Al Saunders Loves Polo
When I arrived at the America's Cup of Polo Saturday in Leesburg, there were women in sun dresses, men smoking cigars, a massive sound stage for the Journey show and U.S. Park Police performing some sort of choreographed horse demonstration to the music of James Bond and "Mission: Impossible."
The day, in short, was all about incongruities. Which is why I probably shouldn't have been surprised when, two hours later, as I was sipping the day's signature cocktail (the "PoloRita") and minding my own business, Redskins associate head coach Al Saunders appeared in the Chairman's Tent. Like everyone else in the Chairman's Tent, he was posing for a photo with the actual America's Cup, which was surrounded by Cartier watches and assorted bling. Eventually, Adam Littlefield from Comcast SportsyNet and I scored an interview with Saunders, and immediately asked what had brought him to the polo field.
"Well, we have OTA's right now, and we're looking for anything that can help us score points," he said. "We're trying to figure out how to get these four-legged things on the field with only two legs. I don't think we're going to be able to do that."
Al Saunders has a sense of humor. Who knew? I asked whether he'd seen any prospects thus far.
"Well I tell you what, there's some gal from England out there, No. 1," he said, referring to Debbie French Nash. "I'll tell you, the way she swings, she might be able to throw the ball like Jason."
Indeed, Nash pestered the Americans all day with penetrating runs down the flanks, helping the Brits to a 7-3 win, but that was besides the point. I'm a serious sports journalist, and when I get a moment with a high-ranking Redskins coach, I know exactly what to do: ask which Redskins offensive player would be best on the polo field.
"I'm gonna say Santana Moss, and for a couple reasons," Saunders said. "It seems like stature is not real important. I think the smaller people that can hang on to those horses, you know...Like jockeys, the less weight on the horse the better it is, and Santana is so quick that I would think he would have that great wind-up shot....He would probably be a real good polo player. I know one thing, he's competitive. And the other thing, if he has the ball in his hands, he's probably going to do some good things."
Saunders, as you might recall, was born in England, and so he was slightly conflicted about the whole U.S.-U.K. battle. (Next year's U.S.-Italy match should provide no such conflict, by the way.) Eventually, like any good offensive guru, Saunders came to a revelation of how to proceed.
"I'm rooting for whoever has the ball on offense," he said. "Whoever scores points."
Right. Anyhow, halftime of a big-time polo event like this can drag on; Saturday's lasted 10 or 11 hours, I think, giving us time to track down some of the particulars, like U.S. player/event chairman Tareq Salahi and U.K. Coach Julian Hipwood.
"I gather that Tareq says that he's going to kick our butts," Hipwood said. "All I can say to that is, dream on."
"Well, you know, I think the British settlers dreamed on in 1607, and look what happened," Salahi countered.
Then, because this is the kind of day it was, out of nowhere we were introduced to John Walsh of "America's Most Wanted," who, naturally, plays on a polo team in Florida with the U.K's Max Secunda. Walsh, too, spoke to the question we posed to Saunders, about the crossover between U.S. pro sports leagues and polo.
"I'll tell you what, I've actually played polo against professional athletes," he said, "and I haven't met one professional athlete who could...barely play polo. Great athletes that they are, they fall off....When that horse gets going 35 miles an hour, they're terrified....Think of this, you're riding 35 miles an hour, someone's banging into you as hard as they possibly can, and you're trying to hit a little ball here. I feel like going up to Tiger Woods, who I love, and saying 'You know what would really be a challenge? When you're putting, you have another golfer banging into you and yelling and you have to run to hit the ball.' That would be golf."
John Walsh talking trash to Tiger Woods was yet another thing I hadn't anticipated from this polo event, not that I was complaining. Just then Tareq's wife Michaele Salahi indicated that it was time for us to interview Journey; we jumped on her golf cart and were ferried past the various tents and the various guests--"Hi beautiful people!" Michaele kept shouting out as we motored along.
"It's not a frumpy crowd; it's a good-looking crowd," she noted, accurately. "Not that it matters, but it's nice to look at people who are easy on the eyes."
Up in the cabin that Journey was using we saw a bunch of Loudoun County law enforcement types. I asked if they were hanging out with the band; "we're sharing the same bathrooms," one of them noted.
And then, of course, we had a nice discussion about the NBA and Barry Bonds and polo with two large-haired members of Journey, who could not have been more gracious. In fact, everyone was happy to be interviewed; Journey, John Walsh, Al Saunders, the president of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. Everyone except NBC News's David Gregory, who declined our request, explaining that it was his off day. For the record, it was my off day, too. Anyhow, here's Journey guitarist Neal Schon, on polo:
"I watched about two, I'll call 'em quarters," he said, although the proper term is chuckers. "I had no clue what the rules were. All's I know if you probably whack somebody in the head with the stick you were going to get thrown out of the game. You know what, the English, they're not messing around. They take it very seriously. And last night we went to the party and the guys from the English team got up and their captain just said, 'We're going to win'."
"We're talking about polo? I know everything about polo," current Journey singer Jeff Scott Soto said, sidling up to our picnic table not long after. So we talked Lakers and 49ers and Warriors and polo, and Schon admitted he had never done a gig quite like this.
"And to be affiliated with this sport, polo, I didn't know quite what to think," he said. "And I still don't know until we get on stage tonight. You know, what does polo have to do with rock 'n roll?"
It's a fine question, but at some point you just stop asking. You just accept that the Redskins' offensive guru and the host of "America's Most Wanted" and some rock legends and NBC News's chief White House correspondent and assorted women in sun dresses all chose to gather by a large field in Leesburg for a day of polo, music and some kind of bizarre pre-game demonstration of how police dogs can chase down criminals.
I asked the Journey guys whether they would like to play polo themselves. Soto said no. Schon told a story about riding up a mountain trail in Arizona on a horse that, at high elevation, suddenly got spooked by a randomly placed tricycle wheel.
"And after that," he said, "I go 'I'm stickin' to motorcycles.' I don't want to be on any animal that's bigger than I am that has a mind of its own."
I left before the final three chuckers, and before the Journey show.
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