Horse Icon History of the Harriman Cup

By: Matt Paco, Co-Chair (2009–2015)
September 2014

When the New York Times first covered The Harriman Cup Polo Match, they exclaimed, "Ralph Lauren, eat your heart out!" And now, the oldest collegiate polo benefit in America is celebrating its 30th Anniversary. Every September, alumni of the University of Virginia and Yale organize the Harriman Cup, which has raised nearly $1 million for the undergraduate polo programs at both schools.

Yale Student Team at the First Harriman Cup
Yale Student Team at the First Harriman Cup

Eileen Flint, who was the Yale Polo Director from 1986 to 2009, is grateful for the annual event. "The Harriman Cup has been a huge boost for Yale," said Flint. "It's helped us pay for the care of our horses and barn, and it has also helped cover traveling expenses for the college kids. The Harriman Cup has truly been a silent partner for the Yale Program."

Randy Wright (UVa '80, and former event co-chair) adds. "Very little money [to run the polo programs] comes from the universities. Both college polo teams rely on donations. I'm thrilled that the Harriman Cup is still popular. "

So, how did this yearly tournament come about?

"The idea for a benefit polo match came from me, Mike McGhee, and [the late] Dick Cawley," remembers Harriman Cup co-founder, Tom Shuman, who was also a former President of the UVa Club of New York. "We needed an opponent for the polo game, so I met with my good friend Molly Baldrige, who was the daughter of Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige, and the co-chair of Yale Polo, along with Bill Ylvisaker. She thought this would be a great benefit for Yale and UVa Polo."

"Bill [Ylvisaker] called me up and said he wanted me to help organize this event." explained Lou Lopez, Jr. who was then the Yale Polo Coach. (Lopez eventually became the UVa coach in 2003 and helped the Virginia undergrad Men's and Women's teams win four National Intercollegiate Championships each.)

Pamela Harriman (Center)
Pamela Harriman (Center)

Shuman revealed that they were originally going to name it The Jefferson Cup in honor of the University of Virginia's founder, Thomas Jefferson, but ended up choosing a different name. According to event co-founder Zene Colt, "We got well-known socialite Pamela Harriman involved, and named the event after her husband, Averell Harriman." Averell Harriman was an avid polo player, Yale graduate, and Governor of New York.

In a letter Shuman received from [Mr.] Harriman, the former governor stated, "I am gratified to be so honored... I look forward to hearing who won. My loyalties are divided, for as you know, I went to Yale but am now a resident of Virginia."

On September 14, 1985, the first Harriman Cup took place at the Greenwich Polo Club. That was the only tournament that had two games, an alumni match and the other with students. Yale won both.

Since then, the Harriman Cup has only featured an alumni game over the years, where many well-known players have participated, including Bill Ylvisaker, Steve Orthwein, and Carlos Arrellano. Yale has won 15 games to UVA's 13. (The only tie was in 1992 when both teams scored 21 goals each.)

Ticket to the First Harriman Cup

The Program for the First Harriman Cup, in 1985

In the last three decades, the Harriman Cup has changed locations several times. This year, it will take place in Bethpage State Park on Long Island, NY, which has hosted several U.S. Open Golf Championships and is the home of the summer-long Polo at the Park.

Even after 30 years, the lively spirit of the event comes from the thousands of alumni, friends, and fans who continue to flock to the polo fundraiser every fall donning their brightly colored outfits and extravagant hats.

"It's a very swanky event," stated Randy Wright. "People would bring out their silver, hay bales, and have their tailgates catered."

Now the day-long event includes an alumni polo match, bike polo exhibition, dance party, and awards ceremony for the players -- as well as the attendees, who competitively vie for the Best Hat, Best Outfit, Best Dog, and Best Tailgate Awards.

In 2013, Max Sinsteden and his fellow Choate alumni shipped in box hedges, a large oriental rug, and a full bar for their tailgate. They won hands down that year.

After the match, the Harriman Cup Board also bestows the Harriman Cup Award to individuals who have made huge contributions to the world of polo. In 2011, the first Harriman Cup Award went to Luis and Julie Rinaldini, patrons of Meadowbrook Polo and long time members of the polo community, as well as polo superstar Nacho Figueras, who attracted a bevy of swooning fans.

David and Jane Walentas
David and Jane Walentas

Past honorees also include polo star Nic Roldan; UVa alumnus David Walentas of Two Trees Farms and the Bridgehampton Polo Club; Lezlie Hiner, who founded the highly successful Work To Ride Program; and Ambassador William S. Farish III, the former Chairman of Churchill Downs, who also graduated from Virginia.

This year, the Harriman Cup Award will go to Stephen Orthwein. He was one of the organization's co-founders, a national championship player at Yale, and a former President and Chairman of the United States Polo Association.

"I am very honored," exclaimed Orthwein. "College polo is very important. It's probably the funnest polo people will play in their lifetime. I'm delighted to have had the opportunity to support it and play in it."

Mike Schram, a Virginia and Yale graduate added, "The real legacy is that the Harriman Cup continues to benefit both schools, and has remained an alumni event in the Tri-State area."

"I think the organizers should feel like proud parents," beamed Eileen Flint. "All the students who came through have benefited from the Harriman Cup. You know, college polo is struggling. Everyone thinks it's an elitist sport, but it's no different from soccer or tennis. All the kids in the polo programs work. They work in the barn. They're taking care of the horses. It's great to know that things we had put our heart, effort, and time into are still alive and producing great kids who get to play polo."

Randy Wright adds, "The Harriman Cup has become an institution."