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."
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."
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."
He sounds a little envious.
Just outside the stable door, Steve Orthwein places a scuffed boot on a blue plastic milk crate and swings himself onto Llamito ("little llama"), bred on the family horse farm in Cooperstown, N.Y. His jeans and red T-shirt are already sweat-soaked, and he grimaces as he settles into the saddle. One hip needs replacing and both knees are shot, but he insists none of it's the result of polo. "Old age," says the grinning 57-year-old, who once carried an amazing 6-goal rating, one higher than Andy Busch's, and played for the U.S. in Pakistan and scored in front of the queen of England. He has slowed considerably -- "I don't lean out anymore -- the horse has to put me right next to the ball!" -- but he's wiser about the horses, too, less impulsive, better at reading their reactions and pacing them to save their energy.
Steve could afford to hire a groom for every horse and drop in occasionally to have his ride saddled for him; instead, he goes to his stable every evening, exercises at least four horses, pitches hay, checks shoes, drills the "green" 3-year-olds. "It takes your mind," he explains. "When you are working a horse, you are thinking about only that." He pauses. "As for polo, it's not what people think. There are horseflies, and it's hot -- and you don't see many spit-shined boots."
As if on cue, Geoff Cameron rides up on a gray horse, one of Orthwein's finest mares, his boots caked with mud. Geoff grew up playing polo in New Zealand, where the game is more common, land being cheap and horses easy to acquire. He wanted steady work, though, so he became a farrier, and for nine years he waved away friends who told him he should be playing polo instead of shoeing horses. Last fall his old friend Hamish Bray, a fellow New Zealander and polo player who'd been running Steve Orthwein's barn, gave it one more try: He called to see whether Geoff wanted his job. Geoff surprised himself by saying yes. He arrived in St. Louis on Dec. 17, and a week later he was in Florida, playing medium-goal polo (a step above club) with the Orthweins' Huntleigh Oaks team. "If I knew it was like this," he mutters, "I would have done it a long time ago."
Leaning against the Orthwein's splintery gray paddock fence, the younger horses rub their noses over newcomers' hair as tenderly as a lover, looking for sugar. There's Smidgen, out of the sweet mare Midget. Frisky Pollen, out of Blossom. And Chrissie, whose father, Grayson, won more than $90,000 on the racetrack. "Chrissie's temperamental -- it takes a long time to get her settled before you can teach her," says Geoff, who adores her in spite or because of it. "She's full of energy and tricks." He takes a second to check her hooves, making sure the toes aren't growing long and straining the tendons at the backs of her ankles. "I can shoe a horse in 30 minutes," he remarks, "but if it's the first time for a young horse, it can be a long process. It's a matter of taking your time, handling them really quietly, not upsetting them, because they always win."
Of all the Orthwein horses, Geoff has the highest hopes for Lucky, who pulled a muscle in her hindquarter last year and now seems twice as eager to run. "Besides," he adds, "any horse Stevie Jr. grabs for his own string you know is going to be good."
Stevie, an open-faced, unassuming 20-year-old who swears he doesn't mind the familial "ie" that has stuck fast to his name, captains the polo team at the University of Virginia and works at the family stable all summer. Asked about his picks, he pulls himself up on the deck railing, wild turkeys skittering across the polo field behind him, and talks happily. "A lot of it comes down to speed -- although you can't have a horse that's so fast you can't stop. They have their own mind -- some will carry you right past the ball or stop short. You can't be fighting with the horse out there. I like a horse I can handle, although as I get older and play more, I'm starting to like a little more power."
He can't help but mention he's caught up alongside his dad (Stevie's goal rating moved up to a 3 this year, just as Steve's dropped to a 3). Yet what Stevie loves most is "the training, the working outside of the games. We get them moving in a correct way, with speed but in control, responsive." Unlike a racehorse, which runs in one direction on the track, a polo pony must be able to shift, leading first with the right side and then with the left. The polo pony also needs to be less extended than a racehorse, positioned right under the rider's body. Stevie takes the young horses across the creek to the "stick-and-ball field," teaches them the mallet, gets them used to the "traffic" of other horses running toward them. By the end of their third summer, they're playing slow practice games. Then they winter in Pacific, Mo., where there's even more grass and open space, and return for pre-competition conditioning: slow trots to get their legs fit, so they don't bow a tendon, and then hard play, to "give them the wind." "Year four is triple-A baseball, the minor leagues, when they get into the flow of the game," Stevie says. "Year five, you get them into the faster play, and by year six or seven, they're pros." Do they really love the game, or is that just human spin, rationalizing the players' fun? "They wouldn't do it if they didn't love it," he grins. "They perk up as you go out there; they're ready at the trailer, pawing."
