In the big bucks world of polo, everyone spends lots of money, but nobody makes any — and nobody much cares.
The Sport of Kings on a Wednesday afternoon in Wellington in Palm Beach County has a homespun attractiveness. Admission is free. Young men and women chat on car trunks. Families picnic. Seniors unfold lawn chairs.
"You feel guilty -- it's such a wonderful sport. The adrenaline and the man and the horse. It's still good to have a tie to nature and the past and the things that have been around the longest."
-- John Goodman, businessman, polo patron
Hardly anyone pays attention to the quiet puffing of a slew of horses as riders warm up. Movie star Tommy Lee Jones is riding for his San Saba team. No one takes much notice.
At 3 p.m., more or less, the riders meander to the center of the Bermuda grass field, a mounted official tosses out a white plastic ball, and the match is on. The crowd, if a couple hundred people spread around an area the size of nine football fields can be deemed a crowd, seems to favor two particular riders on the Isla Carroll team.
One, Guillermo "Memo" Gracida Jr., is a legitimate polo star -- past his prime but, with a record 15 U.S. Open titles, still the Babe Ruth of polo. The other is team patron John Goodman, the businessman celebrated as the white knight who rode to the sport's rescue and brought high-level polo back to Wellington. Isla Carroll doesn't disappoint, taking a 1-0 lead after the first of six, seven-minute chukkers.
Gracida rides like a legend, handling the horse and driving the ball like he's more at home in the saddle than on his own two feet. For him, the match is a step toward his 16th Open title, a chance to show why he's the only active player in the sport's Hall of Fame and to show why even at age 48 the nickname El Generalissimo still pertains. For Goodman, it's all about the joy of a very expensive game. For the opportunity to play on horseback with his friends, win a title and celebrate at the club, he's sunk millions into a sport that despite the streams of cash that flow into it is as unprofitable as it is timeless.
Polo may date in the west to Britain's empire in India, but in Palm Beach it goes back only to 1977. That year, conglomerate Gould Electronics, under chairman and polo devotee Bill Ylvisaker, picked up a hefty chunk of central Palm Beach real estate. Like other developers, Gould used golf as an amenity to drive home sales. Unlike most, Gould also used polo.
Wellington became, as horse people can't seem to avoid saying over and over, the Mecca for high-goal polo. (The quality of play is determined by the handicap, of players -- from -2 to 10. Unlike golf, a high handicap is better. Games start at zero-zero. Top polo in the U.S. features teams whose four players have a combined handicap of no more than 22 or 26, depending on the match.)
Palm Beach Polo & Country Club attracted star power. Prince Charles came to play as did Sylvester Stallone. In 1991, a Houston man with no marquee value arrived on the polo scene: Goodman, an air-conditioner and heating system manufacturer with his own Goodman Manufacturing. He had ridden as a boy but only took up polo as an adult.
Goodman bought 240 acres in Wellington and built a showplace barn. He began to make his way into the cadre of wealthy amateurs who put up as much as $1 million to $2 million to field and be a member of a high-goal team for a season. In addition to the occasional movie star like Jones, the ranks of the "patrons" (puh-trones, rhymes with clones) include Coca-Cola heirs Summerfield K. "Skeeter" Johnston Jr. and his sister, Gillian; Outback Steakhouse executive Tim Gannon; Alticor (Amway's parent) Chairman Steve Van Andel; and Interview magazine publisher Peter Brant along with others from oil, tech and manufacturing.
It was a rough time for developers looking to make money off horse lovers in Palm Beach County. Three of the most prominent equestrian-oriented developments fell into foreclosure in the early 1990s along with the demise of the savings and loan industry. Notably, Palm Beach Polo joined its then parent, Landmark Land Co., under bankruptcy court protection and in 1992 became the property of the federal government along with its 5,000-seat stadium.
The following year, the government sold Palm Beach Polo for $28 million to a company owned by West Virginia native Glenn Straub, who made his fortunes in selling paving materials and other interests.
Sunday matches are glitzy affairs, with champagne at the traditional halftime "divot stomp."Straub at 50 took up polo but to the chagrin of some in Wellington, he proved more businessman than polo or golf nut. He tangled with Palm Beach Polo homeowners over his handling of the project and remains decidedly unromantic about polo finances. He once talked of tearing down the polo stadium. Polo loses money and doesn't generate even 5% of the total revenue at Palm Beach Polo, he says. He's complimentary of other equestrian businesses at Palm Beach Polo ("The Big Horse Business," right). "It makes money, like polo doesn't," he says. Straub adds, "You have 100 golfers for every polo player. Polo's a very small crowd."
Splits and glitz
Discontent grew in at least part of the polo patron circle and among homeowners at Palm Beach Polo. "In fact, it would be fair to say that Straub may just be Wellington's most hated man," the Palm Beach Post once wrote of him, going on to relate a tale that when he fell from his horse in a match, puncturing a lung and shattering a shoulder, the crowd cheered. Straub says the story is not true.
Goodman gave restive riders an alternative. (He already had proven his love of polo. In 1997, he won the U.S. Open with his Isla Carroll team along with most major tournaments. The next season, he won the Queen's Cup in England.)
He founded a rival club, International Polo Club Palm Beach, with $15,000 initiation dues, on 120 of his 240 acres three miles from Straub's place. Goodman spent "several million" to build the first new high-goal polo club in the U.S. in decades and make it the Pebble Beach of polo: Seven Bermuda grass polo fields, a restaurant, stadium and pool. International Polo opened in December 2003, and the U.S. Polo Association awarded it the Open in its inaugural year. Goodman is "definitely the biggest sponsor in polo," says 10-goaler Mike Azzaro.
