By Lindsay Toler
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By Jake Rossen
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By Kelsey McClure
By Lindsay Toler
Out in the middle of a vast field, tiny knights gallop, their mallets held upright like lances. Behind them stands a thicket of trees, and gentle hills rise on either side, tucking them into the back of a country club so private they can't even say its name for publication.
Suffice it to say there's traffic all around them, and no one knows they're there.
To outsiders, polo is invisible, arcane, elitist. But for the men and women of the St. Louis Polo Club, it's a release from pretense and perfumed chitchat. An intimate connection with creatures who respond to patient handling, not St. Louis' celebrated names. A magnificent obsession that consumes every spare hour. The passion that grounds their lives.
One by one, the trucks and trailers turn out of rush-hour traffic onto the narrow dirt road, hidden by trees, that winds through the back of the country club. It's a Wednesday in mid-May, and more than a dozen players have shown up for the season's first practice, each with a string of ponies. Parking end to end alongside the field, they tether their horses behind the trailers, deep in shade. None will be expected to run more than a single seven-minute period, or chukker -- but the Kentucky Derby lasts just two minutes, and not only are these horses galloping up to 40 mph, they're wheeling, slamming their 1,000-pound bodies into each other and maneuvering around a white ball's stinging speed.
They're big horses -- polo ponies haven't been pony-sized since England's Hurlingham Polo Association changed the rules at the turn of the century -- and they're Thoroughbreds. Each can trace lineage to one of the three legendary foundation stallions (two Arab, one Turk) that started the equine aristocracy.
The club members share bloodlines, too: Thirty-eight-year-old Andrew Busch, the nation's top-rated amateur polo player, and his older brothers Adolphus and William Kurt (Billy), are sons of departed beer king Gussie Busch, whose other son, August III, now runs the brewery. Then, because Clara Busch attracted the attention of Baron Paul von Gontard on a trip to Germany back in 1895, there are cousins: David von Gontard; brothers Peter, Parker and Philip von Gontard; Peter's son Petie. And because another Clara Busch married Percy Orthwein in 1915, there are more cousins: 83-year-old Dolph Orthwein, who played his last polo game on his 80th birthday; his sons Steve and Chris; Steve's sons Stevie, 20, and Robert, 17.
The clan plays well with others, though. There's Julia Cook, who built her own polo field in Washington, Mo.; dry-witted New Zealand commoner Geoff Cameron, who runs the Orthwein stable; holistic veterinarian Anne Broeder, a champion in her Cornell days; Daniel Gallegos, a humble horse trainer from Mexico City whose advice is mined like gold; a smattering of sports-minded doctors, brokers and engineers; a few college students working as grooms and hoping to pick up a chukker or two. On the field, all lines dissolve.
Except polo's invisible line, redrawn every few seconds by the movement of the ball.
Players can cross that line only if they're careful, throwing their horse's weight against their opponent's horse's at a narrow angle (more than 45 degrees is a foul) and hitting square in the middle so they neither collapse nor spin the other horse. The rules of polo all revolve around safety, but there's a tacit etiquette, too, that trusts players to behave well in the roughest, most subjective situations.
At practice, everyone mounts on a silent cue; club president Steve Orthwein has already worked out their chukkers, trying to give everybody a chance to ride, to balance the motley teams. (When it comes to ability, polo is oddly democratic: Players are handicapped each year by the U.S. Polo Association, starting at minus-2 (because nobody wants to be a negative number, it's tactfully called "B"), and because teams are matched on the basis of the total of their four players' goal ratings, the worst often wind up playing alongside the best.
Waiting to play, Andy Busch canters to the edge of the field and steers his horse over the metal edge -- back onto the field -- over the edge again -- back onto the field. The dance looks indecisive, but it's a drill, preparing the mare to change directions at a second's notice. When the chukker ends, he presses a leg lightly against her side, and, his decision registering instantly in her eyes, they gallop to the center of the field.
Ten minutes' hard play later, Andy is sitting shirtless on the stoop of his trailer, skin glistening, drinking a Bud Light and looking like a pretty cowboy. But he's married with children, and he rides English; to play polo, you've got to move in that saddle. "It's the second most dangerous sport to grand prix auto racing," he says, eyes shining. "Uses all your skills. And you need a good string of horses -- you need the speed of a racehorse, the quickness of a cutting horse [which moves into a herd of cattle and shepherds out individual animals] and the power of a jumper. Also a willing temperament -- a good mouth and a good mind. Ask a regular racehorse to do the things a polo horse is asked to do, and he'd go berserk."