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BY TOM AUSTIN | January 3, 2012 | Lifestyle
Polo players Nic Roldan, Kris Kampsen, Jeff Blake, and Tommy Biddle
Halftime mingling during the Piaget Gold Cup at International Polo Club
Fashionable ladies at Sunday brunch
A merry band of polo guests during Sunday brunch
Tinsley Mortimer and Brian Mazza stomp divots at the Piaget Gold Cup
Alvaro Cuadrado and Sam Robin at Sunday brunch
Bill Rancic and Betsey Johnson
Jimmy Newman, International Polo Club Palm Beach’s director of polo operations
Polo historian and Palm Beach Daily News polo columnist Alex Webbe
A rider from Venezuela’s Lechuza Caracas club in play at the International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington
On tournament days during polo season at the International Polo Club Palm Beach, which runs through April 22, it’s all about Gatsby-esque pomp under the palms: lots of blue blazers and women in hats, as polo ponies thunder down the field, flanked by a sea of catered celebrity, from Tinsley Mortimer to George Hamilton. The audience inevitably focuses on the players who span polo and other worlds, from actor Tommy Lee Jones to Nacho Figueras, an Argentine polo player and Ralph Lauren Polo model.
At halftime, there’s the ritual divot stomp: Clutching glasses of Champagne, spectators walk out on the vast playing field (about the size of nine football fields) and pat down pieces of turf chewed up by polo mallets and horse hooves. Despite all that breathing room, polo is hard on grass.
On a winter afternoon in Wellington, where the IPC is located, director of polo operations Jimmy Newman surveys the field and lays it out: “What we do here is the big time. Polo is played everywhere from Afghanistan to Brazil, but there’s nothing like this place. We have 40 different teams, 150 players, and 100,000 attendees over the course of a season. It’s like the World Series with great equine athletes. We have 15,000 horses in Wellington during the season.”
The current era, with corporate sponsors like Nespresso, Ferrari, Piaget, and Veuve Clicquot, and ballyhooed reality-TV stars like Roberto Martinez of The Bachelorette and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s Carson Kressley grinning for the cameras from their lunch tables, is a long aesthetic leap from the early beginnings of polo, which has been played in Palm Beach since the 1920s.
While Carl Fisher used his circa-1920 Flamingo Polo Club in Miami Beach to develop his holdings of raw land, the more lasting polo tradition of Palm Beach County began in 1924, when the Phipps family established polo grounds at Gulf Stream, north of Delray Beach, on choice real estate between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. By 1928, more polo was being played on Phipps Field than anywhere in the world, and at quite a high level: Michael Phipps was a 10-goaler (the highest rating possible) and Winston Guest, husband to the iconic C.Z. Guest and father to Cornelia Guest of Studio 54 fame, was a nine-goal player. They were both members of the Templeton polo team in 1934, which won the United States Open Championship that year. The club went on to glory again in 1941, when John H. Phipps, Michael Phipps, Charles “Skiddy” von Stade, and Alan Corey Jr. took the US Open Championship.
After WWII, 10-goal Argentinean players such as Roberto Cavanaugh turned up in Palm Beach, joining local players like Laddie Sanford, whose wife, horsewoman Mary Sanford, ruled social Palm Beach for years to come. The Phipps field was eventually sold in the ’60s, but enthusiasts formed the Gulfstream Polo Club nearby, and both the Polo Club of Boca Raton and Palm Beach Polo and Country Club carried on the tradition.
Wellington, once dubbed the world’s largest strawberry patch, was founded as an agricultural community in 1951 and has been known for polo since the late 1970s. These days, the International Polo Club, founded in 2004, is one of the preeminent polo complexes on the international circuit.
Part of the appeal in the ’20s and today is the sport’s aura of elitism. It’s been a pastime for the well-to-do for more than two millennia. Persian noblemen played the game in 500 BC; it was brought to England by 19th-century British officers stationed in India. Polo’s tailored riding breeches— jodhpurs—came from the Indian state of the same name, its white cotton cloth an answer to the ever=present heat. Brooks Brothers, the precursor to Ralph Lauren’s visual ideals, developed button-down collar shirts for everyday wear in 1896, after gaining inspiration from polo players, who buttoned their collars down to avoid flapping.
Polo, like surfing, has a physical beauty ideally suited to marketing. Ralph Lauren is no dummy, and the semiotic message of his Polo brand, the whole notion of Arcadian adventures among the idle rich, has now been adopted by everyone from rappers to suburban kids. But there’s nothing idle about polo. An outdoor game has six seven-minute chukkers, or periods, in which a horse might reach speeds of 35 miles per hour. Players in high-goal polo bring anywhere from seven to 10 horses to a match. Handicaps for players range from two to 10 “goals” (10 being the most coveted), and are reviewed twice per year based on a player’s knowledge of the game, horsemanship, strategy, and sportsmanship. The IPC club draws all manner of top players including from Argentina, renowned for its polo talent, such as Adolfo Cambiaso.
The sport still takes serious money: Each team requires a farrier (horseshoer), vets, three to four grooms, and incredibly expensive horses worth from $50,000 to $400,000 and up. The tradition of owning a team and playing has remained somewhat intact. Alex Webbe, a polo historian and polo columnist for the Palm Beach Daily News, notes that back in the day, “financial titans played on their own teams rather than use pros. In that era, professional athletes were looked down on. You’d go and watch the Phipps family, Winston Guest, the Whitneys, and Laddie Sanford play. That would be like watching Bill Gates and Warren Buffett play against one another now.”
Today, many team owners play on their own teams, such as Peter Brant, publisher of Interview magazine, yet the bulk of the players now are hired pros. Many American and Argentine team members learn the game from their fathers, and it’s typical for a rider to drop out of high school at 15 or so and hit the circuit. Some of the bigger names today include stars like Jeff Blake, who was selected as Young Player of the Year in 1998, and Nic Roldan, a 29-year-old American who grew up in Wellington and is now an eight-goaler playing this season for Audi. After Wellington, he’ll head to England for part of the summer, then move on to Santa Barbara and Argentina, where he will play with national treasure Adolfo Cambiaso.
For the 29-year-old Kris Kampsen, a six-goal player who grew up in Tampa and turned pro at 15, the elitist imagery that clings to polo is far removed from life at the IPC. “Our games are open to the public, most are free to watch, and the players are regular guys who are pretty approachable,” he says. “To me, it’s just a big rush.”
The 42-year-old Tommy Biddle plays Wellington in the winter, then migrates to Greenwich, Bridgehampton, and South Carolina. “Polo is a hard life; I was on the road seven months this past year, but I still love the thrill of the game. I’ve played polo with Prince Charles, but people don’t see beyond the wealth in polo, what goes on behind the scenes: Polo has a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.”
The pomp is certainly appealing in the tents, but step close enough to the field to feel the horses rumble by, and the deeper power of the sport will quickly become apparent.
photograph by andres hernandez (polo players, newman, webbe)