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.

"It'd be rude not to," he rejoins.

The next week is the big occasion: the Epworth Center benefit, when 6-goal Argentinean Martin Estrada and 9-goal Hector Galindo, considered by many the best American player, will play on opposing teams. Everybody's on tenterhooks because for two years running, the Epworth game has been rained out. But the day's sunny, clear and windless, and Buttons the volunteer clown cavorts without breaking a sweat.

Hector Galindo is one of the world's top 20 polo players.
Jennifer Silverberg
Hector Galindo is one of the world's top 20 polo players.

Buttons has reason for joy: The teens at Epworth might not have jumped at the chance to attend a polo game, but the donors did, and today's proceeds could reach $20,000. Delighted by the turnout, Lulu mounts Chance and tugs hard at the girth, trying to get it just right. A few paces away, her Bud Light teammate Billy Busch is muttering, "What we need to do is shut Hector Galindo down. I have some pretty good horses, so I'll probably take him." He swings his leg over Josie, a dark bay with a white blaze. "I'll be on him. But he's so quick, it's gonna be difficult."

The chukker starts, and all eyes follow Hector, No. 3 of the red-shirted Rio Roses team. He's not grandstanding, but his shots sail yards ahead of everybody, and soon the announcer is keeping an auctioneer's pace. Sensing the excitement, the crowd focuses on the game, trying to fathom it. "I have a hard time even staying on a horse," one guy admits. "I'm at a polo game," a blonde repeats into her cell phone. "The horses are pretty, aren't they?" an older couple asks each other at regular intervals.

Billy thwacks the ball out of Hector's reach. A second later, Hector is back at his side, hooking with the mallet. The horses gallop back and forth, the ball flying all over the field. Then Martin tears toward the goal, body bent forward, relaxed left hand making the reins seem incidental. In a single arc, he scores the first goal for Bud Light, giving the team one against the Rio Roses' two.

In the second chukker, Hector rides right up on the ball, ahead of everybody, reaches back with his mallet and -- his pony bounces. Dances up and down like a Lippizan stallion. Hector misses his chance. Billy scores for Bud Light, evening the score. Hector's pony keeps bouncing; motion that should be a forward gallop is almost vertical, like a merry-go-round horse on speed, and the grooms can't figure out why Hector's not racing off the field to change mounts. Finally the pony calms long enough to let the mallet make contact. Hector gets a free shot (Billy turned right into somebody's path) and sails the ball right in front of the goal, but nobody's there to slam it in. Bud Light recovers the ball, Martin makes a long shot and Billy scoops it and ties the score. It's halftime.

Fans spread out across the field for the ritual divot-stomping, moving as slowly as sleepwalkers, tamping down the hacked-up turf with their bright sandals and tennies. Lulu, her round face flushed red, is autographing a box of polo balls (they're for the sponsors, but she thinks they're for the Epworth kids, so she's taking great care). Hector sits low in a folding chair, chuckling about his bouncing pony: "He got his tooth pulled last week, so I think he's a little sensitive. It wasn't hurting him, though." Yeah, but it hurt the chance to score -- why didn't he change ponies? "Today's a benefit game," shrugs the long-awaited champion. "We were just taking it easy out there. We're coming back now."

Sure enough, he scores with a backshot in the first two seconds of the fourth chukker. But in the fifth chukker, Lulu scores, and scores again, and Bud Light, the team without the world-famous player, wins the game.

Nobody seems to mind.

Winning was never the point.

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