As you drive along Soquel Drive or on Highway 1 between the Rio Del Mar Blvd and Freedom Blvd exits, look to the north. A new mural in Aptos is being created on a retaining wall along Soquel Drive that will be just yards from where the Spreckels mansion once stood and where the world headquarters of Times Publishing Group, Inc. stands today.
Muralist Art Thomae is recreating the polo grounds in the mural as they once were, not far from the Spreckels’ mansion. This area was the center of an equestrian society long past. Not only did they play polo, it was also used as a racetrack and for sulky racing.
Spreckels’ horses were legendary. An 1879 drawing of the Spreckels Ranch shows the racetrack in the center background with two sulkies. Two of Spreckels’ horses, Speculation and St. Cloud, are shown in the foreground and are named at the bottom of the scene. Speculation was purchased by Spreckels for $8,500, a princely sum 140 years ago.
The Spreckels mansion that you see in the drawing was built in 1877. The address today is 9565 Soquel Drive. The barns, stables and corrals were located about where Rio Del Mar Boulevard intersects Soquel Drive.
Polo started locally in Santa Cruz in 1922 when Polo enthusiasts first got together at Wilder Ranch for informal matches. In July of 1923, a more formal field opened at the corner of California and Bay Avenues in Santa Cruz, but what the Santa Cruz Polo Club really wanted was a facility with stables and accommodations for the players.
In February 1924 they signed an agreement with the Aptos Ranch Company for the use of Spreckels’ former racing grounds, including the barns and stables, and thus, the polo era in Aptos began. At the same time, it was also announced that R. M. Elsom and Jack Taylor would operate a riding school/equestrian center at the same location.
The Aptos Polo Fields were dedicated on March 17, 1924 with a match between the Tigers and the Cavaliers. Although the field was only dirt, the Santa Cruz Evening News described it “as the most perfect polo field in the west if not in the United States.”
In those days the customary way to watch a polo match was to park your car along the edge of the field and to bring a picnic basket to share as you sat in your car and watched the match. Between 225 and 250 cars were parked around the field at that initial match and the Rotary boy’s band provided music. The Spreckels Mansion was the clubhouse for both the country club and the polo club.
Even before the Stock Market crash the owner, Peninsula Properties, was probably facing cash flow problems. By October of 1929 the company decided to lease the polo field for growing strawberries. The site continued to be farmed until 1977 when the County Agricultural Commissioner refused to continue to permit pesticide spraying in the area. In 1987 the county decided that a regional park was a more appropriate use and purchased the property.
The century-old memories of polo ponies, race horses, sulky racing and the faint sound of hooves pounding the ground to the cheering of spectators will be preserved on the new mural.
Donations for the new mural can be made by contacting Mary Russell at: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 831-661-5214.