A Day of Polo Matches, Tailgating and Family Fun

After three decades, Crystal Lake’s beloved late-summer festival continues to celebrate the best of the Midwest and an American folk hero.

This September, thousands of people will converge in Barrington Hills to witness the excitement of the LeCompte Kalaway Cup. A single-day event of polo matches, tailgating, and ladies donned in fancy hats, the Cup has evolved into an annual source of anticipation and amusement for those who reside in the Barrington area.

“Polo has this reputation of being very high-society, and you will see some of that at our event, but for the most part, that which you see is kind of tongue-in-cheek,” says John Rosene, chairman of the Barrington Hills Polo Club and co-chair of the LeCompte Kalaway Cup event. “Some ladies are dressed up in flowered dresses, some men are in blazers, and you might see some white tablecloths at tailgate parties, but they’ll be right alongside tailgaters in cutoff jeans and tank tops with fried chicken. It’s just a wonderful mish-mosh of people.”

This year’s event, complete with polo, tailgating and other forms of merriment, is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 9 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 350 Bateman Road, in Barrington Hills. Originally founded in 2005 by the Barrington Hills Polo Club together with The Riding Club of Barrington Hills, the event has become the largest annual single polo event in the Chicago area, Rosene says.

This year’s event involves a collaboration between the Barrington Hills Polo Club with all the core equestrian groups in the area, including The Riding Club of Barrington Hills, The Fox River Valley Pony Club, The Fox River Valley Hunt Club, the military veteran equestrians of the BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center, Soul Harbour Ranch, and more.

“It’s not like any polo event I’ve ever attended,” Rosene says. “When we started the event, we had no idea what we were doing. We kind of created our own atmosphere because we weren’t modeling it after anybody else’s. It’s a big family event – there’s tons of kids of all ages. We don’t charge for children, so families are happy to bring their kids and let them run wild. In between matches you’ll see them playing frisbee and throwing footballs around on the polo field. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Tailgating spots can be simple affairs or elaborate gathering places.

The first match of the day is a “Battle of the Sexes” in which an all-male team plays against an all-female team. For the past two years, the men have won, but over the past 17 years, the women have won the majority of the time.

“That’s the opening match, but it’s also the most popular,” Rosene says. “Polo is the only team sport I know of that has no gender bias. In other words, men and women play alongside each other equally.”

Next up is the Kalaway Cup, where teams formed specifically for the event play against each other. Most players are members of the Barrington Hills Polo Club, but it’s not a requirement.

“People from other clubs fill in when we need players, but in general, it’s people who learned how to play here at our annual polo school in the spring,” Rosene says.

Currently, there are a few polo schools in the Midwest, but the Barrington Hills Polo Club is the original and longest running. The Club itself was formally registered with the United States Polo Association in 1986, while the school began in 1990.

“We’re the old guard,” Rosene says. “And now, we’re the largest polo club in the Midwest.”

At times, polo can be a dangerous sport, Rosene admits. Players are galloping as fast as their horse can go, stopping, turning, and sometimes banging into each other. It’s a team sport that involves full physical contact.

“From a player’s perspective, polo is probably the most exciting thing you can do on the back of a horse,” he says.

And while the polo itself is exciting, it’s not the only entertainment at the event. In fact, many people are primarily there for the tailgating, which Rosene describes as “a big block party for the Barrington area.”

“People are just enjoying themselves,” he says. “People stroll from tailgate to tailgate talking to their friends and neighbors and sharing their food and drinks from party to party. And that’s probably the biggest thing – people just want to be there, and sometimes they’re watching the polo and sometimes they’re not even paying attention to it. They’re just gathered with each other sharing a good time.”

Some people go all out with creating elaborate setups for their tailgates, Rosene says. In the past, he’s seen some tailgaters bring their boats and do a nautical theme. A few years ago, he noticed one tent with chandeliers and a dance floor.

