BUNKHOUSE KING OF THE POLO FIELD

A Texan who wears fancy filigree boots is the world's greatest polo player and this week Cecil Smith—rated a 10-goal player for 15 years—rides again at the head of the Oak Brook team in the national open polo championships
September 04, 1955

The man in the high-heeled, filigree boots, with a cowboy's wind-stitched face and the considered Texan speech, had no van for his ponies. But the old Negro and the Mexican boy guided them solicitously among the vans and then, one by one, the Texan took the ponies and led them into the shade, where the flies and the mosquitoes were less bothersome, and tethered them tenderly in the clump of elms. Alone and apart, this might have been a grove back in his own Llano County.

His name was Cecil Calvert Smith and, at first glance, up here among the sparkling-helmeted and bright-liveried citizens of the Oak Brook Club, 20 miles west of Chicago in the Illinois flatland, one would scarcely guess that he was the world's greatest polo player. It was only when he galloped onto the field and took his first few warm-up strokes and sent the white willow ball soaring wickedly toward the goal posts that the difference in boots and bearing was suddenly dissipated and all that mattered was that everyone else on the field seemed to be chasing not only the elusive, cascading ball but him and his pony too.

When one considered the further fact that the Texan bending low over his pony's shanks and swinging his mallet with the smooth precision of the lariat he learned how to swing first, a long time ago, was now 51 years old, older than anyone out there on the field with him, something else made the moment and the vision memorable; something that brought to mind other famous battlers against time—George Herman Ruth hitting three ultimate home runs in Pittsburgh a few days before he quit, Thorpe or Nagurski anciently bucking a line or even Ezzard Charles losing bloodily and gallantly to Rocky Marciano.

When the chukker ended, the Texan walked his pony off the field, seeming to saunter in the saddle as the pony sauntered beneath him. A mare neighed in the elms and he brought her out to replace the gelding he had been riding. Someone asked how it felt to play 10 practice periods on such a hot midwestern afternoon. He pondered that a moment as he shifted the saddle. "Suits me," he said. "I get a chance to work my eight horses." Then he reappraised the question and smiled. "Sometimes when the weather's warm and thick this way, I can tell I'm getting older," he said. "I get winded sooner than my pony does."

The old Negro, Leon (Pappy) Jones, threw a linen blanket across the back of the steaming gelding. He was laughing softly as he looked up. "I don' notice it none," he said, shaking his head. "I been with him 30 years and when he gets in dem games, I don' notice it none at all."

This weekend at Oak Brook, in Hinsdale Ill., the national open championship, polo's World Series, gets under way. Seven teams—the most since the war—will be entered in the six-game elimination contest, with the finals scheduled for September 11. Fully recovered from a knee injury he suffered during a collision in a practice game at Milwaukee Aug. 18, which forced the withdrawal of the Oak Brook team from the annual national 20-goal championship matches, Smith will once again be riding at the head of the Oak Brook four.

One of seventeen 10-goal players in American polo history, Smith is the only man who has ever held the distinction at his age. For the benefit of the uninitiated, a 10-goal rating does not represent the number of goals a player is expected to make during a regular contest. It is simply the highest competitive rating the U.S. Polo Association, which determines the handicaps of some 750 registered players in the country, can assign. A high-goal player is generally considered to be anyone with a five-goal rating or better, and high-goal polo will be played when two teams come together with respective total handicaps of 20 goals or more—an average of five per man on each team.

Smith has been rated at 10 goals for 14 successive years, which puts him one ahead of the consecutive 10-goal record of the late Tommy Hitchcock Jr., who was killed in a plane crash during the last war, and Smith's over-all total of 15 years at 10 goals is only three behind Hitchcock's. Most polo experts credit the big Texan, who weighs 200 pounds and stands just under 6 feet, with being, next to Hitchcock, America's greatest star in 79 years of polo play in this country. Smith is the first to defer to his predecessor. "Tommy belongs at the top of the heap," he says. "He just seemed to have a little something extra. He always got a little more done out there than anyone else. It was mostly that he knew where to be all the time."