He glances up toward the exercise paddock, where Geoff is cantering Easy E. The pair makes a jigsaw-puzzle scene -- pine trees behind them, an improbably blue sky, sunlight turning the horse's hindquarters a glossy teak. Geoff's body rises as he slows the horse to a trot and begins to post, English-style. Easy E. tosses her head, snorting in pure joy. Horses don't hide much. Slowing, Geoff steers her around circles of grass, making perfect figure-eights, then nudges her into a long straight gallop. The two wear the same expression, intense and focused yet utterly relaxed.
Inside the barn, golden late-afternoon sun glances off bales of hay in the loft, and in the tack room, an Australian shepherd naps beneath a row of old-fashioned bamboo mallets. Today's rules allow graphite. But this is not a high-tech world. It's a ritualized world, and a dangerous one, nobility barely tempering the bloodlust that's stirred by speed and animal heat and a crush of bodies with a single goal. Last year, Stevie's face mask got hooked on Billy Busch's horse's bit, pulling him off his horse and leaving him swinging from Billy's, just luck saving him from a broken neck. His dad has had similar moments: Once another horse got his head caught between Steve's horse's body and his martingale (a piece of tack that runs from the noseband of the bridle down to the girth, used to keep the horse from carrying its head too high). Ginny Orthwein didn't breathe until he worked himself free, but she's never once said, "Stop playing." She knows her husband too well -- and, as the mother of three boys, she read up and realized that after plenty of tenderness, tears and cuddling, they'd need to break away from her, earn the respect of older males, complete the rites of passage. "Polo," she remarks, "is the epitome of that kind of mentoring."
Winston Churchill once pronounced a polo handicap "the best letter of introduction in the world," and players whose social standing ought to make them blasé talk excitedly about being able to walk into a club in Calgary or Kenya and find an instant welcome. Stevie can run into the former chairman of Coca-Cola Enterprises in the airport (Summerfield Johnston Jr., an avid player) and say hello, and even his dad, hardly the effusive type, will approach anybody traveling with a mallet. "I don't do that with golf clubs," Steve admits. "But people who play polo are really committed to it. You know it's not a small part of their life."
At practices, Steve Sr. is preoccupied, and when he gets to his stable after work, all he wants to do is change into his jeans. But at the North Lindbergh office of his firm, Commercial Document Solutions -- a smallish white-walled box of a room with a plastic letter tray, a computer monitor and a mess of files -- he's voluble. Here, talk is as close as he can get to a horse. He pushes aside memos to make room for old programs and copies of Polo magazine (the players' edition, not the glossy "lifestyle" version). He pulls out Thoroughbred registration certificates from the Jockey Club, official rules from Hurlingham. He draws in the air to demonstrate the Texas knot: "You braid the horse's tail down, then roll it up and bring the ends around and knot them so they don't get caught in the mallet. That's how we do it. The lazy way is to braid it, then fold it up and tape it."
Never one to take the lazy way, he breeds his own polo ponies, then spends years training them. "When I was a kid, we used to buy ranch horses," he remembers. "The cowboys rode them all day and trained them. Now they ride pickup trucks, and cowboys cost a whole lot more per hour." He bursts out laughing. "Cowboys hate Thoroughbreds, because they don't have common sense. A smart quarter horse gets his leg caught in a fence, he'll just stand there and wait to be freed. A Thoroughbred will panic."
His secret for training divas is deceptively simple: "You start out with a well-bred, athletic horse, and you just don't make any mistakes." And that means what? "You don't push him too fast. If he falters or bolts, you have to figure out whether he's afraid or just obstinate, and if he's afraid, you can't rush him -- you have to build his confidence first." He reaches for a breeding certificate, then looks up, a glint in his eye. "If he's just trying to pull one over on you, though, you have to show him who's boss. There's nothing worse than a spoiled horse." Steve shuns the methods of some Argentinian trainers, who blindfold the horse, throw a saddle on him and essentially break his spirit. He wants that spirit intact and interested -- which is why he gave up so fast on a former racehorse who'd just up and stop, whenever he felt like it, oblivious to the game around him.
Then came Vengeance Is Mine. Steve bought her over at the old Cahokia Downs in the '70s, taken by the plain bay mare with the sensitive eyes. "I trotted her down the aisle and just barely touched the halter, and she slid to a stop," he recalls, his face softening. "She learned very quickly, and I played her in high-goal polo when she was only 4." Twice he was offered a blank check for her; twice he refused. She played well into her teens. Then she started having babies: Revenge, Avenge and, finally, Vendetta, who bucked everybody off. Steve named the fourth foal Truce.
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."
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."
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?"
"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.
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.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.