OAKLEY — As ponies gallop across a field with horsemen swinging hammers, wealthy spectators drink expensive wine and watch the action from tents where luxury carmakers and other companies offer their high-end wares.
That’s the scene a polo aficionado painted for members of Oakley City Council last month when he tried to convince them of the possibility of hosting tournaments in what’s been called ‘the sport of kings’.
“Polo is the most expensive sport in the world,” said Oakley resident Claude-Alix Bertrand, arguing why plans for a city-mapped park should include a polo field.
The city agreed in May 2019 to create a regional park of 55 acres of largely undeveloped land on the north side of Sellers Avenue, an approximately $60 million multi-phase project that has not yet been broken.
As currently envisioned, the park would provide an extensive array of features such as multiple ball courts, trails, picnic areas, and a playground. A legend on a map of the area informally known as Oakley Regional Park also mentions a boathouse, a paddock that 4-H youngsters can use to raise farm animals, a community yard, basketball courts, and a kayak launch. These are all concepts that can change as funding approaches.
The project also includes the restoration of the Gilbert House, a historic building on the property that was built in the early 1900s.
Earlier this year, the city applied for a state grant of about $8 million to install three baseball fields and parking lots in phase one.
Haiti-born Bertrand hopes Oakley will incorporate his dream of a polo field into later stages of the project.
While many other residents have considered over the years how they wanted to use the park, Bertrand is the first to propose an additional feature since the city made the project official two years ago.
He founded a polo team that represents his native country in international competitions and is currently the publisher of a magazine for those who lead the high-flying lifestyle associated with professional polo.
He came up with the idea of hosting one or two weekends of tournaments a year on a field in the park, which he predicts would draw tens of thousands of spectators and generate significant revenue for local hotels and restaurants as well as the city as well as, let we say, a sponsor wanted the venue to bear his name.
“I thought to myself, why do we always go to the very wealthy suburbs that have all that income to host these tournaments?” asked Bertrand rhetorically. “The elite of the world are going to play polo anyway. We’re trying to grab a piece of that pie and bring it here instead.”
Vice Mayor Randy Pope was intrigued by the idea and recognized that polo tournaments could fulfill the local equestrian community’s desire to preserve Oakley’s equestrian heritage. Bertrand added that when the field is not being used for competitions, it can be available for football, baseball and soccer games, as well as for horse owners jumping competitions.
Councilman Aaron Meadows said he’s willing to continue the concept as long as it benefits the city and wanted to see a business plan. Bertrand indicated that he could calculate the estimated income polo would generate for the city’s coffers or provide examples of how other venues have benefited from hosting tournaments.
Despite the warm reception his proposal received from most councilors, Oakley resident Lindsay Waters expressed doubts.
“I like the concept, I like the grand idea of what we can bring to Oakley,” she said before criticizing the city’s priorities.
Oakley doesn’t have enough firefighters, Water said, and developers aren’t inclined to spend money on maintaining thoroughfares like East Cypress Road. Needs like these should come before polo, she added.
Resident Liz Elias weighed in with an unequivocal thumbs down.
“I don’t think Oakley needs this. It caters to the elite mentality,” she said, noting that only the wealthy can afford to own polo ponies. “We are not Lafayette, Moraga, Danville or any of the other more affluent communities on this side of the bay.”
Residents would be better served by activities open to all, Elias added. She suggested the city build facilities such as a water park, municipal swimming pool, indoor ice rink or community theater instead.
“There are so many better options,” she says.
The councilors nevertheless agreed that city officials would gather more information about the idea and report their findings.