When you drive into the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club this season, the fields are so green that you get the feeling you’ve been teleported to Ireland. That would have been difficult to imagine a few months ago when fires and mudslides devastated California’s Central Coast and forced the evacuation of the club. But thanks to the concerted efforts of staff, local residents and volunteers, Santa Barbara is ready for the 2018 summer polo season.
“The fields are perfect now,” said Justin Klentner, patron of Klentner Ranch polo team, who is already playing at Santa Barbara. He has a bird’s eye view of the facility from his home, which is nestled in the hills directly above the fields. He saw the rescue efforts and took in several evacuated horses in his barn.
The first day of the fire Jeff Scheraga, the club’s polo school manager, hooked up his truck and trailer at 2 a.m. and drove to the blazing hills of Ojai. “It looked like a war zone,” he said.
Scheraga rescued two dozen horses, some of which had never been trailered, and brought them to the club’s stables. The facility functioned as a refuge for more than 250 horses and other livestock, including alpacas, cows, rabbits and goats. “We were like a zoo for a while,” he said.
The polo club survived the worst days of the Thomas fire and was unaffected by the massive mudslides that followed in January despite being cut off from the outside world for a week due to the mudslides closing Highway 101. Because the hill directly behind the club did not burn, the facility was spared the worst of the devastation from the slides.
But a huge challenge lay ahead in bringing back the fields to peak condition. A thick layer of ash had to be cleared, and the fields needed irrigation. During the fire hundreds of fire trucks had been parked around the edges of the fields on the non-playing surface (so as not to damage the playing fields). However, the club’s grounds crew had to wait a month before they could start restoring the fields to playing condition.
They scalped and aerated all the fields, following up with spot treatments by hand of the numerous areas that had been impacted by the fire trucks. They spent hours combing the fields for places that had been excessively compacted by the traffic or scalded during the fires. In some cases it required surgically cutting the sod to raise it up and applying extra sand in designated spots. After that the crew meticulously monitored the areas that needed spot treatments of water and fertilizer. In the final stage they applied double the amount of sand normally used pre-season, fertilized and started irrigating. The painstaking process took three months.
After all that work, disaster threatened again in late March when evacuation warnings went out again, with as many as 10 inches of rain in three days and more mudslides forecast for the Santa Barbara area.
“This time Mother Nature was kind to us. The worst of the storm veered away from Santa Barbara,” said Melanja Jones, polo manager at the club.
“Following the floods and the fires we took a deep breath, thanked all the powers in the universe that our little corner of heaven had been spared the worst of the damage, and now we are ready for the summer,” said Jones.
Now everything is play-ready, and the club is gearing up for the summer season, which begins May 4 with the 12-goal series. At the finals of the Folded Hills Pope Challenge (Sunday May 13), the club will honor and thank the many volunteers who helped with caring for the evacuated animals during the Thomas fire.
For more information about Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club, including the 2018 tournament schedule: sbpolo.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.