The shiny new club has touched off polo euphoria. Sometimes thousands pay the $10 admission for a Sunday match. Glitzy parties are held. Champagne is sipped at the traditional halftime "divot stomp" at Sunday matches. Society columnists smelled the return of the Prince Charles days. The likes of Nicolette Sheridan (pre-"Desperate Housewives") and Star Jones (pre-nuptials) come to conduct a coin toss and hand out trophies.
PLAYING THE GAME
Each team has four players who score by driving a ball into the opposing team's goal using a mallet. There are six chukkers (time periods), each lasting seven minutes, with three-minute breaks and a 15-minute halftime.
A team lines up in numerical order, and the opposing team lines up the same way. The umpire rolls the ball between the two teams and play begins. Any time the ball crosses the line between the goal posts, it is considered a goal regardless of who knocks it through (including a horse). Teams change ends after each goal is scored.
The revival has extended to land values, with polo patrons and other horse lovers bringing a repeat of the real estate giddiness that was pegged to horses in the late 1980s. A property in a development known as Little Ranches that wasn't moving at $18,000 per acre three years ago has sold three times since then, most recently in January for $133,333 per acre.
"It just boggles the mind of most people," says Marysue Jacobs, whose Wellington firm, Destiny International Properties, specializes in equestrian properties and land development. Jacobs doubts there will be a repeat of the foreclosures and failures in the early 1990s. "It's an international market now," she says.
Polo's participants -- the U.S. Polo Association counts just 3,926 members -- dream of bigger things ahead. The game's pyramid rests on the 85% of participants who are mediocre, low-goalers, some with relatively limited resources. "I have people with one horse and struggling to keep it," says Peter Rizzo, general manager of Royal Palm Polo in Boca Raton and the association's interim executive director.
In the tier above amateurs are middling pros, living the hand-to-mouth hard life of players on the low rungs of any sport. A five-goal player just gets by. With his own horses, he might clear $10,000 a month in the Florida sun from a patron, but losing a horse can wipe out his season.
Few reach the top. Only 13 players this year are judged by the U.S. association to be 10-goal players, the sport's masters. A top player, with his own horses, can make $100,000 to $300,000 a month before hefty expenses -- including horses costing up to $100,000. There are few benefits for hurt riders -- "and all of them get hurt," Goodman says. (More than a few amateurs get injured too, losing an eye to an errant 100-mph polo ball, ruining backs and breaking bones in collisions between 1,000-pound horses.) Experienced pros train horses then sell them for financial supplement.
Argentinians dominate the ranks of elite players, but the first family of U.S. polo is Mexican, descendants of a cavalry officer who saw action in the Mexican Revolution and led by nine-goaler Memo Gracida, a naturalized citizen. American 10-goalers number just three: Mike Azzaro, Adam Snow and Gracida's brother Carlos, a naturalized citizen.
At the top of polo's food chain, of course, are the patrons, who never have to worry about their next meal. Even so, they don't gloss over the cost. James D. Whisenand, a Miami lawyer and patron of a medium-goal team, says a horse trailer costs $100,000, for instance, with an additional $1,500 a month required to maintain each of 10 horses, plus pay for two grooms to care for them. "It's an expensive endeavor," he says.
Last year, Whisenand landed gin-brand Bombay Sapphire to sponsor his team, and he's opened a business, Equus Events, to arrange corporate sponsorship of polo teams. Goodman and his club managers also hope to bring in new sponsors to join a lineup that includes Hummer, Bombardier Aerospace, Stanford Financial, Ritz-Carlton and Bessemer Trust.
The other big dream is of more riders and larger crowds, as in Argentina. "That's our mission -- to try to expand the sport," Goodman says. "We want to make it accessible to many, many people. You're welcome to come in any way you want to dress. It's very comfortable."
Winning and losing
It's comfortable and casual back in Wellington as the Isla Carroll-San Saba match unfolds. "GET YOUR DOG OFF THE FIELD," the PA announcer chides a spectator toward the finish.
"It's the greatest addiction in the world. The excitement, the challenge, the passion, the danger. After you get off a horse after a seven-minute chukker, your brain is totally refreshed. It's better than sex."
-- Marysue Jacobs, Wellington real estate broker and occasional polo player
The match ends after an hour and a half. Goodman's riders are up 8-5, eliminating Tommy Lee Jones' team and advancing to the quarterfinals. Then, in the final last April, in front of 6,896, Isla Carroll wins 10-6. Gracida gets his 16th Open title, and Goodman gets his second.
In the off-season, Goodman renovated the new club. He added seating, refurbished the restaurant, put in new tile. He won't disclose numbers but says club finances are fine. Tournament fees cover polo operations, and he's counting on catering and hiring the club out for weddings and other events to make the club viable. The polo association has awarded the club the U.S. Open through 2007.
Few among those outside Goodman's management circle see how his club can turn a profit, however. Meanwhile, in December, Straub paid $28 million for the Miami Arena, the white elephant that's the former home of the Miami Heat. He says he has plans to make it a venue for a number of events, including arena polo, a game played on a dirt field with a larger ball and three-person teams. Polo also continues at his Wellington club.
Straub doesn't sound fazed by all the attention and accolades heaped on Goodman's rival club: "We'd love to have other people come and start losing money with us."