The first “funky” tailgate he recalls was when Mary Beth Holsteen and her husband, Frank, who were early members of the Barrington Hills Riding Club, made their tailgate into a tiki bar.

“That got everybody thinking, and over the years, people have become more and more elaborate,” Rosene says. “There are some people who have come to every event and now have legacy tailgate spaces. There’s always a group of five or six families who all have side-by-side tailgates and make it all into one big party, and they’ve been doing this since 2005 or 2006. It’s pretty special. And it’s hard to describe. It doesn’t fit a pattern.”

The equestrian community assists in additional entertainment, Rosene says. Kids from The Fox River Valley Pony Club put on a demonstration of their skills, Soul Harbour Ranch brings miniature horses for kids to pet and interact with, and a precision riding team of military veterans from BraveHearts performs with a drill team and acts as a color guard during the National Anthem.
And of course, there’s the annual ladies’ hat contest.

One of the most highly anticipated moments of the day is when The Fox River Valley Hunt Club allows their hounds to flood onto the field, Rosene adds.

“Everybody comes onto the field to pet and play with the hounds,” he says. “It’s a very popular part of the event. Over the years, we’ve had different things. For example, we’ve had the knights from Medieval Times joust on the field. If we come up with an idea, we’ll do it, as long as it has some relationship to horses and so forth.”

Part of the spectacle at LeCompte Kalaway Cup includes a flood of hounds from the Fox River Valley Hunt Club.

Overall, the LeCompte Kalaway Cup has transformed tremendously since its inaugural event in 2005, Rosene says. The first year saw maybe 300 to 400 attendees. Today, multiple thousands of people come out.

It’s not bad for an event that’s entirely put on by volunteers.

“We get lots of publicity and significant sponsorship from various companies in and around the northwest suburbs,” Rosene says. “It has become a community event. We sell tailgates and general admission, and last year, we were totally sold out of tailgate spots, and we had a waiting list of sponsors – they get spots on the field to advertise – and we just couldn’t accommodate everyone. Every space was sold out, and we even added more tailgate spots. The event is just a huge draw for people in and around Barrington.”

A committee of seven to eight people, primarily comprised of members of The Barrington Hills Riding Club, start planning for the LeCompte Kalaway Cup in January. They hold weekly meetings starting in the spring and meet even more frequently as the event gets closer.

Rosene is in charge of the fundraising, which he describes as a “labor of love.” Potential sponsors or advertisers can reach him at [email protected].

“It’s a huge undertaking,” he says. “I work on it five days a week. We don’t hire anything out.”

A tailgate site costs $225, which includes a field-side space that’s 12 feet wide by 30 feet deep. Guests can park one vehicle on their lot and adorn their space however they please. Some people like to cater their tailgates, while others prefer to do a cookout, Rosene says. Tailgate spots include admission tickets for six guests.

Polo matches and equestrian sports take centerstage, but spectators also have fun dressing up.

Individual tickets are also available, which can be purchased for $20 at the gate. Kids under age 12 can enter free.

“The best place to buy tickets is at the gate, since we only pre-sell tailgate spots via [email protected],” Rosene says. “We’re also trying something new this year. It’s called the Horseshoe Club where a limited number of guests can sign up for VIP treatment with a catered lunch, open bar and midfield seating in a private tent.”

Parking at the event is free, and there are golf carts to take guests and their picnic supplies from the parking lot up to the field and the action.

“That’s another way the event has developed over time. At first, it was rather rudimentary, but it’s become more and more sophisticated as we’ve gone along – though sophisticated is an ambitious word,” Rosene laughs. “Honestly, it’s still Amateur Night in Dixie. I remember one event someone forgot to bring the polo balls. Another time we didn’t have whistles for the umpires. Like I said, it’s all put on by volunteers. There’s always new glitches and that kind of makes it fun.

“But almost since day one, people have showed up with their friends and their families,” Rosene continues. “Maybe we didn’t plan everything very carefully, but we’ve always managed to sell tickets and whoever shows up seems to always have a great time.”