All the Kings' Horses

The Busches, the Orthweins and other St. Louis royalty get down and dirty playing polo. It's the passion that grounds their lives.

At 14, Andy won painful fame as the rope in his parents' tug-o'-war custody battle. Horses proved less disappointing than people, though, and he spent his calmest hours riding. At 18, he began playing polo, an ancient, civilized sort of warfare that required hot blood and a cool head. Horses, he insists, are more than 80 percent of the game, and he dwells on the need to be so attuned to the animal that you're almost centaurlike, one body: "You play to each horse's potential. With a fast horse, I can take more chances, play just a length or two behind somebody." Yet his favorite mount is Rico, "who's not necessarily the fastest but has speed off the line, explosive speed -- he can be at full speed in eight yards -- and he's very bold, so if someone is in the way, you can power right through them."

Andy can do that in real life, too. But polo contains all the challenge a comfortable life lacks. Pulling every mental, physical and emotional skill a player can muster, it rewards him with a rush of speed and a physical immediacy he'll never find in a boardroom. Horses respond to tone and gesture and judgment, not lineage or stock portfolio.

A few paces away, his brother Billy Busch settles into a folding chair next to Chris Orthwein, flips up the lid of a cooler and gulps a cold beer. Asked how to spell chukker, the men start with "chucker" and abandon it; these are the golden brothers, somehow less serious than their darker siblings. "Andy paces before a game," notes a teammate, "and it's hard to get him settled down. But Billy's pretty easygoing. Not too many things bother Billy."

Hector Galindo's "patron," Andy Busch, is the top-ranked U.S. amateur.
Jennifer Silverberg
Hector Galindo's "patron," Andy Busch, is the top-ranked U.S. amateur.
Club president Steve Orthwein monitors his brother's fouls.
Jennifer Silverberg
Club president Steve Orthwein monitors his brother's fouls.

Polo carries him away from all the lore, though: the old gossip about unsuitable consorts and illegitimate children; the night he bit a guy's ear off in a bar; the time he asked a flight attendant to hold the plane till his Domino's arrived; the 10 years he took to earn his bachelor's degree at St. Louis University (he and Andy kept leaving to play polo). Now he's 42, married with six children, a beloved longtime board member of Epworth Center, where he plays pickup basketball with kids made aggressive by neglect and abuse.

The Busches and Orthweins and a smattering of the club's other, better players take their strings of ponies and spend weeks each winter in Polotown, U.S.A. -- Wellington, a suburb of West Palm Beach where the pink stucco buildings give way to a polo field every few miles and nobody does much except play. Games run faster and smoother there; even the ponies come back with refined technique. Andy and Billy finish the Florida season by competing in the big spring tournaments, then fly home for the start of the St. Louis club season, then head west for more tournaments. They are patrons (pronounced "puh-DRONES," from the Spanish), each sponsoring his own mixed pro and amateur team, and together they've won the U.S. Open, the Silver Cup, the America's Cup, the Pacific Open ...

Patron is a delicate role, often mocked in scathing whispers because he's the team's worst, wealthiest and most-humored player. Andy and Billy are actually pretty good players, though, Andy defensive and quick-reflexed, determined to control the tempo of the game, Billy more aggressive, running the field, "hitting a big ball." So says Hector Galindo, whose own 9-goal rating makes him one of the top 20 players in the world. He's been on retainer for the Busches the past six years (Andy invited him after he played against them in Florida and won). Before that, he played several years for Prince Charles, whom he pronounces "a pretty good defensive player and a very good sport."

Hector's slated to play in the St. Louis club's second benefit match, and at the very first practice the amateurs are predicting how he'll "open up" the game, adding flow and strategy, pulling together the haphazard galloping after the ball that can stammer the game with fouls and time-outs. After playing once with the St. Louis club, Hector will fly with Andy to Santa Barbara, Calif., to defend the America's Cup that Andy's Grant's Farm Manor team has won two years running, and fight to win back the Pacific Open title.

They've become good friends, these two, one the son of a Mexican groom who thought his child could do no wrong, the other the scion of a beer king whose footsteps fell huge and heavy. Their lives converged with polo, and now they eat dinner, play golf and take their families to amusement parks together. Hector loves his life; he has his own string of champion horses now, and he carries himself as proudly as they do. The only time his ready smile fades is when he talks about his dad, a racehorse groom from Chihuahua, Mexico, who insisted that his son had world-class talent but died before Hector could prove it.

This fall, Hector will travel south to help a Houston team win the Silver Cup, the Busches having won it six times already. "The Busches get first choice," he explains, "and I build the rest of my season when they're down." As for Andy, when the adrenaline of tournament season ebbs he'll send his horses off for 10 weeks of R&R. "A horse's idea of fun," he says, "is a big open grass field with shade trees and a pond to swim in."

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