Smith, like Hitchcock, is one of the hardest riding of all polo players, and he is also one of the hardest hitting. Not without reason has he been called the Babe Ruth or Ted Williams of polo. His free and easy, lassolike swipe at a moving ball, his ability to catch it in mid-air and propel it in the opposite direction the way Ruth or Williams have caught a blazing horsehide and sent it screaming toward the bleachers, have made him as dangerous on the defensive as on the offensive, which is what a great player has to be. Even at his age—which he doesn't show—and despite a slight paunch, Smith will still outride and outsmash men who are 20 or 30 years his junior.

This great riding ability and the tremendous power of his strokes have made Smith a natural No. 3 man on most teams, although he has played a lot at No. 2 as well. No. 3 is the chief offensive-defensive position. No. 1 and No. 2 are comparable to forwards on a basketball team, and the back is a roving goal tender who, unlike a hockey goalie, makes downfield sorties on occasion. At any moment No. 3 must be ready to lead an assault toward the opposition goal and also turn in a flash and drop back to break up an opposition thrust or protect his own goal if his back is temporarily out of position. In a fast game, only a No. 2, as the chief offensive rover, is apt to do more riding than a No. 3, but the riding done by No. 3 is invariably more difficult. He should be the fastest thinker on the field, able to anticipate the strategy and tactics of all four members of the opposition as well as gauge the riding and shotmaking capacities of his own team members.

Smith began as a No. 1 and No. 2 when he started playing polo in the fall of 1924 in Texas, but by the time he came East in 1927 and saw Hitchcock and Devereux Milburn, the greatest American back, play at Westbury, L.I. he began to concentrate on No. 3 position too. In 1930, with a seven-goal rating, Smith played with Long Island's Roslyn team that won the Monty Waterbury Cup and, as a result of his fine performance, was named a substitute on the American quartet that whipped the British in the International Tournament that year. By 1932 he had acquired his reputation as a fearless rider who gave and took no quarter. In the semifinals of the national open at Meadow Brook, playing with John Hay Whitney's Green-tree team against Eastcott, Smith was described by the late Harry Cross, the New York Herald Tribune's polo expert, as "riding with all the abandon of a cowpuncher at a rodeo." He was all over the field, controlling beautiful long drives with his best shots, the offside forward and back, and spearheading the attack. Toward the end of the game his pony pitched him forward and Smith was painfully hurt, but he came back after resting and led Green-tree to a one-point victory with what was afterward found to be a fractured elbow.

SUCCESSOR TO HITCHCOCK

It was the following year, having earned a nine-goal rating, that Smith played what he himself considers his finest polo—in the East-West matches. The East was made up of the polished internationalists, Hitchcock, Raymond and Winston Guest and Michael Phipps; it was a 32-goal team playing against a poorer-mounted 31-goal West quartet that had scarcely worked out together before the match began at Lake Forest, Ill. The two Texans, Smith and H. W. (Rube) Williams, led the West, and the other two were a pair of Californians, Elmer Boeseke and Aidan Roark. Everyone thought the East would win, but the West won two out of three to take the title. In the first wild contest, which the West took 15-11, Smith scored on five out of six penalty shots, an astonishing record. He was described as "a centaur in a berserk fury." In the fifth period, he smashed into Raymond Guest's horse and was knocked unconscious for 20 minutes. An ambulance clanged by to take him to the hospital, but he got up and climbed back into the saddle and finished the game, doing almost as well as before he was hurt. Now he admits, "I didn't remember very much about it afterward."

The late Will Rogers, a very low-goal player (he once requested a minus-one-goal rating) but a high polo enthusiast, was especially happy about the West's victory. Hailing Smith as the natural successor to Hitchcock, whom the Texan had outscored, Rogers wrote, "The East never thought the West could muster up four guys with white pants, much less some mallets.... Well, the hillbillies beat the dudes and took the polo championship right out of the drawing room and into the bunk-house.... The East always thought you had to have a birth certificate to play it. Poor old society! Nothing exclusive left.... Now polo has gone to the buckwheat belt."

