A Polo Club membership: Less alluring but still highly desired

Membership to its elite enclave remains one of the most desirable status symbols among outsiders.

by Elvira Araneta

The name drips with cachet. It intimates prestige, elevated power, a high price of entry, and serious leisure. The Manila Polo Club. It’s the most exclusive club in the country. Insiders tend to keep a low profile. Outsiders intriguingly wonder, “What goes on inside?”

 

Front row beauties in the 70s, Arlyn Dorfi, Marites Revilla, Frankie Atayde, Connie Araneta, Christy Pagaspas, Dida Gonzalez, and Silvana Diaz

 

At times disdained as an elitist bastion in a country marching inexorably towards democracy, an invitation to the hallowed premises of the Polo is something sought after, welcomed, and gladly accepted by those who otherwise have no access. Inside, the visitor finds a profusion of ways to rollick and luxuriate. Open spaces with lots of green—almost 25 hectares of it—and horses running around. Two large pools—one with a high-dive board and a longer, 25-meter pool. Tennis, squash, and badminton courts; a gym, jogging track, softball field, driving range, archery range, two polo fields, paddocks and stables. There’s a library, a barbershop, a beauty salon, a variety of shops and a host of well-appointed function rooms. The activities proffered include art lessons, archery lessons, diving lessons, taekwondo, kickboxing, gymnastics, tennis clinics, riding lessons, softball games—to name a few. There’s a Gymboree. At the dice table, the rattling of the liar’s dice can be heard; Bridge players shuffling cards. Over by the pool, a group partakes of drinks under a hut at the Cogon Village. The sound of raucous children playing punctuates the air.

 

It’s no wonder that the Polo Club is considered the finest family club in the country. It’s a great place to grow up in—a place for camaraderie where lifelong friendships are forged.

 

Many a burgeoning athlete has developed a passion for sports here, learned discipline and healthy competition. Some families have three or four generations who have called it a second home.

 

But in all this diversity, make no mistake: polo is still the be-all-and-end-all of this institution, its raison d’etre. Founded on August 1909 by Governor General William Cameron Forbes, the Manila Polo Club was Forbes’s solution for a refuge where he and other “gentlemen of a certain class” assigned to the Philippines could relax on leisure hours. Forbes, who had two polo fields in his estate in Boston, wanted a venue wherein to play the game he loved. Out of his considerable personal funds, he bought a tract of land along Manila Bay, and thus Manila Polo Club was founded. The club’s original location was in Calle Real (now M.H. del Pilar) in Pasay, several meters away from the beach of Manila Bay. It wasn’t exclusive to Americans and foreigners but Forbes’s intent was that it be primarily so, with not more than 20 percent of the club to be constituted by “natives.”

 

The old club located at the Calle Real (now M.H. del Pilar Street) in Pasay

 

Often touted as “the Sport of Kings,” polo actually had a utilitarian purpose. It was used as a training exercise for the cavalry. In the Philippines, the US Cavalry kept over a thousand horses and officers were required to play polo. In the 1920s, the army boasted eight polo teams, and matches were often played three times a week during a six-month season. Governor General Forbes found time to write articles and contribute to polo magazines abroad, thus Manila Polo Club’s reputation as a premier polo institution spread globally. In 1922, the Prince of Wales—later to become King Edward VIII—visited the club and played polo with an American team. Unfortunately, he was struck by a ball and unable to finish the game. The visit, nevertheless, was considered the greatest social event of pre-WWII Manila.

 

The committee members vote anonymously by casting either a black ball or a white ball into a box. One black ball signifies rejection. Normally, if a candidate is not accepted the first time, he can wait six months and apply again. But two black balls and that’s the end of the line.

 

The select nature of the Club was established at the outset. Membership was restricted on purpose. Purita Echevarria de Gonzales in her Manila: A Memoir of Love and Loss says that in the late 30s, the club was considered “the city’s most snobbish.” The exclusive policy, however, did not always bode well for the Club. This became most evident in 1935 with an incident that instigated a major rift in Manila’s highest social circle. The Elizalde brothers Juan, Joaquin, Angel, and Manuel, members of the club and international legends in the sport of polo, nominated Col. Manuel Nieto, aide-de-camp of Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon, for membership. But Nieto was turned down.

 

Considering this a great affront, the Elizaldes resigned their Club memberships, the rejection sparking angry reactions and polemical discussion among the elite. It also inspired the Elizaldes and other prominent Filipinos to establish in less than a year their own polo club called Los Tamaraos. The reason for Nieto’s rejection turned out to be murky—some attributed it to race, although Nieto was Filipino-Spanish like the Elizaldes; others said it was politics and stature, with some members said to not want President Quezon’s “gunman” to hobnob with them. Whatever the reason, it cost the Manila Polo Club their most valuable players as well as a great deal of goodwill. For a while, Los Tamaraos—less than a kilometer away and with a field that came to be rated one of the best in the world—became the fashionable venue where international polo matches were played.

