By Thom Smith
Polo. Money. Land. Money. Florida. Money. No polo.
Few relationships are more beautiful than man and horse racing as one across a manicured pasture in pursuit of that little white ball. Polo is a sport played mostly by rich men (and a few women), some of whom die on the field. Others lose their shirts.
Perhaps envy adds to the beauty: Games with horses are almost as costly as games involving horsepower. Schoolteachers and truck drivers could only dream — $15,000 for a so-so horse (and one is not enough); well over $1,000 a month for the stable; mallets $500. Figure $50,000 a year just for basic essentials.
But the real money is in the land, and its value ultimately seduces the men who own the fields. It’s a story as old as Florida, first in Jacksonville early in the 20th century, then Orlando, Miami Beach, Gulf Stream, Boca Raton and now Lake Worth.
The Phipps family, synonymous with steel, real estate and eventually horses, owned a third of Palm Beach, 28 miles of oceanfront between Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale and prime bayfront land in Miami. As early as 1922, the Phippses began buying land along newly opened A1A just north of Delray Beach in the town of Gulf Stream.
The scrub was cleared and Addison Mizner dreamed up a private club. Donald Ross designed the golf course. Three polo fields stretched along the Intracoastal. A tropical utopia for northern friends and business associates, it was named the Gulfstream Club.
The world’s wealthiest men played there. Socialites, celebrities such as Cary Grant and Ava Gardner and hoi polloi cruised or motored from Palm Beach to watch the Sunday matches. Even as the nation recovered from the Depression and the war approached from East and West, a team from Gulfstream anchored by Ben and Michael Phipps — such upstarts! — stunned the polo world by winning the 1941 U.S. Open.
Polo took a hiatus during the war as the club was converted to a military installation and the stables housed mounts for Coast Guard sentries on beach patrol.
The glamour and the game returned in 1946, but property values were skyrocketing. Down in Boca Raton in 1955, developer Arthur Vining Davis, as in Arvida, opened Royal Palm Polo just south of the Boca Raton Resort & Club, but those fields soon gave way to Royal Palm Yacht & Country Club, and Royal Palm Polo moved to Glades Road just west of Military Trail.
The Phippses decided to sell the polo property, so the Gulfstream players and team patrons looked instead to wide open spaces west of Lake Worth.
The new Gulfstream Polo opened in 1965 on 100 acres just beyond the turnpike. Private estates and stables filled another 450 acres on the periphery. Fewer professionals filled rosters. A few wealthy low- and medium-goal amateurs would fly in for weekend matches, but polo could be played on a budget and Gulfstream was more community than exclusive club.
The social whirl engulfed Royal Palm in Boca and Palm Beach Polo in Wellington. High-goal action and couture parties attracted such celebrities as Sylvester Stallone and Wilt Chamberlain (picture him on a horse) and royalty, such as Charles and Diana. Gulfstream cruised in its own little polo universe. Instead of champagne and caviar, Gulfstream players and grooms joined families at the clubhouse for burgers and beer.
But every chukker seemed to attract another speculator.
What’ll it take? What’ll it take to buy the largest undeveloped acreage between Boca and Jupiter? In 2006 Westbrooke Homes offered $66.5 million for 221 acres. But the market went flat, Westbrooke backed out and the 39 shareholders kept playing.
Still, it was only a matter of time. Reports circulated last fall that Pulte Homes was planning to build nearly 1,000 homes and townhomes on 225 acres. Cost: $49 million.
The deal closed a month ago and a grand opening is expected next spring.
The plus: If prices can hold in the $300,000 to $500,000 range, many potential buyers who have been squeezed out of the market will be able to afford homes. The minuses: The Browardization of western Palm Beach County and less polo.
Palm Beach County is home to more than 6,000 horses. In addition to polo, they are involved in trotting, thoroughbred racing, show jumping, dressage, barrel racing and recreational riding.
After 93 years, the club made its last stand April 15 with the championship match in the South Florida 4-Goal League, between Rancho Alegre and aptly named Custer Capital. Alegre three-goaler Omar Cepeda earned MVP honors, but Custer prevailed, 6-5. Ash, Cepeda’s mount in the second chukker, was named best playing pony. But the awards ceremony was not without melancholy.
As George DuPont, executive director of the nearby Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame, said, “It was user-friendly. Nobody yelling ‘Don’t go here,’ ‘You can’t sit there.’ It was a fun place to be. The beauty of it was, the stables were right there. All you had to do was walk your horse to the field.
“Without Gulfstream, teams will have to load those horses in trailers and drive to a field miles away. We’ll need some time to figure out what the overall effect will be.”
But as the deal maker for the club owners, Brad Scherer, a 2-goal player, said, “This sale was the crown jewel.”