Rogers wrote with as much truth as gloating and wit. The next year Smith got his first 10-goal rating, and while he dropped back to eight and nine the following three years, he had earned the permanent respect of the polo world; it was to the credit of the blue-blooded Easterners that they henceforth accepted the red-blooded Texans for what they were worth. Smith has held his 10-goal mark since 1938.

International matches are not what they used to be, although with tensions diminished it's now hoped that an Argentine team will come to the United States either next year or the year after. In the '40s, Smith played with three U.S. teams that whipped the Mexicans, but, next to the East-West contests of 1933, he cherishes as his best polo an unofficial international match he played against the Argentines in 1949 at the Beverly Hills Polo Club.

The Argentines, a smooth, 36-goal quartet, beat the 33-goal Americans two games to one, but the Americans gave the visitors their first loss in four years and might have won the match had not George Oliver, a topflight nine-goal player, been hurt and forced out of the deciding contest. When it was all over, Enrique Alberdi, Argentina's brilliant captain, declared: "Your Cecil Smith is the greatest polo player in the world today. He is always where ball is. When you miss ball, there is Smith. If you hit short, Smith is there to intercept. Smith thinks a quarter-second before the others."

In effect, Alberdi was paying Smith the same tribute Smith renders Hitchcock. Thinking quick in polo is a prime requisite for a 10-goal player, and quick thinking means knowing where to be. Such polo wisdom, in turn, is not a player's sole doing. Smith and most players feel that the game is still 25% man and 75% horse, and one reason Hitchcock was so consistently great is that "Tommy would never play a bad pony," Smith says. He should know, for he has spent his life with horses, and he came into polo via the range and the stable and not the Long Island paddock and living room. Even now, 31 years after he started playing, Smith is still more the cowboy in chaps than the man in the expensive polo breeches, a poor man playing what has remained a rich man's game despite efforts to "popularize" polo at $1 and even 50¢ a head on Saturday and Sunday afternoons beyond the country club pale.

Born and raised on a Llano County ranch in Texas, Smith began punching cattle with his father, Sidney Smith, when he was scarcely 12, and his cattle-working kept him on the move so much that he never finished high school. One day, a crotchety, polo-loving man named George Miller, who owned a livery stable and playing field in Austin, came through Llano with a string of pony prospects. These were the days before jeeps were used to herd cattle on the western ranges, and the best early training a polo pony could get was to ride down young beef on the hoof. The training came naturally—in sudden stops and turns and galloping pursuits after rambunctious calves.

Miller invited young Smith to drop by and play some polo. Smith did, along with a few other cowhands, and as one of "George Miller's boys" was thereby launched on his unique career as a dealer-player that has kept him always on the move. Miller, who died in 1946, got to be one of the first big dealers in polo ponies, and Smith became his chief disciple. Today he earns his living by developing and selling them and by operating at the same time much as a touring golf pro.

IT'S A FAMILY AFFAIR

His activities as an itinerant polo pro will usually see him at one of the eastern or midwestern clubs in summer and early fall—this is his third successive season at Oak Brook—and during January, February and March he is most apt to be at the 29-year-old Gulf Stream Polo Club in Delray Beach, Florida. Last year, in the best of condition as a result of his steady play, Smith captained a 32-goal Texas team to a 9-8 victory against a 33-goal Florida team. All Smith did was score all of his team's nine goals.

Wherever Smith goes, he customarily has his expenses paid for himself and sometimes his family: his wife, formerly a Long Island girl, Mary Miller Smith, whom he married in 1934, and their two sons, Sidney, 14, and Charles, 11, who have already learned how to swing a mallet from a horse. Between stints at clubs the Smiths reside near San Antonio, and Smith spends his time on the old Miller ranch, where he keeps his horses. In the spring and early summer, Smith plays some polo in Texas but devotes most of his time to building up a new string of ponies to take north.

Smith's astute pony trading, an integral part of his abiding interest in a game that has had its troubles in the less profligate postwar era, does not bother the USPA which draws no line of distinction between professional and amateur. "Cecil is not only a great player but a grand guy," more than one member of the polo playing set now says, almost reverently. The reverence is part gratitude, heightened by the realization that were it not for Smith and other onetime cowpunching, horse-conscious Texans, polo might not have survived at all in the last decade.

