking many a White Swan polo player.

The two Harrys. Harry Kent, 83, polo patriarch. Harry Kwak, 68, described as gentlemanly and devoutly religious. Kent sorts the cattle on his ranch with a polo mallet. The Yakama Indian played in the tournament until four years ago; now his kids won't let him because he gets winded. He has 40 horses and six grown children. "They were deprived children," the sturdy-walking, quick-smiling Kent says slyly. "They only had polo horses to play with." The tournament takes place on the Kent field.

Kwak started playing polo when he was 40, when someone gave him an old gray polo horse - and he's still playing. The alfalfa, corn and peppermint farmer has clear blue eyes, stark white hair and is very soft-spoken. Until he sold them recently, his sheep groomed his polo field.

A Harry Kent story, as told by Harry Kwak: "Harry used to ride a mean appaloosa that would rear up with him. We were playing polo in Vancouver and we saw a player riding another appaloosa and having the same trouble. Harry says, `Somebody should have a contest between us and the loser take both those horses.' " The two old friends laugh.

A Harry Kwak story as told by Harry Kent: "One time a horse was really giving Harry a hard time, breaking the bridle and all. Harry got angry and says to the horse, `You are really exasperating me.' " Kent laughs at what passes for temper with his friend.

The rift. White Swan has two polo fields and two polo clubs, the result of a disagreement between the two Harrys. They are still friends; the falling out came over the next generation. Kent's son Hal is alternately called "foul-mouthed," "ill-mannered" and "irreverent," depending on who's doing the talking. The devout Kwak didn't want his kids playing polo with the Kent kids, so Kwak's supporters formed the White Swan Polo Club. Kent supporters are in the Yakima Valley Polo Club.

The heir. Hal Kent, Harry Kent's 33-year-old son, a three-goal player who once played in India at the request of the Indian government. "They don't like me," he says candidly of Kwak's polo club. "Polo can be a sort of Peyton Place."

The Chippewa. Harry Riverbottom lives literally wherever his tepee is set down. He learned to play polo by devising a Frisbee polo game on horseback while rounding up cattle in the hills. Now he makes a living selling tepees and wool saddle blankets that he pummels into felt with his feet. He owns four polo horses that he rides at full speed, fearlessly.

He'd win the "most flamboyant" award if there were such a thing in White Swan. His black pigtail swoops in the air as he thwacks at the ball with the long mallet. Riverbottom dances his horse off the field after a chukker in a kind of four-legged two-step, then suddenly, just in front of the viewing tower, the horse rears up on command, Trigger-like. The crowd whoops. Riverbottom grins. The 44-year-old is usually surrounded by women, one of whom passes out pictures of him on his horse.

"You hear the sound of the ball and you're hooked," Riverbottom says. "You relive a game all year round. It's chess at a full gallop."

The widow. Dorothy "Bill" Robertson is the pert 92-year-old survivor of the newspaper publisher who started the whole thing. Each year, the widow in the cowgirl dress throws out the first ball - last year from the back of a Harley Davidson. She married Robertson when she was 84; he was 87. "What else could we do?" she says sweetly.

The addict. Nibbs Menard, 61, tracked cattle rustlers in the hills around Yakima Valley before he retired. He's been tossed by horses, dragged over cliffs by horses, trained 53 of them for polo. He describes the advent of polo in the valley: "They were already good riders, and once a good rider plays polo, he's addicted."

A story about Menard, as told by Harry Kent: "Nibbs owes his life to polo. He has had the Last Rites twice, he had heart attacks early in his life. He was giving up after one, but his father told him he'd bought this polo pony they had wanted and Nibbs got right up."

The kiwi. Peter Wright, former polo pro from Christchurch, New Zealand. Wright comes to the tournament every year. "I find it really strange," he says of polo in the valley. "I mean, there you are in the scrub and you come over the hill and there's this green field."

The Mercedes dealer. The tournament parking lot is full of pick-ups, but don't be fooled: There is money in the valley. Among the dozen or so high-end merchants who set up booths on the sidelines, the most prominent is a Mercedes dealer who shines a $48,000 model in front of the fans.

