Club Profile: International Polo Club Palm Beach

international polo club palm beach logo

Entrance to International Polo Club Palm Beach.
Photo by LILA PHOTO

Wellington, Fla. – Dec. 21, 2016 – The International Polo Club Palm Beach (IPC) is the premier destination for high-goal polo in the United States. Home to the most prestigious 20- and 26-goal polo tournaments in the nation, IPC has hosted the U.S. Open Polo Championship® for over 10 years. Located in the heart of the horse centric village of Wellington, Florida, polo enthusiasts flock to the club every winter to witness top level polo competition that garners some of the world’s best players, including Adolfo Cambiaso, Facundo Pieres and America’s top-rated players Julio Arellano, Jeff Hall and Nic Roldan.

Established by John B. Goodman in 2002, the club was recently purchased in May 2016 by Wellington Equestrian Partners, South Florida’s leaders in equine commerce under the direction of Mark and Katherine Bellissimo. A successful track record and substantial experience in corporate restructuring and business turnaround, the Bellissimos bring a fresh perspective and innovative approach to a club that, while hugely popular in high-goal circles, certainly has room to grow.

2016 U.S. Open Polo Championship® Winners: Orchard Hill - Steve Van Andel, Julian de Lusarreta, Juan Martin Nero, Facundo Pieres. PC: LILA PHOTO

2016 U.S. Open Polo Championship® Winners: Orchard Hill – Steve Van Andel, Julian de Lusarreta, Juan Martin Nero, Facundo Pieres with USPA Chairman Joseph Meyer.Photo by LILA PHOTO

The Bellissimo’s past performance transforming equine events is substantial. The Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) which began in 2007 has become the world’s leading equestrian destination. Similarly, the Adequan Global Dressage Festival has captured significant excitement and spectatorship for dressage – a discipline many would agree does not lend itself to spectatorship – and they have done it. Their proven success also encompasses  The Colorado Horse Park and Tryon International Equestrian Center demonstrating their investment and commitment to creating a cohesive national equestrian lifestyle brand.

“I think there is great opportunity for the sport of polo in that we think we can recreate what we have done for jumping and dressage. We want to figure out a way to bring more participants, more spectators and sponsors into the sport,” said Mark Bellissimo. “At the end of the day IPC will be focused on high-goal polo for many years to come. We’re doing this because we believe we are in a good position to preserve high-goal polo at the venue for the long term.”

Throw-in in front of a full capacity crowd during the 2016 U.S. Open Polo Championship® Final. PC: David Lominska

Throw-in in front of a full capacity crowd during
the 2016 U.S. Open Polo Championship® Final.
Photo by David Lominska

The 2017 IPC season will open on Sunday, January 1, and will conclude 18 weeks later with the 113th U.S. Open Polo Championship® Final on Sunday, April 23 and the Federation of International Polo’s World Polo Championship Zone A Playoffs on Sunday, April 30. While plans for updates to the facilities are in the works, the 2017 season will mirror past years in regards to spectatorship options. General admission, stadium seating, stadium box seats, tailgating spots and the well-known Pavilion brunch will continue. However, the duo’s first phase for the venue involves enhancing the quality of the polo experience.

“Sponsors are enhancing what they did last year in terms of the experiences that are offered to the public,” said Katherine Bellissimo. “This year, Veuve Clicquot who had a lounge as part of the Pavilion is actually taking the entire grass circle as you enter the stadium by the valet and making a beautiful garden out of it, it’s going to be a champagne garden that is open to the public.”

Unlike past years, all hospitality will be operated by the club through White Horse Catering, which will create a more consistent experience throughout the club, regardless of which side of the field you are on, as well as a continuity of service between all of their equine venues, including The Wanderers country club.

“On the stadium side, because sometimes it is hard to cross the field and go back and forth, Wellington Regional Medical Center is going to be sponsoring the ‘Kids Experience,’ whereas last year it was $15 per child, this year it will be entirely free. We are also adding more spaces for the public. Ketel One is bringing over this really neat pop-up that is called the Ketel One Kitchen sort of a food and beverage experience, so there is really going to be a lot more for everybody on both sides.”

Spectators enjoy Sunday Brunch on the Veranda of The Pavilion. PC: LILA PHOTO

Spectators enjoy Sunday Brunch on the Veranda of The Pavilion.  Photo by LILA PHOTO

“This year is going to be a learning experience for us as we do a series of experimentation,” said Mark Bellissimo. “Our goal long-term is to make this the center point for high-goal polo as it has been, but to really focus in on trying to create an experience that draws more and more people into the event. Clearly the U.S. Open is very well attended, but I think that in general we want to try to introduce the sport to a broader audience in the hope of not only elevating the interest in viewership, but to also see if we can get some interest in actually playing the sport itself.”

The gateway to garnering said interest according to the Bellissimos will be the Racewood Polo Trainer. A mechanical horse surrounded by four walls, a non-rider can simulate riding, walking, trotting, and cantering a polo pony, ultimately allowing people to practice hitting a ball. While this may seem like a longshot in terms of attracting prospective players, it has proven to be effective in the show jumping world – they already own a simulator for jumping and dressage.

