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Reviving Hawai?i's Century-Old Love Affair with Polo

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Papakilo Database

Surfing isn’t the only sport with a history in Hawai’i. Polo has been in the islands since Hawai?i was a kingdom. This Sunday, professional players from around the world honor that history at the Hawai?i Spring Invitational of Polo. HPR’s Ku?uwehi Hiraishi reports.

Every Sunday from April through September, you’ll find Chris Dawson on the polo fields out in M?k?le?ia on O?ahu’s North Shore. Dawson has been playing polo for 30 years. He’s the president and founder of the Hawai?i International Polo Association.

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Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
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Chris Dawson, President & Founder of the Hawai'i International Polo Association poses alongside Pua, one of the nearly two dozen or so polo ponies mounting the Hawai'i Spring Invitational of Polo.

“We have an amazing history of polo in these islands that go back to 1880 during the reign of our king, David Kal?kaua,” says Dawson.

The first documented polo match was held in Palama between British naval officers and local residents in 1880.

The exact origin of the sport in Hawai?i is unclear. One account says an Australian cowboy visiting from India brought the game to the islands. Another says British naval officers taught Hawaiian cowboys or paniolo. 

By the turn of the century, polo clubs were established on all islands and by mid-century, the sport peaked in popularity with Hawai?iplayerscompeting abroad with the world’s best. 

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Credit Papakilo Database
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Papakilo Database
Hundreds of spectators line the polo fields of Moanalua for a match between Maui and O'ahu polo teams in July 1915.

Dawson hopes to revive Hawai?i’s love affair with polo.

“I set out on a mission. I said Hawai’i is a world-class place, we should have world-class polo,” says Dawson.

For the last decade, he’s dedicated his efforts to preserving Hawai?i’s polo legacy and helping grow the sport in the islands. He founded the Hawai’i Invitational of Polo five years ago.

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Credit Darryl Oumi/Getty Images / Hawaii Polo Productions
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Hawaii Polo Productions
'Ele'ele's Mariano "Nano" Gracida hits the ball downfield during the 2017 Hawaii Invitational of Polo.

“Every major polo community in the world whether it’s in the U.K., Dubai, the U.S. – anywhere in the world – they usually either have the gold cup or the open,” says Dawson, “Because Hawai’i is such a special place for all of us that live here, I wanted it to be an invitational. It made it more exclusive and special that you’re being invited to our home to experience our culture.”

Professional polo player Nano Gracida took up his invitation to play in Hawai’i. Polo is in his blood. Gracida comes from a long line of polo greats going back four generations.

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Hawaii Polo Life
Professional polo player Mariano "Nano" Gracida will be joining other players in this Sunday's Hawai'i Spring Invitational.

“My great-grandfather was a horse trainer and he loved horses so much he did everything. He was a Mexican cowboy. They’re called churros,” says Gracida, “And so then he picked up polo in the 1920s and he taught it to all his six sons and that’s where we started. It just became our passion and drive in life.” 

Ironically, Gracida’s uncles played polo in Hawai?i at the old termite palace, Honolulu Stadium in M??ili?ili – a hot spot for polo fans from the 1950s through the 1970s.

“I remember them talking about it. My uncle played here a lot. Both uncles actually – Ruben and Memo,” says Gracida, “It’s kinda nice to fill in their shoes and be present here.”

Gracida will be joining Dawson and other proplayers from Argentina, Mexico, the United States and more this Sunday on the polo fields of Mokule?ia for the Hawai?i Spring Invitational.

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Credit Hawaii Polo Life
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Hawaii Polo Life
Chris Dawson, third from left, is seen here on the polo fields.

“You’ll see super fast polo. You’ll see incredible horsemanship, incredible ball handling. The skills are just world-class,” says Dawson, “But at the same time, these guys are so clean and easy on the animals. That’s important.”

For Dawson, the story of polo in Hawai?i is about more than just a century-old sport, it’s about a lifestyle that hearkens back to a simpler time in Hawai?i’s history.

“To be around horses and raise your kids in that environment, its super old school Hawai?i, like we’re still doing it the old way,” says Dawson, “And it’s a great opportunity to talk about culture, respect, and Hawai?i.”

The Hawai'i Polo Life Spring Invitational kicks off at 11:00 a.m. at the Hawai?i Polo Club in Mokule?ia. For more information, click here.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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