 

Don Jaime Zobel with sons Fernando and Jaime, 1970s

 

But bygones became bygones. By 1938, club membership was at a peak at 1,128 members. Today, the Club averages 70 to 80 new members a year. As of February 21, 2015, the Manila Polo Club has 2,177 proprietary members, 359 associate members, 238 life members, 23 courtesy members, nine special guest members and one honorary member. Along with dependents, there are approximately 7,000 membership cards in use, at present.

 

To become a member, an aspirant must be referred by at least two Club members and endorsed by another five. His name is then posted on the bulletin board for 30 days, during which time any member who has anything to say regarding the applicant can write to the membership committee. After 30 days, if the candidate is to be considered, the membership committee schedules him for an interview, after which the committee members vote anonymously by casting either a black ball or a white ball into a box. One black ball signifies rejection. Normally, if a candidate is not accepted the first time, he can wait six months and apply again. But two black balls and that’s the end of the line.

 

The Elizalde brothers, members of the club and international legends in the sport of polo, nominated Col. Manuel Nieto, for membership. But Nieto was turned down. The Elizaldes resigned their Club memberships, the rejection sparking angry reactions and polemical discussion among the elite.

 

No matter that a proprietary share costs more than the value of an average middle class home in Manila (close to P14 million at last reckoning), there are no lack of individuals aspiring for membership to the club. But ownership of a share does not automatically make for membership—as was discovered by former Ilocos Sur Governor Luis “Chavit” Singson. In spite of having Ayala heir Iñigo Zobel and former club president Antonio Garcia sponsor him, Singson was rejected at first application. No matter; Singson is in good company. Business taipans, famous celebrities, and people of all ilk have been barred membership. A few years ago, the papers bandied it around that Singson’s internationally famous chum, world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, was similarly rejected, raising the ire of sport pundits and other admirers against the Polo elitists. But Roman Azanza, three-time Polo Club president, denies this. “It’s not true about Manny Pacquiao. He never even applied. He was rejected somewhere else, in another club, and that club told the press we rejected him. In the first place, he never applied. In the second place, we don’t discuss whether an applicant is rejected or not, much less the reason why. Even he won’t know he’s rejected. He’ll guess he is because he’s never accepted. But we don’t tell him, ‘You’re rejected.’”

 

The Club’s heavily American membership base began to change in the 60s to include more Filipinos and nationals of other countries. By this time, the Manila Polo Club had transferred addresses: after it was burned to the ground in the Battle of Manila in 1945, the club leased a 1.8 hectare property in Dewey Boulevard for a time and then moved to its present location on McKinley Road, Forbes Park.

 

 

The 60s was a transformative era for the Philippines, and the club felt part of this wave of change. In 1964, the Club elected its first Filipino president in Enrique Zobel, signifying 50 years before a Filipino could reach that helm. Towards the middle of the decade, both National Geographic and Fortune magazines heralded the Manila Polo Club as one of the 10 best clubs in the world, a list that included the Jockey Club of Paris, the Royal Yacht Club of Athens, and the Carlton Club of London.

 

In keeping with its reputation, the Club played a significant role in assuaging turbulent transnational waters via the channel of “polo diplomacy” deftly handled by Zobel. For some years, he had had the Malaysian sultans of Pahang, Johore, and Selangor as his annual guests for polo matches at the club. In the early 70s, after meeting the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanah Bolkiah, Zobel converted the sultan and his brothers, Princes Jefri and Mohammed, into avid polo players. Genially, Zobel invited them to play in polo matches at the Club. This situation, however, had the potential of a catastrophe. In the early 60s, Malaysia and Brunei had had a serious falling out. What would happen when the royal heads of both countries found themselves together at the Polo Club was anybody’s guess. So when the Sultan of Brunei and his team arrived at the Club amid an assortment of Malaysian royalty and their Filipino hosts, tension was thick. But polo proved itself to be truly the Sport of Kings, and everyone behaved as gentlemen.

 

Luis “Chavit” Singson, in spite of having Ayala heir Iñigo Zobel and former club president Antonio Garcia sponsor him, Singson was rejected at first application. No matter; Singson is in good company. Business taipans, famous celebrities, and people of all ilk have been barred membership.

 

In 1979, the Club was converted into a proprietary share club. For what seems a laughable amount today—P12,500.00—a member could choose to buy a proprietary share. Conversions often necessitate major change, and this one was no exception. Under the new format, the Club’s membership ratio was mandated at 60 percent Filipino to 40 percent foreign. Thus did the Manila Polo Club transition from its beginnings as a colonial institution to an establishment that mirrored the Filipino people’s pursuit for a self-governing identity.

 

But far from equal it was. In times past, members were strictly male. Wives and children were allowed to use the facilities, but the club remained indubitably a man’s domain. Women, animals, and little children were not allowed in the men’s bar. If, for example, male members wanted to use the tennis courts and some ladies were playing at the moment, it was perfectly acceptable to bump them off so that the men could play. Only in 1983 were widows of members finally allowed to transfer club shares to their name and to become full-fledged members. The first woman to do so was Ma. Paz Rufino Laurel-Tanjangco.

