Hope Arellano: Taking the Game of Polo by Storm

Nineteen-year-old HOPE ARELLANO is one of the most talented female polo players in the world and competes in high goal tournaments against both men and women.  PHOTOS BY George Kamper

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a conversational opening gambit that every kid hears ad nauseum. For some, it can take a few decades and several aimless years in grad school before an answer to that question materializes. A few rare others, like 19-year-old Hope Arellano, get ahead of the curve early. By the age of 9, she knew that she wanted to be a professional polo player. Today, 10 years later, she’s one of the world’s top-ranked female professionals, playing at the sport’s highest level. 

A Polo Family Tree

A quick squint at the Arellano family tree, and you’ll see that Hope is an apple that didn’t fall far. She’s a fourth-generation polo player and got her start in the game earlier than most. Mother Meghan was five-months pregnant with Hope when she played a women’s tournament (against doctor’s orders) and won, leading the opposing team to object that they were playing against a team of five. Father Julio, formerly rated 9 goals, was America’s highest-ranked professional for many years, won four U.S. Opens, and was inducted into the Polo Hall of Fame in 2021. Hope’s maternal grandfather and great-grandfather also played, and her mom started riding at the age of 5. Given this kind of pedigree, her choice of career comes naturally. 

While polo might be in the Arellano blood, both Meghan and Julio were determined not to push Hope in any specific direction. Says Hope, “As a kid, I tried a lot of different sports. I played soccer, I played tennis, and I was a cheerleader. But by 9, I knew that polo was my future, and I was determined to become a professional.” 

With her ambition made unequivocally clear, Hope’s parents gave her every opportunity to work toward her goal. Until fourth grade, she attended elementary school in her hometown of Aiken, South Carolina, but the nomadic polo lifestyle made a traditional schedule unworkable. Hope notes, “My school was unhappy about absences for tournaments and the winter migration to Wellington, Florida, so homeschooling was the most realistic option.” 

While Meghan undertook some of the responsibility for teaching, Hope was educated primarily by tutors who traveled with the family. This more flexible arrangement dovetailed with the practice and competition schedule required of a budding player. Refuting any suggestion that she might have missed out on the social elements of a traditional education, Hope says that “Polo people never lack for friends.” She spent a significant amount of time with other kids while competing in children’s tournaments. 

Benefitting from being coached by both her 9-goal father and her mother, who played at the 16-goal level, Hope began playing in adult tournaments by age 11. At the tender age of 12, she won the Pete Bostwick Memorial 12-goal in Aiken, playing with her father and two older brothers, Lucas and Augustin. Says Hope, “This will always be one of my most treasured memories because it was the first time I’d played with my father and both of my brothers, the first time I’d played at the 12-goal level, and on top of that, we won!”

Two years later, at the age of 14, Hope became the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship, playing with San Saba (Hope, Dawn Jones, Sarah Wiseman, and Lia Salvo). Continuing to rack up wins, she advanced to playing 18-goal by 2020 and high goal (both 22 and 26-goal) shortly thereafter. Today, her handicap is 8 goals in women’s polo and 2 goals in mixed. 

The Argentine-Style Game

In 2021, Hope reached the pinnacle of women’s polo when La Irenita (Milagros Sanchez, Fatima Balzano, and Izzy Parsons) asked her to play with them in the Argentine Women’s Open. La Irenita defeated La Aguada Rioplatense by 13 to 12 to win the Subsidiary Women’s Open (finishing the Open in third place overall), giving Hope her first taste of success in Argentina. She also took home the Revelation Award, which goes to the standout rookie in the tournament. After this year’s fall season in Aiken, Hope will return to Palermo with La Irenita in November for her second Open.

Playing in the Argentine Women’s Open is an incredible honor. It has allowed Hope to compete playing Argentine-style polo, which is faster and more reactive than the game in the U.S., which has more pauses, thus offering players more time to consider strategy. Hope also notes the differences between playing mixed and women’s polo. “Women’s polo is a change for me, with different positions and shorter plays. Mixed is challenging in that it’s faster and a more open running game. This is the way I played growing up, so it’s very much my style. I’m lucky to play both and have the best of both worlds. But I never think of myself as a ‘woman’ polo player. I’m a polo player. We all have something to contribute on the field. While I may not hit as hard as a man or be able to stop a strong horse, I concentrate on things like accuracy, field awareness, and strategy, which are just as important.” 

In the past two years, Hope’s moved into the big leagues, playing high goal at both the International Polo Club (22 goal) and with the World Polo League (26 goal). During the 2021 season, she served as an alternate for Tamera’s Alejandro Poma and helped win the match that sent Tamera to the semi-finals of the Ylvisaker Cup. Playing with the World Polo League has also afforded Hope the opportunity to compete with and against some of the world’s best players, like 10-goal star Juan Martin Nero. 

Hope recently celebrated another milestone when she became the first woman shortlisted for the U.S. Federation of International Polo (FIP) World Championship team. Along with Hope and her brother Augustin, shortlisted players include Luis Escobar, Nico Escobar, Keko Magrini, Nico Diaz Alberti, Jake Klentner, and Juaquin Arendano. The tournament, which will be held in the U.S. for only the second time in its history, will be hosted by Valiente Polo Farm in Wellington from October 26 to November 6. All eight players will practice together until shortly before the tournament begins when the final team will be chosen.

With such an intense competition schedule in 2022, it would be a wonder if Hope has any time for interests outside polo. She says, “I love the outdoors—my whole family does—and we always take time for a family vacation. We have an RV, and we’ve gone to Wyoming, Yellowstone, in fact, just about every major national park. We all love hiking and animals, and at home, we rescue and rehabilitate animals. Right now, we have raccoons, but we’ve had all kinds of different animals. We look after them until they can take care of themselves and then release them back into the wild.” 

Working Day by Day

She admits that most of her friends come from the polo world, although she does count two show jumpers among the group. Both show jumpers have fathers who play polo. “It’s difficult to have a social life with friends outside the horse world because they don’t fully understand the focus and responsibility we have as competitors in equestrian sport. We have very early mornings…” 

Focus is right. Still at the beginning of her career, Hope emphasizes that she has a lot to learn and achieve. Success comes the hard way, working day by day to improve consistently and be the best player she can be. Rather than comparing herself to other players, Hope considers her own performance her best benchmark and strives to improve a little bit every day.

Photo George Kamper

Mother Meghan says, “Growing up in the sport and having a professional player as a husband, I didn’t know if I wanted my daughter to become a professional. I’ve seen how hard it is, even for a man. But she has exceeded all my expectations and more. We’ve never been a ‘this is a man’s job, and this is a woman’s job’ kind of family. I’m so incredibly proud of her. When she runs into a difficult situation, she keeps her head up and stays focused.”

Admittedly, Hope Arellano’s world completely revolves around polo, and she credits the sport with having a significant impact on her character. Knowing that she wanted a career as a professional from a young age gave her the gifts of focus and determination. She readily credits the sport with offering lessons that will serve her well in both business and life. 

Proud father Julio says, “Hope’s greatest virtue is not her natural talent or that she reads the play well, but that she is willing to put in the long hours training, and she’s persistent. It’s been a gift from above for me to be able to watch her make her way in the sport.”

Says Hope, “Obviously, every player dreams of reaching 10 goals and, of course, Field 1 at Palermo. But I’m going to keep doing whatever it takes to be the best polo player I can be.” Hope has a long career ahead of her, and with her talent and determination, it wouldn’t be any surprise to see her on Field 1 someday.

Read the full story in the July/August 2022 Issue.