Date: Thursday, June 3, 2021
Take a journey to 1992, a heady year with change in the air. The Winter and Summer Olympics loomed large, (it would be the last time both games were held in the same year), silicon valley giants were rolling out revolutionary technological changes as the 'world wide web' (aka the internet) prepared to go public, social unrest reached a new peak in the US, the cold war was officially declared over, the EU opened its horizons to the rest of the continent, pop artists were wearing clothes backwards, and US presidential power was about to change sides. Thus was the year that ushered in the Newport International Polo Series, bearing a striking resemblance to this 30th anniversary season.
As spring rolled into summer in 1992, the rainiest time of year gave way to the approaching weeks of a glorious June, long earmarked by Dan Keating to redirect his attention and crew from barn restoration & improvement projects to the old, 30-acre hayfield on the south side of Linden Lane, which at that time was a mine field of ditches, jumps and asymmetrical terrain that had served the late Mason Phelps as his International Jumping Derby grounds for a handful of years in the previous decade.
Keating and a team of engineers and surveyors had already evaluated the topography and soil types of the acreage, mapping a myriad of varying characteristics and drainage properties in patterns across the parcel, and a 6” water table, all of which factored significantly in the location of a would-be polo field, to ensure successful turf growth, a full season of use, and dependable field conditions for teams traveling great distances to compete.
The natural topography of the site had an east/west orientation with a gradual slope. A north/south plan would have fit beautifully on the site, with considerably less excavation necessary, but to ensure solid footing from June through September, on the best soil – calculations indicated that the more challenging east/west layout promised the more reliable long-term results.
The project would initially require the removal of all irregularities, from large timber constructed jumps, concrete basins for the derby’s water traps, and large earth embankments of the European-style derby course, followed by stripping off top soil, grading the subsurface, redistributing it and covering the entire area with a layer of loam. To level the natural slope, earth was cut and removed from the higher topography and added to the lower half of the field. A sunny June allowed for uninterrupted progress, but the sheer volume of material needing to be moved would take far more time than estimated.
A small battery of three D9 bulldozers, loaders, dump trucks, road grader and rock picker were in perpetual motion for two weeks, excavating and grading by John Marshall’s best operators from JAM construction, all readily available during the recession that year, while Keating’s small team of 4 were dedicated to even the smallest detail of painstakingly removing small stones and finish-raking by hand. The overall area being resurfaced was the 6-acre playing field, plus 3-4 acres of surrounding sidelines and endzone.
The final phase began at dawn, as the same small team of 4 greeted the first of 21 tractor trailer loads of fresh cut and rolled Kentucky blue grass sod to lay a living carpet by hand, piece by piece, over 4 days, blanketing the entire playing surface, which is the equivalent of 9 football fields. Surrounding areas were then hydroseeded.
In that era, Rhode Island had a thriving commercial turf growing industry, but soft demand during the recession threatened turf farmers to consider plowing in their unsold grass that year and reseeding for the next year. Had it not been for the slumping economy, the price of sod would have been prohibitive.
Traditionally, polo fields were seeded and allowed a season to grow in. Turf was also estimated to require a season for the roots to take hold, and no one could confirm that it could actually hold up to polo in the same year, nor could they deny it. It just wasn’t’ known. To an optimistic and adventurous man of 26, Keating hurtled down the path less traveled, to discover what it would take to make it all happen in ‘92.
To keep his premium turf from burning out under the intense June sun would require flooding it like a rice paddy. A cistern that supplied water to the farm was tapped into, and disappointingly pumped dry on the first day of irrigation. Resorting to Town water and 300 ft. fire hoses, punctured with thousands of holes, Keating moved his giant, makeshift soaker hoses every 3 hours, around the clock for 3 weeks, evenly distributing a small fortune in water to keep his investment alive.
Realizing that the roots were not taking hold due to continuous water from above, Keating removed the irrigation one week before the Opening Day match featuring USA vs. Ireland, hoping the roots would grab. The gamble worked. A competitive 6 chukker match was played, with some minor adjustments in between chukkers.
The following weeks witnessed a succession of international matches in the inaugural season of the Newport International Polo Series, as the lush, high quality turf bonded with Mother earth with each passing week into a polo pitch to rival the most desirable, established polo fields anywhere.
Polo fans to this day enjoy the time-honored tradition of treading in divots at half-time, repairing the field to resume competition for the second half of matches. Before and after the matches, attendees enjoy lawn games, Frisbees and other games on the lush turf, hand laid 30 years ago this month.
Time Machine is a 30th Anniversary retrospective series of monthly chapters. We hope you enjoyed the trip in time to June of 1992, our inaugural year. To read additional Time Machine chapters published this year, visit Headlines.