The Delray restaurant scene continues to attract attention. Sundy House remains on the OpenTable website’s “100 Best Brunch Restaurants in America” list, one of only three in Florida. More than 5 million diners submitted reviews for more than 20,000 U.S. restaurants, looking for, among other offerings, “unforgettable French toast and spicy bloody marys.”
Also returning to the list is the Oxford Exchange in Tampa (under $30) while a new addition is the Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in Miami Beach ($31-$50). Dropped from the list, however, was the Circle Room at The Breakers in Palm Beach.
A bit more informal is FloridaBeachBar.com’s ranking of top beach bars. The site’s criterion: proximity to the state’s 852 miles of beaches. Boston’s on the Beach is separated from the beach by A1A. But it does have its own “Sandbar” — no carpet, no tile, no floor, just sand — plus all the atmosphere necessary to make the website’s top 10 list for the second year.
The top 10 is a popularity contest: The bars work hard to get out the vote. St. Pete barflies apparently vote early and often. The gulfside city claims 17 beach bars, the most in Florida, with Jimmy B’s, Bongos and Harry’s ranking Nos. 1, 2 and 4. Even though Key West and Fort Myers have 16 bars each, none made the top 10.
However, the website also has a program that rates the beach bars from 1 to 5 based on four criteria: proximity to the beach, food and drinks, live entertainment and beach bar factors such as parking, boat access, tiki huts, staff, friendly patrons and sunsets.
East Coast bars start with a disadvantage — no sunsets. Of the 28 top-rated bars, St. Pete claimed five — Jimmy B’s, Bongos, Harry’s, Rumrunners and Toasted Monkey. Only nine on the East Coast managed a 5, including JB’s in Deerfield Beach, the closest to Boca. Boston’s scored a 4, as did Old Key Lime House in Lantana and Guanabanas and Square Grouper in Jupiter. Scoring 3s: Banana Boat and Two Georges in Boynton, Benny’s in Lake Worth and Deck 84 in Delray Beach.
If you can’t stand the kitchen, head for the heat. Josie’s Ristorante, right next to the Intracoastal bridge on Woolbright in Boynton, has cut all menus prices by 25 percent through September.
In Boca, Max’s Grille will heat up with a Q & Brew summer menu from 5 to 10 p.m. every Wednesday with pulled pork, chicken, brisket and shrimp in a variety of configurations, endless craft beer for $15 with dinner purchase and live music by Weekend Therapy.
In Delray, Max’s Harvest has added half-inch-thick bacon, pork bellies, Southern fried chicken, spiked teas and Indian street corn with naan bread, pickled lime and paneer, and every Thursday a 1½-pound lobster, salad and dessert for $35.
But the big news is the return of Chef vs. Chef, a 16-week competition to find the area’s best chef. Pairings will be drawn June 15 at Max’s Harvest in Delray. Eight chefs from last year’s inaugural series will be joined by an equal number of new competitors.
Not in the competition is last year’s winner, Jim Strine of Cafe Boulud, who edged Tryst’s John Thomas.
“I wanted to give somebody else a chance,” Strine said, “but I will be involved.”
That involvement will be an ultimate showdown with this year’s winner.
Returning chefs include Victor Franco (Oceans 234), Jarod Higgins (Cut 432), John Thomas (Tryst), Blake Malatesta (50 Ocean), Eric Grutka (Ian’s Tropical Grille), Bruce Feingold (Dada), Aaron Goldberg (Bogart’s) and Adam Brown (The Cooper).
New to the fry, er, fray, are Anthony Fiorini (13 American), Louie Bossi (Louie Bossi’s), Josh Hedquist (Sweetwater), Jordan Lerman (Jardin), Chuck Gittleman (Kapow! Noodle Bar), Kemar Griffith (Rusty Hook Tavern), Kevin Darr (City Cellar) and Clayton Carnes (Cholo Soy).
The weekly competitions will be held at Max’s Harvest “after hours” — 9:30 p.m. For a $10 donation, spectators receive a complimentary beer, glass of wine or cocktail. Proceeds benefit the Milagro Center.
Hmmm. Let’s see. What punny title can we hang on the latest news?
Movin’ Out? You May Be Right? Don’t Ask Me Why?
Regardless, Billy Joel is in a selling mood. In the spring of 2013, the piano man bought a home and adjacent vacant lot just north of Boynton Inlet for $19.3 million. He fixed up the place while reportedly attempting to the buy the next estate to the south owned by former Manalapan Mayor William (Tom) Gerrard. That deal never worked out.
In early November, Joel put the two properties on the market for $29 million but found no buyers, so in April he cut the price for the package by $2 million. Agent Jack Elkins also has them listed as separate parcels — $19.5 million for the “single-family home,” $9.5 million for the lot.
But Joel isn’t packing up his keyboard and heading north, unless 1.2 miles up A1A is considered north. Because he also owns a little bungalow there — a fact that some real estate publications and gossip writers have missed.
