By Angie Francalancia
They dressed in their best in those earliest days, wearing furs and other finery to watch the game’s greatest players in what they called the gentlemen’s sport.
The origins of Gulfstream Polo are inextricably woven within the lives of the socialites and capitalists who made the southern Palm Beach County barrier island their home in the 1920s.
Originally, the polo ground was known only as Phipps Fields, and that in itself set the scene for what quickly became known as the winter polo capital of the world. The roster of players read like the social registry itself: Winston and Raymond Guest and William Post II, up from Miami, Stewart and Phillip Iglehart, Adolph Busch Orthwein.
William Koch was a boy, hanging around the stables and walking horses for a quarter, when the three polo fields lined the Intracoastal Waterway. Perhaps 80 to 100 people lived in Gulf Stream then, he said. But on Sundays for the big matches, people converged on the tiny town, coming up from Miami or down from Palm Beach, some taking their Trumpy yachts and tying up alongside the fields to watch the game.
“It was the socialites that used to come down in their yachts,” said Koch, who’s been Gulf Stream town mayor now for nearly 40 years. “People would dress in long dresses and hats. Their chauffeurs would set out a card table, put a tablecloth on it and put out a spread,” he said. “The movie stars used to come by — Gary Cooper, Ava Gardner.”
The “rich man’s game” became a part of his life. On the wall of his office is a picture of him and his wife, Freddie, handing out the trophy to a winning team of Del Carrol, Buddy Coombs, Russell Firestone and William “Billy” Mayer. His friend Stewart Iglehart, one of America’s all-time greats, served on the Town Council for 17 years.
During World War II, when Gulfstream Polo played no games, the club stables were used to house horses for the U.S. Coast Guard’s mounted beach patrol, ever on the lookout for enemy submarines.
After the war, back came the elite, dressed in snappy suits and dresses held wide with crinoline.
“They used to have big crowds,” Koch recalls. “A lot of them still came by boat. I can remember when ol’ Mike Phipps used to fly in on his seaplane, then play polo, get back on his plane and fly home to Palm Beach. Howard Phipps lived in Gulf Stream, though.”
Perhaps one of the biggest crowds was in 1953. Phillip Iglehart recalls in his Florida Polo History that 4,000 spectators came to watch the Sanford Cup in which the Trujilo Polo Club of Santo Domingo played against the Gulfstream team.
Gulfstream Polo’s last season on the island was 1963, after which the Phipps family sold the land for development. The northernmost of the three fields became the town’s executive golf course.
“It was like losing your right arm,” Koch said.
A few years later, Gulfstream Polo having been absorbed into Boca Raton’s Royal Palm Polo Club, got its identity back. Some of the Gulfstream Polo families found a new home for their club on 600 acres of land 16 miles from the town. Phillip Iglehart put the deal together, and was joined by Adolphus Busch Orthwein, Lester Armour, Frank Butterworth and others.
Now they come dressed in jeans, wearing baseball caps to shield the sun. It’s a laid-back place where people pull their pickups in between the huge Australian pines adjacent to the field named for Iglehart.
“My father was one of the shareholders here,” said Butch Butterworth, wearing a straw hat and slacks and watching a game from a plastic seat atop the old wooden bleachers one recent Friday afternoon. “It was perhaps a unique concept, because we all lived or had our barns nearby.”
Little has changed about the club, which shows its age these days.
Like the land that the Phipps family sold in the ’60s, the Lake Worth Road land was prime for development, with a deal on the table two years ago. But it fell apart. Top-rated players don’t play at Gulfstream anymore. It’s a place where up-and-comers train and former greats continue in the game.
Butch Butterworth had lived there more than 40 years when his family’s land was taken for the recent expansion of a Florida Turnpike interchange. Now he rents a friend’s house on the west side of the club. “I can’t tear myself away,” he said.
Gulfstream Polo Timeline
1924: The Phipps family begins work on two polo fields of St. Augustine grass just north of the Gulf Stream Golf Course and paralleling the Intracoastal Waterway.
1927: The first official season is held on Phipps Fields
1936: Gulfstream Polo seeks membership in the United States Polo Association 1942–1945: Polo is suspended during World War II
1946: Michael Phipps and Stewart Iglehart revive Gulfstream Polo; a third field is built
Late 1940s: Michael Phipps, Stewart Iglehart and George Oliver establish the Orange Bowl Polo Association to play arena polo at the Orange Bowl in Miami
1963: The last year polo is played in the town of Gulf Stream as the Phipps family sold the land for homes 1965: Florida Polo Inc. buys 900 acres on Lake Worth Road 16 miles west of Gulf Stream as the new home of Gulfstream Polo
2006: Developers sign deal with the owners of Gulfstream Polo to buy the land and build 866 homes
2007: Development deal falls through