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A Royal Visit? Queen May Attend Leesburg Polo Match

© Leesburg Today - 11/30/2006

Will she, or won't she? That was the question buzzing somewhat nervously around Leesburg this week as town and county authorities contemplate the sobering but exciting possibility that England's reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, and her husband, Prince Philip, may come to town next May.

While town and county representatives downplayed the Queen's possible attendance at the Americas Cup of Polo match between a British and an American team at Morven Park on May 12 as part of the official Jamestown 400th anniversary celebrations, Americas Cup of Polo Chairman Tareq Sahali had few doubts.

Reached minutes before boarding a plane to London, Sahali said this week that it had been confirmed that the Queen had publicly announced she was coming to attend all official Jamestown activities. On Saturday, May 12, there is only one official event: the polo match at Morven Park. That, according to Sahali and Morven Park Director Will O'Keefe, makes Morven Park ""it.""

Sahali said he understood the Queen would arrive in the state May 11 and leave for home May 14.

The queen announced during the Nov. 19 opening of Parliament ceremony in London that she and Prince Philip would be going to America to participate in the Jamestown festivities. It will be 50 years since she last visited Virginia's first capital, during the 350th anniversary of Jamestown's founding, an occasion which also marked the young monarch's first overseas state visit.

Secret Service personnel already have inspected the Morven Park premises and were in touch with town authorities, according to O'Keefe and Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd.

Umstattd was cautious on the possibility of a royal visit. ""We will prepare as if it were [going to happen],"" she said. ""It's very unlikely that we would know until the last minute.""

Leesburg Police Chief Joe Price has cancelled all staff leave for that day, she said.

The town has been informed by state authorities that the queen and other members of the royal family, including Prince Philip and Prince Charles, who is Patron of the British Polo Team, and Prince William and Prince Harry were invited to participate in the 400th anniversary celebration by the Jamestown Committee. All four men are enthusiastic polo players.

""If it happens, we're ready,"" Umstattd said. ""It would be a tremendous honor for Leesburg if she were to come."" Likewise, Loudoun Convention and Visitors Association President Cheryl Kilday sought to dampen anticipation. The ""whole polo cup event is really cool,"" she said, no matter who comes from the United Kingdom. The LCVA will promote the event, regardless of celebrities, of whom she said there probably would be many. Looking forward to helping coordinate county and town cooperation, Kilday said she wanted to ""make sure it is an excellent event.""

Betsy Fields, Leesburg's director of economic development, said the town would get a boost for its tourism efforts.

""It will raise our profile,"" she said, acknowledging the town would get ""a lot more attention from a wider range of media."" The polo match would put Leesburg ""on the map"" in a way it hasn't been in the past, she said.

Planning will heavily involve the town's Public Works and Police departments, she said, particularly in traffic control. That planning is in process, she said, referring to the lessons learned from the major congestion on Rt. 15 north during the Virginia Wine Festival held at Morven Park Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.

""We know what needs to be done now,"" she said.

O'Keefe said he expected about 5,000 people to attend the polo match, rather than the 8,000 who came to the wine festival, and hopes to limit it to that number-more like the visitation during the October Steeplechase Races or the Celtic Festival.

""That, Rt. 15 can handle,"" he said. The 1,100-acre estate can take care of many more visitors, but access is something that planners will be looking at very carefully to avoid an embarrassing repetition of the fall's traffic fiasco. The secret service is checking the situation, whether or not the queen comes. ""There are a number of VIPs who will be there,"" he said.

The area to be used for the polo field is on an outside course and is ""relatively flat,"" he said. Some in the polo fraternity around the county have raised concerns over whether a top-quality field can be prepared in time for the event.

But O'Keefe said field operations are in the capable hands of professional polo player and Americas Cup Committee member Charlie Muldoon, who has assured him that he has played in matches held on ground similar to Morven Park. Sahali, also a polo player, who has competed against Prince Charles in England, said he walked the area and predicted it would be fine.

""No, I have no concerns. I have complete confidence,"" he said, noting that he did a site inspection himself and predicted the pitch of the field will be in perfect condition.

""We have to go with what we have,"" O'Keefe said. Work is underway to create the viewing stands for VIP and corporate tents. ""We want to make it the best viewing experience we can,"" he said.

There is an existing berm on one side of the field for the outdoor arena and another will be installed on the other side, he said, so that attendees will look down from six to 10 feet above the ground as if in a grandstand. Sahali said 800 metric tons of dirt supplied by the Hazel Construction Company is being moved to the site to create the new berm.

Polo was first introduced to America in 1876, although the game itself was first recorded as far back as 600 BC in Persia. Today, upwards of 77 countries play the game and it is recognized as an Olympic sport. The May 12 contest will pit the Jamestown Virginia Is For Lovers team against the British Combined Services Polo Association team. The two teams have not played in the U.S. before, but in a match last year in England, the U.S. side won.

Sahali said he hoped the event would become ""an enduring tradition that lasts beyond 2007"" that would help boost tourism and raise support for polo in Virginia and abroad.

Despite the town and county caution over the royal visit, those organizing the actual event have no such inhibitions. Sponsorship packages sent out by Domenicon Marketing in Leesburg, one of the several firms handling business support and public relations, state that Queen Elizabeth II will be in attendance.

Proceeds from the event will benefit the Journey for the Cure, a nonprofit foundation that provides grants to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the MS Society. Morven Park will also be a beneficiary.

""This is an incredible opportunity to tell the world that Morven Park exists. We hope to build on that,"" O'Keefe said.

The timing of the match is opportune, because the Westmoreland Davis Memorial Foundation Board is actively seeking ways to bring more events to Morven Park and to raise funds to support its various activities, including the Morven Park Equestrian Institute. The board has given O'Keefe a mandate to develop a plan to raise more funds and increase public participation over the next two years.

Morven Park was approached by the Jamestown Committee, reportedly through a suggestion to Sahali by Muldoon. Sahali said Tuesday that Morven Park's connections to Virginia and to Jamestown made it an ideal location. Westmoreland Davis was governor of Virginia from 1918 to 1922. Mrs. Davis presented an entrance gate to Jamestown Island for the 350th anniversary celebration. Gov. Davis' mother, Annie, was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and it is that group that recently restored Marguerite Inman Davis' gate in the name of Morven Park in honor of the 400th anniversary. Westmoreland Davis also is a direct descendant of Earl De La Warr, who was the first governor of Virginia and came to Jamestown after its founding in 1607.

Should members of the British Royal Family come to Leesburg, some see irony in the fact that the last time the British were involved with Leesburg in a public way was during the War of 1812, when the federal documents had to be hastily evacuated from Washington, DC, and brought to safety at Rokeby Plantation just south of Leesburg, while the British went on to burn the White House.

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