 

The Club finally dropped all distinction between male and female members in 1987, with the adoption of the new Philippine Constitution, which specifically cited the equality of men and women before the law. In 1995, the Club had its first woman board member in the person of Maribel Ongpin. In 2006, Isabel Caro Wilson was elected first woman president, and Pat Puyat Palanca became its first woman general manager. From 63 women members in 1984, by 2009, the Club had over 400. On the playing fields, the advancement of women was given impetus by Sylvia Lichauco de Leon who, in 1972, dropped the proverbial distaff in exchange for a polo mallet. For ages, polo was exclusively the realm of macho men; now here was this perky woman with her “panty pink” helmet, exchanging swings with the rest of them. The barrier had cracked indeed, and today several bonnie lasses the likes of Rosanna Yulo and and Lourdes Consing can be seen on the field.

 

Paola Zobel in 2013

 

Other changes have transpired in this former epitome of elegance and luxury. Polo tournaments of the past, and especially the tea danzants that followed, were soignée affairs. Men came in blazers, women in stylish summer frocks. Roman Azanza, ex-Polo-president three times over, says, “I don’t know what happened to the tradition here. So we instituted some changes; everybody liked it, except a few guys. One guy came in his pajamas!” So now, for Presidents Cup, the first game of the polo season, the audience is required to come smartly attired. No pajamas. For the rest of the season, discretion is pretty much tolerated. And as for soignée, well, that’s pretty much over. As a regular attendee of polo games said, “These days, polo matches often seem more like commercializing venues for sports lines, car brands, and other products.”

 

“Nowadays it’s more about the money,” says an ex-consultant of the club.

“If you look at its footprint, much of the Polo Club’s 25 hectares is devoted to sports—the tennis courts, the badminton court, the archery, the golf driving range, the track, the polo field, etcetera,” says a former board member. “But the board doesn’t really treat it as a sports club. A lot of the attention of the Board members goes to things other than sports.”

 

“Polo Club’s bread-and-butter is events, the use of the function rooms. And they’ve developed it, intensified the marketing,” the ex-consultant adds. “There’s a marketing arm that reaches out to corporations. . . .  And they rent out the Club. You can actually have a party as long as a member sponsors you.”

 

But there remains an effort to preserve as much of its former grandeur as possible. When a major overhaul of its 50s-era facilities was necessary, the Club made it a point to retain the feel, look, and tradition of the premises. The Centennial Renewal Committee—so called because the Club was nearing its 100-year mark—went so far as to hire environmental landscaper Paulo Alcazaren and spend two million pesos in order to reinforce a 200-year old tree rather than destroy it. While preserving heritage, the Club keeps its eye toward the future. One way is through the extensive value engineering it has invested in with the purpose of going green. The Club has also undertaken a demographic study. “We want to know what our club looks like now and what it will look like in several years. Is the club getting older or younger? What will we need? What kind of facilities do we build? Do we need more ramps or more facilities for young kids?” Azanza, who has been a member of the Facilities Oversight Committee ever since it was established 13 years ago, says. “The members of the FOC have been the same members for the last 13 years, and we want to keep it that way until we die or until we’re not around anymore.”

 

 

Like any institution, the Club has had its ups and downs throughout the years. Board-versus-Members epic battles fraught with passion and histrionics have bled out unto the public press, with issues as complex as gross mismanagement or as humanitarian as the fate of stray cats. Love triangles figuring high-profile individuals have rocked—or thrilled—it at times, marked by incidents that one expects only in soap operas. Pulling down of the other woman’s halter top in front of the Sunday polo polite company followed by classic melodrama; surreptitious rendezvouses between married (to other mates) individuals outside locker rooms; drag-‘em-and-punch-‘em brawls between sibling sisters in the public parking lot—to these and more has the club environs been witness. Even innocent steeds are not exempt, as when the irate mayor’s daughter slapped her father’s paramour’s mount. Not to be outdone, the feisty mistress promptly whacked back the mayor’s daughter, causing some consternation among the normally insouciant riders of the bullring. But these tales all stay within club perimeters.

 

Much more than the occasional fodder for gossip, the club has set the scene of countless joyful and celebratory occasions that have  encapsulated the lives of generations of families belonging to the club.

 

As MPC’s past president Tony Meer wrote in the book commemorating the club’s centennial, “The Manila Polo Club is a success story. Success . . . does not come by accident. It is the product of blood, sweat, and tears.” And so this success story continues to ride with the times. Indications are that this elegant centenarian will continue to thrive for another century. Less grandiose perhaps than she once was but still highly desirable.

 

The Aranetas at front row–Antonio, Greggy, Luis, Maity and Tonypet–watching a polo game in the 60s

 

Color Photographs by Tammy David; Vintage Pictures from Manila Nostalgia, Lougopal.com and Isidra Reyes

 

This article was originally published in The Anniversary Issue of Rogue, July 2016.