By Sondra Barr
Women take the reins at the Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championships
Top-rated polo player Ashley Van Metre’s wedding to NASCAR driver Kurt Busch this past January was like a major entertainment event, with 265 guests serenaded by violins and a performance by Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler.
The couple brings their star power to another major event next month, when the seventh annual Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championships: Horses & Horsepower takes over WestWorld of Scottsdale. Ashley Busch will be among the women competing at the event, which features six rousing polo matches spread over two days. Busch will represent the Aspen Valley Polo Club when the undefeated champions, led by team owner Melissa Ganzi, take on the Monte-Carlo Polo Club on day one of the event.
Historically a male-dominated sport, polo is fast, physical and extremely perilous. Accidents happen as players navigate unpredictable mounts at breakneck speeds while swinging heavy mallets at a small white ball that’s often surrounded by a melee of pounding hoofs.
“People look at you and think, ‘Wow, that’s a really dangerous sport. I can’t believe you play. You must be a really tough girl,’” says lifelong equestrian Busch, a Wilhelmina model known for being the female face of the U.S. Polo Association. “It helps give a little bit of respect and shows that women can be on the same playing field as the men. We’re held to the same standards as men.”
The similarity between their chosen sports was one of the things that initially sparked a conversation between the Buschs when they first met. No stranger to danger, Ashley’s husband has seen his share of wrecks in NASCAR. “I think he probably worries about me more than I worry about him, just because the safety and technology in their cars is a lot safer. I don’t have quite as much safety gear as Kurt does. Plus, I’m dealing with an animal with a mind of its own,” Busch says.
American polo player and Arizona native Jeff Hall has likened the sport to crashing cars. “Imagine going 34 mph and getting into a wreck, flying head over heels, and then having a 1,000-pound horse coming down on you. You don’t have much of a chance,” he says. “People die – it does happen. You can’t get any more serious than that.”
It’s no wonder that the pioneer of women’s polo, Sue Sally Hale, had to pretend to be a man to compete. A sports trailblazer, she broke American polo’s sex barrier in 1972 when she gained membership in its national governing body after playing matches disguised as a man (complete with a fake mustache and her hair carefully obscured under her helmet) for two decades. Previously, the U.S. Polo Association didn’t recognize women as rated players.
It was Hale’s daughter, Sunset “Sunny” Hale, who became the first woman to win the prestigious U.S. Open Polo Championship, the first woman to be named the most valuable player of multiple top-flight tournaments, and the first woman to receive a five-goal handicap that garnered her a spot in the upper echelons of the sport’s professionals.
Sunny, who brought her unparalleled skills to Scottsdale’s Polo Party over the years, passed away in February due to complications from cancer. To mark Sunny’s contribution to the sport, the Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championships has marked the Battle of the Sexes match, pitting men against women, as The Sunny Hale Memorial.
Scottsdale-based polo player Natalie Grancharov Camacho, who’s returning for her seventh appearance at the event, is playing in the Battle of the Sexes. Among the opposing team members is her husband, Andres Camacho Castilla, Arizona’s top-ranked player.
The couple met on the polo field in 2012 and played against each other in the 2013 Battle of the Sexes match before marrying in 2014. “It was one of the best matches of my life,” says Camacho, who played side-by-side Sunny that day. “At the end of the match, the men beat the women by one,” she says. “I don’t think Andres had ever seen women polo players like that. I don’t think most of the men there had either.”
Unlike Busch, Camacho didn’t start riding or playing polo until college at UC Davis. “Collegiate programs are actually one of the best ways to get into polo,” Camacho explains. “It’s actually less expensive as well because they use school horses.”
Camacho says it wasn’t easy picking up the sport as an adult but, much like Busch, she was drawn to polo because of the gender equality. “Most women love the fact that it’s one of the few sports where men and women can play on an equal playing field at a professional level.”
Busch and Camacho have played polo all over the world and both agree that the male players are typically supportive and very welcoming, no matter the country. “I think that’s why a lot of women are turning to polo now. It’s such a welcoming sport. It’s a family sport. It’s a father-daughter sport. It’s a husband-wife sport,” Camacho says.
But there are some challenges to competing with men. “Physically I may never be able to hit the ball as hard as a lot of men. For me, I focus more on my strategy,” Camacho says.
Meanwhile, Busch points to a woman’s innate connection with animals as a benefit on the field. “I do feel like women have that extra connection with the horse, which helps.” Busch also notes that a lot of the best polo ponies are female horses, which is interesting considering many players view horses to be at least 80 percent of the game. “When you’re comfortable on your horse and you know your horses, you’re that much better as a player on the field,” Busch says. “Mares tend to just respond better and be more consistent and listen to you.”
Both women admit there is an element of fear when they play. “I’ve fallen off several times. I feel like you’re due for a fall off once a year, but I haven’t hurt myself too badly. I’ve never broken anything,” Busch says. “I’ve just seen so many accidents happen… it is something that worries me, definitely.”
Yet both agree the benefits outweigh the risks and that women playing polo is good for the sport and a great way for them to develop new skills – both on and off the field.
For this reason, Camacho and Busch are strong advocates for introducing women to polo. As the face of women’s polo, Busch plays in as many charity and exhibition matches as she can to bring more attention to the sport.
Meanwhile, Camacho’s passion is getting young women involved with polo. “I was able to host two WCT Junior Tournaments, which is the Women’s Championship Tournament series that was founded by Sunny Hale,” Camacho says. “We had them here in the Valley for girls 17 and under to play.” She’s also helped mentor a young local player, Camila Mogollon, a Desert Mountain High School student, who started playing when she was 14 and who’s now 16. “She played at the Polo Party last year,” Camacho says. “I’m so proud of her.”
The Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championships: Horses & Horsepower takes place November 11 and 12 at WestWorld of Scottsdale, 16601 N. Pima Road. Call 480-423-1414 or visit thepoloparty.com for more information.