In January 2015, he paid Donald Adam, a Texas banker, $22.1 million for the 18,886-square-foot Mediterranean style house built in 2004. The 1.6-acre lot was once part of the Vanderbilt estate. And it’s on the ocean, not across the street.
Meanwhile, Billy’s busy: Harrah’s Ak-Chin (as in ak-shun) in Maricopa, Ariz., June 8, the Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria, June 13, his monthly show at Madison Square Garden, June 17, Newcastle upon Tyne in England, June 19, and three shows in Reykjavik, Iceland, in a schedule that carries him into March.
Where there’s a will there’s a way. In 2013, the Wick Theatre and Costume Museum opened in Boca, hoping to succeed where the Caldwell Theatre Company had failed. Marilynn Wick cut a deal with Legacy Bank, which held the mortgage, to rent the building with an option to buy.
Three years later, the foundation is a bit more stable because The Wick has bought the building, taking out a $5 million mortgage with Newell Small Finance. The challenges ahead include expanding and enhancing the building, upgrading sound and lighting systems, adding a partial fly loft and an orchestra pit beneath the stage and, of course, making the payments.
To do that, the theater has set several goals: a $5 million fundraising campaign ($100,000 already pledged), increase its subscriber base from 2,800 to 5,000, develop a children’s theater and most important, begin producing touring shows.
For starters, how about The Unsinkable Molly Brown, with Marilynn Wick in the lead!
Elegant but never haughty, Cafe L’Europe in Palm Beach just celebrated its 36th anniversary. Owners Norbert and Lidia Goldner have brought back their summer three-course prix fixe menu for an un-Palm Beachy $49.50. Plus David Crohan on piano.
The new kid on the block in Palm Beach is Meat Market, an upscale steakhouse at 191 Bradley Place. Its history as a restaurant goes back 70 years to 1946, when Maurice’s opened as “a bit of old Italy.” The typical Italian menu — pasta and pizza — no doubt appealed to guests at the Biltmore Hotel across the street and students at Palm Beach High across the bridge.
Needless to say, the area has changed: The Biltmore is now a luxury condo and Palm Beach High is Dreyfoos School of the Arts. High-rises abound; the bridge was rebuilt.
The two-story stucco building, originally a Spanish-style house built in 1925, has gone through more rejuvenations than a Palm Beach dowager. It remained Maurice’s until 1989 and for a brief period in the ’80s and ’90s was owned by Franklyn DeMarco, the master of Ta-boo on Worth Avenue.
Maurice’s, which once featured strolling guitarists, begat Lulu’s and noisy pop sounds, which begat Janeiro with Brazilian jazz, which begat Club Y — a nightclub once described as the “best place to meet single men who own yachts,” which gave way to Palm Beach Steakhouse, until … Meat Market.
Out are the stucco and low ceilings; in are rich leather, gleaming woods, slivers of mirrors and mammoth chandeliers hanging from vaulted ceilings. Lots of familiar faces — golf pros, TV and film stars, baseball players, race car drivers … and occasionally, with friends, the tall guy (yes, Michael Jordan!), about 6-6, walking on air, who sits down and with a wide smile says, “Bring me a drink,” although the staff does not know what he likes. He orders a steak and then directs attention to his smartphone in order to keep track of his bets.
Incidentally, unconfirmed reports identify that favorite drink as 8 ounces of Gatorade, a shot of Jack Daniels and four packs of Pop Rocks.
Just do it!
While in Palm Beach … this may be the off-season, but the music never stops at The Colony Hotel’s Royal Room. Members of the Young Broadway Stars Summer Residency Program will do Friday and Saturday shows for a minimum of two weeks.
Singer, musician, comedian, actor and composer Wayne Hosford plays June 3, 4, 10 and 11, followed by Birdland and Tanglewood favorite Spencer Day (June 17, 18, 24 and 25). Ariana Savalas (yes, one of those Savalases) takes over for all of July and Carole J. Bufford through Labor Day.
Bufford, a Georgia girl turned Manhattan cabaret sensation, has an unusual repertoire that runs from All Shook Up to Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine to Folsom Prison Blues.
Tying in with the shows, The Colony has launched “Music, Music, Music,” a special two-night weekend stay including Motown Friday night dance party, Royal Room dinner and show, full English breakfast, free parking and Netflix — $650 per couple.
Across the bridge, the Norton is closed — but only for five weeks.
To prepare for the upcoming renovation and expansion that will continue into 2018, the museum has shut down in order to reconfigure so it can remain accessible to the public.
With the reopening, set for July 5, visitors will be provided free shuttle from the parking lot on South Dixie to the east entrance. And admission will be free until the expansion is complete.
Art After Dark, blending art, music, film and food, resumes July 7. Major exhibitions will include the biennial Rudin Prize for Emerging Photographers in October and the sixth annual Recognition of Art by Women next January.
Reach Thom Smith at email@example.com.