OAKLEY — As ponies gallop across a field carrying mallet-wielding riders, well-heeled spectators sip expensive wine and watch the action from tents where luxury car manufacturers and other companies pitch their high-end wares.
That’s the scene a polo enthusiast painted for Oakley City Council members last month as he tried to hook them on the possibility of hosting tournaments of what’s been dubbed “the sport of kings.”
“Polo is the most expensive sport in the world,” Oakley resident Claude-Alix Bertrand said as he made a case for why plans for a park that the city has started mapping out should include a polo field.
The city agreed in May 2019 to create a regional park out of 55 acres of largely undeveloped land at the north end of Sellers Avenue, an approximately $60 million, multiphase project that has not yet broken ground.
As currently envisioned, the park would offer an extensive array of features such as multiple ball fields, trails, picnic areas and a playground. A legend on a map of the area informally known as Oakley Regional Park also lists a boathouse, a paddock that 4-H youngsters can use to raise farm animals, a community garden, basketball courts and a kayak launch. All are concepts that could change as funding materializes.
The project also would involve restoring the Gilbert House, a historic structure on the property that was built in the early 1900s.
Earlier this year the city applied for an approximately $8 million state grant to install three baseball fields and parking spaces in the first phase.
The Haitian-born Bertrand is hoping Oakley will incorporate his dream of a polo field into later stages of the project.
Although plenty of other residents have weighed in over the years on how they wanted the park to be used, 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 competition and currently is the publisher of a magazine for those who lead the high-flying lifestyles associated with professional polo.
He pitched the idea of holding one or two weekend-long tournaments a year on a field within 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 if, say, a sponsor wanted the venue to bear its name.
“I thought to myself, why do we always go to the very rich suburbs that already have that income coming in to host these tournaments?” Bertrand asked rhetorically. “The world’s elite is going to play polo regardless. We are trying to get a piece of that pie and bring it here instead.”
Vice Mayor Randy Pope was intrigued by the notion and acknowledged that polo tournaments could satisfy the local equestrian community’s desire to preserve Oakley’s equine heritage. Bertrand added that when the field isn’t being used for matches it could be available for soccer, baseball and football games as well as show jumping competitions for horse owners.
Councilman Aaron Meadows said he is willing to pursue the concept as long as the city will benefit and wanted to see a business plan. Bertrand indicated he could pencil out the estimated revenue that polo would generate for city coffers or provide examples of how other venues have benefited from hosting tournaments.
Despite the warm reception his proposal received from most council members, Oakley resident Lindsay Waters voiced misgivings.
“I love the concept, I love the grand idea of what we can bring to Oakley,” she said before launching into a critique of 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 believe this is something Oakley needs. It caters to the elitist 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 well-to-do communities on this side of the bay.”
Residents would be better served by activities accessible to all, Elias added. She suggested the city consider building facilities such as a water park, municipal pool, an indoor skating rink or a community theater instead.
“There are so many better options,” she said.
Council members nonetheless agreed to have city staff members gather more information on the idea and report their findings.