Recollections From The ‘Voice Of Polo’

Recollections From The ‘Voice Of Polo’  
Tony Coppola, Owner Of The Tackeria And A Former President Of The United States Polo Association, Has Been There Since The Very Beginning Of Polo In Wellington

By Y.A. Teitelbaum

Wellington The Magazine’s year-long Wellington History feature series includes the recollections of early Wellington pioneers who built the community we enjoy today. This month, longtime polo writer Y.A. Teitelbaum speaks with “Voice of Polo” Tony Coppola, founder and owner of The Tackeria, on the early years of polo in Wellington. Coppola was already a familiar face on the South Florida polo scene when the legendary Bill Ylvisaker unveiled his vision for polo in Wellington.

Tony Coppola is synonymous with polo in Wellington, just as Wellington is recognized as the “winter equestrian capital of the world.” As the iconic “Voice of Polo” and a local businessman, Coppola has been here since the beginning.

Coppola started riding when he was nine years old and began playing polo on Long Island in New York before he turned 13. After serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and spending several winters at home after being discharged, he moved to South Florida and continued playing. He also was a club manager and an umpire before he shifted his focus onto the business side of the sport. He opened The Tackeria in the mid-1970s, selling polo tack to players from a mobile trailer parked next to the fields.

“In 1977, I took a ride with [Palm Beach Polo founder] Bill Ylvisaker west of [State Road 7], the end of the world, and he told me about this great vision that he had [of a polo club],” the 77-year-old Coppola recalled. “Forest Hill was just two lanes. Big Blue was still a dirt road. South Shore was paved only until Pierson, and a dirt road the rest of the way.”

That vision was the catalyst that ultimately materialized into the internationally renowned Palm Beach Polo and Country Club, a gated community where high-end homes were eventually surrounded at its peak by 10 full-sized fields, including a stadium, 45 holes of golf and some two dozen tennis courts.

“The amazing thing was that Ylvisaker’s vision was incredible,” said Coppola, who moved to Loxahatchee Groves in 1979. “Prior to that, the Sunshine League in Boca Raton had four, maybe six teams. He had this thing about making this an international destination. The first couple of years we had 10, 12 teams playing 22-goal level polo. We had two teams out of Colombia, [one from] Nigeria, [one from] France, Argentina.”

It was quite a sight to see when Coppola returned to Wellington before the 1979 polo season started.

“Actually, what I always marvel over was when I returned in the fall, the stadium was only partially finished,” he continued. “The Saturday before the first game on the stadium field, there were well over 100 people working. There was a line of people carrying chairs up the stadium stairs. It was like the ants bringing the crumbs back to the queen. Painters painting, welders welding.”

This year, The Tackeria celebrates its 45th anniversary and is one of the longest continuous businesses still operating in the village. He knows they were lucky to be here at the beginning and still here decades later.

“Schaefer Drugs is the oldest in the community, and probably a couple of real estate brokers,” said Coppola, who remembers the paint store, the deli and pizza shop from the earliest days. “But we’re in the top 5. Businesses have come and gone. If we’re not in the top 5, then the Top 10.”

During the first several years, Coppola operated a small store in the polo club barns to be closer to the players, which made it easier to sell tack, bridles, mallets, bits and other polo equipment.

The business moved to various locations around Wellington as the growth of polo and equestrian disciplines flourished at a steady pace. Coppola’s 12,000-square-foot store and warehouse has been at the epicenter of the equestrian crossroads on the corner of South Shore Blvd. and Pierson Road for the last 15 years. The store is close to numerous polo fields, as well as the hunter/jumper and dressage venues, basically across the street from the original Palm Beach Polo stadium.

“We used to turn in to come to the polo club [where the west entrance on South Shore is] and drive along that canal, it was a dirt road, to get to the club barns,” Coppola said. “And then they finally closed it off, and we had to drive all the way to the corner and make a left-hand turn [onto Pierson].”

For Coppola, the polo in Wellington wasn’t limited to just the stadium. Wellington had less than 10,000 residents in the early 1980s, so locals took advantage of the abundant empty space.

“Where the village complex sits, we used to play polo, three on a side, there, right on Forest Hill Blvd. in the summer for the locals,” Coppola recalled.

In addition to running his business full-time, Coppola was announcing mid-week polo matches at Palm Beach Polo. He has now announced every U.S. Open, the premier polo tournament in North America, for the last 45 years. He has also served on numerous committees for the United States Polo Association (USPA) and recently served a two-year term as president.

In 2006, Coppola received the prestigious Iglehart Award for his lifetime contributions from the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame, reflecting his years of passion and dedication to the sport.

Wellington, Coppola and The Tackeria grew up together. Coppola has many memories and has seen even more changes.

One sentimental memory Coppola recalls isn’t the first dollar earned from The Tackeria but rather a guestbook that he started while selling polo equipment at Oak Brook Polo near Chicago.

The collection of signatures from nearly every top player in the 1970s is probably his most cherished memory. However, the keepsake was lost and never recovered. It is one of Coppola’s biggest regrets.

“Juan Carlos Harriott [arguably the greatest player ever], all the polo players, [Hall of Famers] Tommy Wayman, Bart Evans, Joe Barry, all the great Argentines, I had this great book, but somewhere along the line, it got lost. That would be a great memory to have,” he said.

Coppola is a Wellington pioneer, and he was in the right place at the right time with the right people to see it all unfold before him.