A horse of another color

There often comes a moment in the life of an organization when the people in charge take a good look around them and are forced to acknowledge that things are not working properly. For Darien’s Ox Ridge Hunt Club, that moment came three years ago when dwindling membership required dramatic action. But that action required uprooting more than a century of tradition.

“We go back 106 years with the history of the Ox Ridge Hunt Club,” says Michelle Saldivar, a member of the club’s board of directors and chairwoman of its house committee. “We had fox hunts and polo matches here. But some of the polo team members moved away and things evolved. We started looking at reviving the club and what else could they bring to make it a staple of the community again.”

This is not to say the club had no history of transformative change. The property was originally a dairy farm owned by the celebrated Irish tenor John McCormack. Saldivar credits the board of directors with not only recognizing the need to evolve yet again but coordinating the effort with gusto.

“It was such a small group and they were really invested in the club continuing,” she continues. “So, they wanted to see it prosper and not go under.”

The club agreed to sell 16 of its 38 acres to the town of Darien and signed for a bank loan, combining the funds into a $12 million upgrade project. In October 2018, ground was broken on a redevelopment effort designed to transform the Ox Ridge Hunt Club into the Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club. 

One of the major changes in the rebirth of the club was the creation of a state-of-the-art clubhouse.

“This wasn’t here,” says club president Richard Colligan, pointing around the clubhouse. “We had an indoor riding arena here. It was an old steel airplane hangar moved here from Westchester Airport in the 1920s.”

With polo matches off its itinerary — the fox hunting activities disappeared from the site many decades ago — the club decided to continue its professional equestrian focus on tournaments. 

“We hold several horse shows throughout the year,” says Saldivar. “There is one really big one held from June 9 through 14 called the Ox Ridge Horse Show. We are host to about 600 horses and we put up temporary stalls and big tents for food. It is a world-class event.”

The club maintains three large outdoor riding rings to host events in the warmer months. When the whether gets chilly, a new indoor ring accommodates the equestrian activities.

“We held our first indoor winter show in December in the new heated indoor space,” says Saldivar, who points out the pale soil lining the venue. “The soil is a proprietary mix of very fine sand and different gradings of felt. That makes a huge difference to both the rider and the horse.” 

The club has an equine residency population of approximately 50, some owned by members and some owned by the club for its riding classes. 

“You don’t need to own the horse to come here,” says Saldivar. “You can come and start using the school horse.”

However, club president Colligan observes that the future of the venue could not rest solely on horses.

“The members recognized that it’s hard to have a riding only club in the middle of Darien. It’s very expensive,” he says. “The only way to grow is to have a facility to allow more members to come in.”

After consulting with town officials, other clubs in the area and the local schools, the club decided to bring in something that was absent from the area. Hence, the “racquet” aspect of the club’s rebranded name — but, in this case, the racquet sport was squash.

“Squash has been gaining popularity across the country and going deeper into the schools, and now we have great levels of elementary and middle school competitions,” says Saldivar. “Public and independent schools in town and the surrounding towns had limited options to their facilities and where they would be doing their practice. This became an asset for them.”

Colligan notes the club’s six single courts and two doubles courts makes it among the largest privately owned squash facilities in the world — and the world has taken notice.

“We hosted international tournaments,” he says. “We had about 30 pros here, and a pro and pro-am tournament with a $25,000 purse. We’ve also had junior tournaments. The members really love to see high-quality playing.”

The club also offers a fitness center and paddle tennis courts. Saldivar adds that while the club has space to install a tennis court and a pool, it will pass on those features because “most people have access to it either through another club or on their own.”

Next on the club’s agenda is a food and beverage license from the town, which is pending. Since reopening under its new brand and with its new facilities last July, the club has seen its membership level rise to 115, with Colligan noting the town has a 250-member cap due to the venue’s location in a residential section of Darien. 

“This has been a labor of love,” he says. “We feel very good about where we are.” 

Ox Ridge Riding & Racquet Club is at 512 Middlesex Road, Darien. For more, call 203-655-2559 or visit oxridge.com.

Horsing around

This year, Greenwich Polo Club marks its 40th anniversary with the Greenwich Cup (June 7 and 14), the Monty Waterbury Cup (June 21 and 28 and July 5), the American Cup (July 12 and 19) and the East Coast Open (Aug. 30 and Sept. 6 and 13).

Expanded food and beverage options include The Cup Bearer, the club’s official bar provider; Palmer’s Darien, offering VIP dining; and Food Truck Park.

The grounds open 1 p.m. Sundays for 3 p.m. matches General admission starts at $40. For tickets, which go on sale April 1, and more, visit greenwichpoloclub.com.

Meanwhile, the Spring Horse Shows return to Old Salem Farm in North Salem May 5 through 10 and 12 through 17, with national, international and USA Olympic Team riders competing. The non-equestrian activities include face painting, pony rides, Ben & Jerry’s of Mount Kisco Ice Cream Parties for kids on both Saturdays and shopping on Boutique Row. For more, visit oldsalemfarm.net.

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