Ashley Busch hops on the horse again for polo championships
By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
As one of the world’s top female polo players, Ashley Busch has toured the world, played with Prince Harry and graced the cover of a slew of magazines.
But the wife of NASCAR driver Kurt Busch especially loves Scottsdale and the Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championships, set for Saturday, November 10, and Sunday, November 11.
“Scottsdale and Arizona are two of my favorite places to go,” says Busch, the star of the forthcoming CMT docuseries Racing Wives. “I love the shopping, the restaurants and the scenery. I’m from Virginia and we have lots of green. It’s different to see the desert, the mountains and cacti.”
Busch, who made her Scottsdale debut last year, will play for the Wales Polo Team, led by captain Ricky Cooper and one of Europe’s finest players, Pete Webb.
Ralph Lauren model and polo player Nacho Figueras, who is friends with Busch, will be playing in Scottsdale thanks to the Aspen Valley Polo Club, owned by Marc and Melissa Ganzi. Aspen Valley is the event’s three-time defending champion.
“Nacho is coming to the event for the first time, which is great,” Busch says. “He’s obviously a showman and a big draw for people. More importantly, he’s a friend of mine.”
Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championships founder Jason Rose echoes that sentiment. “Nacho is the most famous pro polo player in the world,” Rose says. “He’s playing thanks to the Aspen Valley Polo Club, for whom he is going to play. He was at the royal wedding of Prince Harry. His face is on TV commercials everywhere. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him play and the crowd really reacted to him. It’s really something.”
Last year, more than 13,000 people enjoyed the weekend spectacle, with food and beverage and ticket revenue surging 70 percent from the previous year.
This year will also see the Scottsdale debut of Memo Gracida, considered to be one of the top two polo players, as well as teams from Italy, Santa Ynez Wine Country, Miami and Wales. They will join the Arizona Polo Club, Polo Azteca and Work to Ride, the first all-African-American high school polo champions. The inspirational story of Work to Ride has been featured on 60 Minutes, HBO and ESPN. Their appearance in this year’s event is being made possible by a grant from Safeway/Albertsons.
“It’s the eighth year and it’s evolved into the most-attended polo event in the United States,” Rose says. “The captain of the Wales polo team said it’s the best polo event in the world.
“We’re very, very proud of that. It’s because we have terrific polo. Teams come in from around the country and the world. A polo player flew in from Rome and said, ‘I’ve heard about your event. I came to check it out myself and ask you in person if my Italy polo team can play in the event.’ Hey, if you’re flying in from Rome and you’re that courteous to ask me, you have a spot.”
Lifelong horse lover
Busch has been riding horses since she was 5. She showed horses until she was 11, when she tried polo for the first time.
“I stopped showing and all other types of riding,” Busch says. “I stuck to polo and I’ve been doing it for the past 17 years. Riding is second nature and that helped me advance to where I am today.”
Polo has opened many doors for her, she adds. She’s the brand ambassador for the U.S. Polo Association, which has a $1.5 billion global retail footprint. In July, she won the Sentebale ISPS Handa Polo Cup at the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club with the Sentebale St. Regis team in England. Her teammate was Harry, Duke of Sussex – more commonly known as Prince Harry.
Figueras captained the team and Miguel Mendoza served as the fourth teammate for the Sentebale St. Regis team. The event raised funds and awareness for the duke’s charity, Sentebale, which supports the well-being of children with HIV in Lesotho and Botswana. Sentebale means “forget me not.”
Busch says she couldn’t comment on her time with the royal family. “That experience was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she says. “Polo is super unique. When you’re out on the playing field, everyone is equal: women, men, royals, regular people. It’s very unique being out there on the field.”
Busch became involved in the Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championships thanks to her good friend Melissa Ganzi. “I had seen the event through social media for many years,” she says. “Last year, it happened to be the same weekend as my husband’s NASCAR race. I thought there wasn’t a better time to play here. I spoke with Melissa and she put me on her team.”
The event became even more of a party, as Busch invited other NASCAR drivers’ wives and girlfriends to cheer her on. She played Saturday and Kurt Busch raced on Sunday. It aligns this year, too. Polo is a challenging sport, says Busch, who enjoys dining at The Mission and Steak 44.
“I’m dealing with an animal with a mind of its own,” Busch says. “Horses are about 85 percent of my game in general. They can make or break me. If they’re not having a good day, we’re not having a good day. I do the best I can.
“I just try to focus on the game and not think about the horse. I’ll play that horse for half of a period and jump on a new horse. I’ll practice a lot, though, to get a feel for how they’re going to be. We play at least six different horses in one game.”
The Busch family lives in North Carolina for seven months, and then in Florida during the polo season, which begins in January.
The Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championships isn’t a stuffy event. Rose compares it to Spring Training or the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Saturday will have four matches, and there will be two on Sunday including the final match, The International, which will feature the best players from the weekend playing each other for the highest goal match of the event. It will be preceded by a “Battle of the Sexes” match in honor of Sunny Hale, the greatest female polo player, Rose says. Hale played in the Scottsdale event twice.
“Saturday has much more of a Phoenix Open vibe, with a party-like Spring Training atmosphere,” he says. “Sunday is traditionally a family day. It’s really an extraordinary lifestyle event. With due respect to the Arizona Diamondbacks – and I go to a lot of games – this happens one time a year and it’s a polo event like no other in the world.”
Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championships take place Saturday and Sunday, November 10 and 11 at WestWorld of Scottsdale, 16601 N. Pima Road, Scottsdale. There are several tiers of ticket prices. For more information, call 480-306-5845 or visit thepoloparty.com.