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.

He walks a few paces away, and Peter von Gontard comes to his side, assuring him that although it's rare, it happens. Once, years ago, Peter was galloping down the field when his horse died beneath him. They're powerful athletes, the fittest in any equestrian sport, but they're still flesh and blood. Chris nods, but the look in his eyes hasn't caught up to common sense. He turns back to Squaw just as she gasps, and the jerking stills. She lies frozen on her left side, right hooves held in midair, inches above the ground.

Daniel slowly pulls his hand away from her cheek and looks up, the saddest smile in the world on his round brown face. Chris brings a black-and-red blanket, and they cover her, grim as soldiers kneeling over a slain hero.


Saturday, June 16: the first benefit game of the season. The sun's cut by a breeze so strong it topples the massive urn of flowers in front of the hors d'oeuvres. Longtime supporters of Edgewood Children's Center stand about, gin-and-tonics cooling their palms as they remark on polo's elegance. Mid-chukker, several young couples arrive with baby strollers, the men fetching mineral water for wives in hot-pink slides and floral sundresses. Seated on white wooden folding chairs a yard from the field, they marvel together over the wonders of their progeny, not even looking up when the horses gallop past.

At the end of the field, the grooms -- mainly Hispanic men and young white women -- wait behind the goalposts, analyzing plays and readying the horses (players have only four minutes to return with fresh mounts for the next chukker). Out on the field, they fight an almost private battle, the distance silencing their yells and making even futile swings look graceful.

Each team (Southwest Bank in hunter green, Michelob Light in cardinal red) scores once. Several shots land just outside the red-and-white-striped goalposts; the ball flies in midair and three players try for it. Time and again, a player steers his horse smack into his opponent's horse and, keeping his elbow tight against his ribs, leans out of the saddle and drives his shoulder into the other man's side, "riding off" to bump him away from the ball. Finally Michelob scores, taking the lead. But at the end of the second chukker, Geoff leans way out, arcs his mallet back and whacks a long goal, tying the score again. By halftime it's 3-3, and announcer Peter von Gontard tries to rev up the crowd: "Wow, that was some action!"

There's a light smattering of applause, lost on the wind. Little brother Philip von Gontard, the unbankerly vice president of Commerce Trust Co., fills the breach by cracking a few jokes. He's standing on the scaffold, doing color commentary, and he's remarkably good-natured about it, considering how sorely he's missed playing the past few years. "It's fine until you are back on the field," he confides later, "and then you just want to chuck it all and get back out there. Think of your tennis racket being alive, and how it feels that day is going to have a bearing on how you hit the ball." He gazes out onto the field, then quietly adds the explanation: "Our son was born blind. He loves to ride, but he'll never play polo."

By halftime, the teams have taken each other's measure, and when they return there's more strategy, more horse races, more shots looping under the horses' necks. A beautiful backshot by Chris Orthwein sends the ball soaring halfway down the field in the opposite direction. Soon it's the last chukker, and Southwest is down by one. The volume of chitchat in the food line rises. The announcer's voice hoarsens. Frank Ryan sails the ball down the field before Poncho Baez can hook the shot (block it with his mallet). Baez can't catch him, either; Ryan is galloping ahead of all the rest, and he scores to tie the game.

Silver trophy bowls from Neiman Marcus wait on a banner-draped table as the teams go into sudden-death overtime, an unplanned seventh chukker that will end with the first goal. The Orthwein grooms shoot panicked looks at each other: Which horse will Geoff want them to saddle? Galloping toward them, he yells, "Truce!" and they run for the bridle.

It's anybody's game, and Michelob has the first chance to win: a 60-yard foul shot, the same one its players finessed just a few chukkers before. This time they miss, and minutes later Geoff scores, he and Truce winning the game for Southwest Bank.

Steve and Chris Orthwein ride toward the trailers and dismount, arguing about the foul shot Steve called on his brother. "You came from here," says Steve, pointing. "No, no, no, I was going like this," insists Chris, drawing in the dust with his mallet.

"You came from out here," repeats his stoic elder brother.

Geoff, drenched with sweat, stands listening. "This," he says dryly, "is the best part of the game." Then a truck pulls up and a club member calls, "Hey, Geoff, want a beer?"

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