The fashion. Cowboys, wine tasters and horse lovers follow the hay bales topped with pumpkins down the drive to the Kent field. A few veiled hats and gold necklaces grace the tournament, but cowboy hats belie any airs the locals put on. "Diamonds are welcome, but high heels get stuck in the field," proclaims one program. The players get dressed in fieldside tepees.

The stars. Moonshine, Bobtail, Billy, Jerry, Grace. The horses in early White Swan games were straight off the farm, judging by their names from early game programs. "The cow horses took to it," Kwak says simply. Today the competitors are thoroughbreds, some veterans of the nearby Yakima race track, others raised specifically for the game. Players like to say that the game is 75 percent horse, 25 percent rider.

Polo is big business in the valley now; buyers of polo horses flock to breeders there (even Will Rogers bought a valley horse, lore has it).

The nun. Sister Kathleen, as everyone calls her, is not a polo player, but is the big player in the community. Dr. Kathleen Ross is Heritage College - and vice versa. The college president, she exudes a pretty energy, with a sweet face that does not mask a certain steel core. People get very serious around her. During the tournament, she can be found playing the violin with a chamber music group.

The major. Major Ronald Ferguson, father of Fergie, former polo manager to Prince Charles and a media basher for fairly obvious reasons. He came to the tournament last year courtesy of British Airways - and liked it so much he asked to come again this year. The bushy-eyebrowed major travels around the world playing polo to raise money for good causes. But doesn't he think it odd to be in dusty White Swan? "Regrettably, the media has a misconception about polo. It is not for the elite at all. People from every walk of life play polo," he says.

The pro. Susan Stovall, a Kent daughter. She's director of polo at Eldorado Polo Club in Palm Desert, Calif., and is the one responsible for making the tournament in White Swan a happening. She's also responsible for bringing the major. "It has an air of being fancy . . . " she says. "But the players are down to earth."

AND FINALLY, THE action. And the chukker bell rings. Eight horses race down the field, eyes rolling white and nostrils flaring red. The riders swing the long sticks with their right hands, defying gravity as they alternately bend toward the horse's belly to thwack the ball or raise high the mallet to race down the field.

Bump. Riverbottom shoves an opposing horse and rider out of his way. A "crack" proves he's hit the ball down there somewhere in the tangle of humans, sticks and horses. The horses run and turn so fast and so close their legs seem to belong to one speeding centipede of horseflesh. First they head toward the Commonwealth Team's goal posts at the end of the field framed by the brown hills, then toward Party Palace's goal framed by the far-off vista of hops trellises.

The announcer - yet another Kent daughter - does the play-by-play from a makeshift tower: "There goes Jerry LaSalle; he's got it! No, there's Major Ferguson being ridden hard by Curtis Lindahl . . . the ball's out of play."

The chukker bell rings again, marking the end of the seven-minute period. Sweating, panting horses suddenly bring to mind the word "steed" as they thunder to the field's edge where they are exchanged for fresh horses before the next chukker. Between the third and fourth chukker, spectators rush out to stomp down divots, a polo tradition as strong in White Swan as in jolly old England.

An adrenalin-charged Menard readies for battle with the major: "I'll ride him hard, I'll be on him like a blanket, I'll nullify him. I'll have my elbow in his ribs and my whip in his face. When the major gets through, he'll know where Wapato is."

Five minutes later, Menard's team is nullified by the major's. But the next day England's finest finds out just how well the cowboys and cowgirls of White Swan play. His team of favorites, including Riverbottom and Wright, lose the championship to a team of locals that includes two Kent daughters and a 12-year-old Kent grandson. "It was great fun," the panting major says.

"My horses just ran out of gas," grins Riverbottom.

"It is," Peter Wright muses of polo, White-Swan style, "a level playing field. Whether you are a major or a vegetable farmer, an attorney or a doctor, out there you are a player."

-------------- The Tournament --------------

The 8th annual Heritage Cup Polo Tournament will be Sept. 16 and 17, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the championship match Sunday at 2 p.m., at the Kent Polo Field, White Swan. For information, call (206) 448-8677. The tournament has raised $200,000 over the past seven years to benefit Heritage College.

Theresa Morrow is a free-lance writer on Bainbridge Island. Harley Soltes is Pacific's staff photographer.