Palm Beach Polo Season Hits Its Stride
BY TOM AUSTIN
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)
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