“It’s been very interesting to get hundreds of people on a horse for the first time who then say ‘oh I like this, where do I get a lesson?’” said Mark Bellissimo.

Spectators fill the field during the halftime divot stomp. PC: LILA PHOTO

Spectators fill the field during the halftime divot stomp. Photo by LILA PHOTO

Where will people get a lesson then, you might ask? The answer is Bellissimos are planning to introduce an accessible polo school on site.

“The challenge with these sports is that no organizer has ever approached it with a long-term view of trying to get entry level people into the sport,” said Mark Bellissimo. “What they all try to do is target the higher-end of the sport, because that in theory is where the money is. What we have done is tap into the entry level in a very disciplined fashion and you can see the results in our growth. The reality is there is a very strong local population of people that would love to be involved in horse sports but don’t know how and there are a number of people who are good riders that may say ‘I don’t want to do jumping anymore, I would like to try polo’ – but there is really no place where you can easily get into it.”

Facundo Pieres hooks Adolfo Cambiaso during the 2016 U.S. Open Polo Championship® Final. PC: David Lominska

Facundo Pieres hooks Adolfo Cambiaso during
the 2016 U.S. Open Polo Championship® Final. 
Photo by David Lominska

The Bellissimos plan to expand on this idea of tapping into the entry level market with an arena league. “The second stage is that we want to introduce an arena polo league at all different levels,” stated Mark Bellissimo. “It’s a great access point, clearly that’s what happens at the collegiate level and it’s a pathway for people who can’t jump directly into grass polo. The goal would be to get people engaged in arena polo. There will be a certain group of people who want to extend their interest into grass polo but we think that pipeline is very important and missing on a scale that is very attractive.”

Aside from beginners, the proposal features playing leagues as well as a high-goal league based on a sponsorship model with compensation to the players. Referred to as “Gladiator Polo,” the idea is to incorporate a Thursday night arena event into the weekly winter calendar of equestrian activities which already includes dressage’s “Friday Night Stars,” show jumping’s “Saturday Night Lights” and Sunday high-goal polo.

Polito Pieres races downfield in the 2016 Joe Barry Memorial. PC: David Lominska

Polito Pieres races downfield in the 2016 Joe Barry Memorial. Photo by David Lominska

“If you can’t present something that is easy and accessible with an entry point that is reasonably priced, you are not going to get people into the sport,” believes Mark Bellissimo. “Now if all we are doing is chasing the high-goal world, that world is very volatile especially as expenses are rising. Do you either just let that play out or do you try to control your destiny? Controlling your destiny is packaging and presenting the sport in a way that is very thoughtful and accessible and an investment in the future. It’s going to take years. I told people when we started with WEF in 2007 that it was a five to ten-year transition, luckily it took three or four. We quintupled that business and took it from a business that had never really made money to one that is now profitable in both dressage and show jumping.”

The Mallet Grille with outdoor patio and pool. PC: LILA PHOTO

The Mallet Grille with outdoor patio and pool. PC: LILA PHOTO

Plans to break ground on these new projects will not take place until after the 2017 season. In fact, the timeline for construction will most likely not be decided until mid-season.

“The only fields that are planning on being disrupted are fields 2 and 3 but we have other land that can be used to replace those fields if necessary,” asserts Mark Bellissimo. In the meantime, plans for the high-goal winter season are progressing according to schedule. “First thing I have been saying to everyone is that these fields are amazing,” said Jimmy Newman Director of Polo Operations. “We have all seven club fields, last year we only had six. Over the summer Ray [Mooney, Director of Facilities] resodded the center of field one, so this should be a really good year for fields! As far as 20-goal teams we have nine or ten in the Joe Barry Memorial which is exactly where we were last year.”

Members enjoying The 7th Chukker bar and restaurant. PC: LILA PHOTO

Members enjoying The 7th Chukker bar and restaurant. Photo by LILA PHOTO

Despite criticism from skeptics, Mark Bellissimo remains optimistic about IPC’s potential. “We bought IPC to make sure high-goal polo maintains itself,” stated Mark Bellissimo. “I don’t think polo has ever worked in Wellington.

Bill Ylvisaker subsidized it heavily, I think John [Goodman] did a great job of rescuing polo from where it was, but with an unbelievably significant investment. The reality is, if the future of the sport is based on finding someone who will subsidize it in perpetuity, or chunks of five-year increments, you are as good as the person who is the steward of that asset. The ultimate question is, can you build an operation that is self-supporting and provides a very high-quality experience for the high-goal patrons, the spectators and the members? I believe the answer is yes.”

General admission tickets can be purchased at the Yellow Gate on Sundays ($10). Stadium seat tickets can be purchased on www.ipc.coth.com or by clicking here ($30-40). Box seats are still available ($150 per Sunday), reserved for members, limited quantities are distributed to non-members based on availability, for more information call the box office at 561-282-5334. The Northeast and Westside tailgating options are sold out, to be added to the waitlist please call the box office. Brunch tickets in The Pavilion can be purchased here.

For more information “Like” International Polo Club Palm Beach on Facebook and follow them in Instagram (@InternationalPoloClub) and Twitter (@SundayPolo).

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