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.

The horses are his joy, but he's the good-doobie type, cheerfully enmeshed in the game's logistics, mechanics and politics. Former president of the U.S. Polo Association, he now serves on an international committee to standardize the rules, and he's also on the board of Polo Properties, formed by the USPA to prevent piracy. "We license logos all over the world," he explains, "and I hate to tell you how much money we spend on litigation with Ralph Lauren." In 1998, Lauren actually filed suit against Polo magazine for stealing the "polo" name. "He's spent a lot of money investing in the image," shrugs Steve, plucking his own cream-plaid shirt away from his chest and peering to see whether the little polo player's there as example.

He is. Still, Lauren's proprietary attitude seems not only nouveau but ludicrous, considering that polo was first played by nomadic tribes in Persia more than 2,000 years ago ("May the heads of your enemies be your polo balls") and came to the States from England in 1876. New York formed the first club, St. Louis the second, playing its first benefit match for Children's Hospital in 1893. Ralph hadn't even been born.

Speaking of filthy commerce, is it true that polo is about talent in Argentina, money in the U.S. and class in England? Steve asks for the quote to be repeated, looking like King Arthur when he's forced to admit Guinevere's betrayal. "It's definitely about talent in Argentina," he replies slowly. "They are the best in the world -- nobody will argue. The ground is flat -- la plata, I think it's called -- for hundreds of miles around Buenos Aires, and they have lots of horse ranches, so playing polo is like playing baseball here." He pauses. "In this country -- I don't like to think that, but I could see why somebody would say it, because to some extent it's buying the best horses and hiring the best professionals. Class in England? I guess because the royals play, maybe that's why they say that." Another pause, a clearing of the throat. "There's ... probably something to that."

Lulu Smith loves the camaraderie, the sport and, above all, the horses.
Jennifer Silverberg
Lulu Smith loves the camaraderie, the sport and, above all, the horses.

Practices run every Wednesday and Friday evening and twice on Sundays (in white breeches) through the summer. But the rains of late May and early June keep everybody off the field (mud is death to polo), and after three cancellations in a row, Steve's message on the cancellation hotline has the panicked inflection of a stranded traveler. God is interfering.

Finally the ground dries, and everybody shows up at once. Giving a friend an introduction to the family horses, young club member Michael McGehee explains the silly nose buckets, "for the ones that crib and like to suck air. It kind of gets them high." Speed is what gets the McGehees high: Michael's brother Robby finished 11th in the Indianapolis 500, and their mom races cars, too; Michael and his dad play polo.

Michael's describing their new field when a woman drives a sports car down the dirt road along the trailers, car window open, peeved voice easily audible. "There's no fun for me watching polo," she announces, then drives off, tires flattening several fresh piles of manure. Liz Baisch steers her 21-month-old son around them as he swings the miniature polo mallet they bought in Florida. "He's just so ready to go!" she laughs, then addresses her son: "Sweetheart, we have to wait for the horses to get out of the way." He frowns, adultlike, and wobbles back to her side. But when his dad rides up, he runs after him onto the field.

This is how polo's fever travels -- by contagion. "It's not easy for someone to get started if they don't know somebody who already plays," admits Steve. "That's one thing I'd like to improve. But I don't know how to do it."

A few trailers down, Louella DeSpain Smith, a 38-year-old veteran player known to everybody as Lulu, squats to wrap protective boots around her horses' legs, the only sound the tiny rips and restarts of the Velcro. She's another example of polo fever: She grew up next to the Orthweins, and Dolph introduced her to the game. She's preferred stable to manor ever since. Straightening, she looks around, smiling at how excited her older horses are to start playing: "The green ones just go along, but my three 'made' ones, if you put a halter on one, the others start hollerin' for it. The gray mare, Chance, will trot right into the trailer to wait." She squints far down the field to see whether the chukker's ending; she's up next. Sure enough, they've stopped, and Chris Orthwein is heading for the side on dark, magnificent Squaw.

Minutes later, Squaw is lying on her side in the shade, her muscled legs sticking straight out and jerking spasmodically. Daniel Gallegos kneels beside her head, stroking her cheek. "Watch her in case she tries to get up," calls a short-haired woman, her tone sharp with worry. "It's very serious," she adds, lowering her voice. "She's had a heart attack or stroke."

Down the aisle, their view obstructed by the trailers, clusters of players sit drinking beer, oblivious to the tragedy. Chris walks up to Squaw, bends, gives her three heavy pats. "She was 18, but she was the fittest horse I had," he says to no one in particular. Then he looks up, a stricken look in his eyes. "First horse that ever died on me."

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