Thomas Clawson Slaughter IV cracked open a can of Northern Neck ginger ale, poured some into a plastic cup and topped it off with Woodford Reserve bourbon.
“From my home state of Virginia,” he said, holding up the half-empty can, “Beautiful.”
The concoction is Slaughter’s personal polo tradition. He and his friend, Carl Becker, and their fiancees have a season ticket slot on the tailgating side of Whitney Field.
Slaughter enjoyed the fortified Northern Neck under a shade tent before the Saratoga Polo Association kicked off its Whitney Cup on a Sunday evening earlier this month. It’s an important event in the polo world, and cars lined the full east side of the 300-yard-long field, but most nights look just about the same during polo season.
“We have between 3,000 and 3,500 people here for each match,” said program director Allan Edstrom. “Most of them on this side of the field.”
Edstrom patrolled the east side of the field in a bright quilted sport coat, handing out magazines to tailgaters, calling many by name.
He talked of the roots of the game, of wealthy sponsoring families such as the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Whitneys.
“One match requires at least 50 different horses,” he said, “So by its nature, polo is an expensive sport.”
Polo matches were frequented by the rich and famous in those early days, and a legacy of formal clothing and champagne lives on in the comfort of the clubhouse, he said. But an equally solid, newer tradition has grown up around tailgating.
Before the match, as music drifted from the clubhouse, people lifted coolers from cars. Kids ran out into the field with Frisbees and baseballs in the afternoon sun. One man coaxed a kite into the air. Becker’s dog broke free at one point, the leash bouncing across the field with owner sprinting behind.
“It’s a Sunday afternoon,” Slaughter said, raising his cup, “We’re all just trying to stretch the weekend a little bit.”
From that perspective, the scene had more in common with a drive-in theater or a NASCAR race than a sport with roots in wealth and privilege.
“Polo is the classy NASCAR,” Slaughter said with a laugh. “You should start an article that way.”
On the west side of the field, the clubhouse side, Bluestone player Cuko Escapite limbered up before the match. He touched his toes and gave the vital statistics of his sport. The ball, he said, is knocked about at speeds of 100 mph, pursued by riders doing 35 mph.
“Skydiving is the most dangerous sport,” he said. “Then it’s us and NASCAR. You have to be a good rider and have no fear for your body.”
As helmeted riders took the field on lithe thoroughbreds, tailgaters grilled burgers and opened cans of various drinks.
Off in the clubhouse was a whole different scene.
With minutes to spare, local author Jack Nolan drove past the free parking service in his Corvette, opting to keep the T-shirt clad valets out of his car. He was bound for the clubhouse — a hardwood-floored vault of chandeliers, formal clothes and 72-degree air conditioning.
“Both sides have their draw,” Nolan said. “On that side, you get to eat whatever you want. On this side someone brings your drinks.”
Businessmen bring clients to the clubhouse, shelling out $125 a person for reserved seating, food and drink. They close deals with a sabrage — chopping the top off a champagne bottle with a sabre.
“I’ve been over there,” said Lou Liuzzi, a tailgater. “It’s nice. I get to grill burgers over here, though, and that’s sort of the best part.”