By GT Courbette
His voice has a deep tone, invigorated with knowledge, and the passion of living an exceptional polo career. His words are positive, interested in the future of the sport, where his heart lies, with his memories rich in history. Dale Smicklas is former governor-at-large for the United States Polo Association, commissioner of the WCT, which is the largest organized Women’s Tournament Series in the world, and a board member of the American Polo Horse Association.
The realization of Dale’s dream to be a professional polo player arrived in 1981. Dale was 21 years old when Bob Moore, from Norman, Oklahoma, offered him a job at Moore’s Broadacres Polo Club. Dale then went on to work eight years for patron Adolphus Busch, IV, the sponsor of Michelob Budweiser team; and five years for Black Bears sponsor Urs Schwarzenbach, which took Dale to England. On both sides of the pond, Dale had a solid, steady and fascinating run, reaching an 8-goal handicap by the time he retired in 1997.
Originally from Chicago, the Smicklas family was not a polo family at first. Dale’s father took up the hobby of the horse sport when Dale was 7 years old. Pat Connors happened to be an exceptional professional horseman and Dale’s uncle. Uncle Pat had an indoor arena in the Chicago area, and was a respected 5-goaler outdoors and 8-goaler indoors. As often happens in families, Uncle Pat helped shape the foundation of the young horseman.
The weekly routine found Dale and his father off to the polo arena every Sunday for two years, where the two began a lifelong passion for the game. To learn the ins and outs of polo playing and horsemanship, Dale’s uncle and father stoked the burning desires of the young Dale — who wanted nothing more than to spend time in the barn with his horses and become a professional player.
A Solid Foundation
It was two years before Dale would stick and ball, because Uncle Pat wanted Dale to have a good, solid foundation in horsemanship and equitation. Through his uncle, Dale spent time tacking different horses, learning to bandage and wrap legs, learning which bit worked best for difficult horses and more. Dale built every Sunday into a learning project until his uncle handed him his first mallet, showing the young nephew he had passed a measured step into the world he sought. He was 9 years old.
At 14, he wanted to quit school and become a professional, only because he loved being around his horses. Dale’s father encouraged him to stay in school, promising his support if he finished his education, encouraging the young Dale to work in the car dealership after high school or attend college for four years. If Dale agreed with his father’s proposal, his father would send Dale to play polo in the summer for two months each year at the Broadacres Polo Club. It was a proposition Dale would agree to, because implanted was a horse seed, and the fate that was to come.
Dale was 3 goals and 21 years old when Bob Moore, from Norman, Oklahoma, hired him to a full-time position. At Broad Acres Polo Club, Moore had an active summer polo program and began his career under the oversight of a great man who valued his teammates and the youth coming up in the game. Bob played in 8- to 10-goal tournaments in Norman, Tulsa, Dallas and, in the winter season, Palm Beach. It was in Palm Beach that Dale got his first taste of high goal, where careers are made out on the field, and in the prestigious tournaments.
Early on, Dale was a bit cocky and headstrong. Being physically powerful, tall and solid, Dale could hit the ball with the force and trajectory of a cannonball. He was a good rider and could work with difficult horses, accepting their personalities. But the one thing holding him back was his inability to control his anger. Dale would take off pursuing the competition, chasing the poor souls across the field until the referee sent him off, disqualifying him from the game before he got into a fight. The immature attitude changed in one afternoon, when someone gave him some poignant advice.
Anger Under Control
Clark Hetherington, a polo aficionado from Norman, told Dale that he had it in him ‘to be a great player, but not with this attitude.’ Dale remembers him saying, “You think others are intimidated by you and they are, but now they know how to beat you!” With some anger management classes and a changed outlook, Dale took the guidance and advice to heart.
The following season in Florida, he gained more traction, beginning with the invitation to play in his first high goal tournament. By learning to control his temper, Dale began focusing on the health of his body and the fitness of his mind, growing into the role of the disciplined polo player. Invitations started to arrive, first from George Haas, who had a team of professionals playing in a 22-goal tournament. Dale was under contract with Bob Moore, so he had to ask permission. When Moore agreed Dale could play, Dale knew his time was approaching. The game gave him confidence and a view of what was to come.
Dale spent two years with Bob Moore, from 1981 to 1983. At the end of the winter season, Dale accepted an invitation to play in Santa Barbara with Willy B. Wilson, Charles Smith and Rob Walton. It was a magical two years, playing tournaments with some of polo’s stars. Dale played his first U.S. Open with Tommy Gose’s team alongside Gose’s son Matt Gose, Joe Barry and Gaston Dorignac on the Valdina Farms Polo Team. The polo scene was alive with high goal teams like Mickey Tarnapol’s Revlon, Peter Brant’s White Birch, Jack Oxley’s Royal Palm and Ft. Lauderdale teams, along with Geoffrey Kent’s Rolex, Norman Brinker’s Willow Bend and Steve Gose’s Retama Polo to name a few.
Dale remembers many men that helped shape his life. One of these men was Bob Skene, a former 10-goaler from Australia. For two weeks one season, Bob Skene spent all day with Dale, at practices, at games and in his barn. Bob began making adjustments, helping Dale see what he was after. The words Bob spoke next made all of the difference in the world.
Dale’s voice was low, and softer, as he remembered his coach Bob Skene handing him a shiny, white polo ball. Bob said, “Put this ball on your nightstand. Start tonight, and every night for the rest of your career, say to yourself, ‘This ball is not to be whacked or smacked or hit or crushed. It is to be stroked, and worked and used to score. Only “carry” this ball on the field.’”
From that night forward, the advice Dale was given shaped his life. He became the player he saw as a young boy. His childhood dreams took him on a journey where, with hard work and dedication, he was able to accomplish his goals. His polo career spanned two decades, introducing Dale to royalty and legends. He chose the sport of the horse, carrying on the torch of a small circle that is dedicated to living a horse life.
Photos courtesy of Dale Smicklas and the Smicklas Library