The fact that it has survived as a lower-goal game in clubs scattered all over the country with players using fewer and less expensive mounts is the result of Smith and other dealers like Rube Williams, once an eight-goal player and now a race-horse trainer in New Jersey, having brought the Texas polo pony into its own. When they began working on the old Miller ranch and using Texas ponies against pickup Army teams in the days before the cavalry was dismounted, the rich players in the East were still buying Argentine or British horses, often paying five and ten thousand dollars for a prize pony (the record was $22,500, put up in 1928 for the Argentine gelding Jupiter by John Sanford for his son Laddie).

"Most of the foreign horses were natural thoroughbreds," Smith says. "Twenty years ago we thought a half-breed was pretty good down in Texas, but now we don't offer a horse unless he's three-quarters true. The more thorough a horse is bred, the better his staying power."

Smith will take a pony at the age of 4 or 5 and train it for at least two years. A polo pony's best playing span is from 7 to 12, although there are horses that have played competitively at the hoary age of 18 and a few whose hearts have given out gloriously in the middle of a chukker. Because of mechanization on the range, it's a lot harder than it used to be to find good young ponies, but each year Smith manages to corral" ten or so at $400 to $600 apiece and start their training before he heads north or southeast with a string of 10 or 12 that are ready for play. He tries to sell four to six of these at prices from $1,500 to $3,000.

"Fellows like Rube Williams and myself used to leave Texas and sell our best horses out from under us in a month or so," Smith says. "Then we'd play the rest of the season on what we had left, or on what someone loaned us. Now, for the first time, I feel I'm in Hitchcock's class in the saddle. I bought 25 horses at the end of the war and I've kept eight of the best for myself each year, replacing them gradually. It makes all the difference in the world. You've got to do it to play 10-goal polo. A poor player on a good pony will ride a good player on a poor pony off the ball almost any time." Pausing a moment, Smith grinned. "I figure an old man like me deserves a special break."

Smith is essentially a shy person and, in true cowboy tradition, not a particularly loquacious one, but it is doubtful that a player exists today who would yet want to gamble on riding him off. (Riding off denotes the ability of a man to have his pony out-gallop and bump along an opponent's horse, to "take the man"—keep the opponent tied up and away from the ball.) As a continuous contest in hard and clever riding, polo today is not much different from what it is believed to have been some 2,000 years ago, when it was first played, some say, by Iranian tribes in Central Asia, or, others claim, at the Mogul courts, where the emperors used it to test the mettle of their men.

The Emperor Abkar (1547-1605), a great Mogul soldier and polo enthusiast (he even invented a slow-burning flame-ball for use after dark), had his praises as a player sung in almost the same words now used to extol Smith, and for the same reasons. In his court chronicle, Abkar's Prime Minister noted, "His Majesty is unrivaled for the skill he shows in the various ways of hitting the ball; he often manages to strike the ball when it is in the air and astonishes all." The Moguls called the game chaugan, meaning ball-and-stick, and it did not become polo until they brought it with their conquests to India and Tibet—the word in Tibet for it was pulu (meaning willow root), which the British made polo. James Gordon Bennett, the editor of the New York Herald, brought the game to America from England in 1876, and he might as readily have hired Abkar's bard as the San Antonio scribe who wrote typically of Smith, a short time ago, "Those who have seen him race down a polo field at full tilt after a crazily bouncing willow ball, connect with it in mid-air in a clean swipe with the slender barrel head of his whippy polo mallet and drive it singing in the wind half the length of the field agree there has never been any like him and perhaps never will be."

PLAYED BEST POLO WITH IGLEHART

The chief reason Smith is still such a fine player at 51 and such a dangerous, hard rider is that he is on a horse for four hours or more almost every day, which of course is what the Moguls were, too. If he is not actually playing polo, he will ride up and down a field alone with a mallet and "stick a few balls,"—smack a ball back and forth to practice his strokes. As a means of keeping both eye and muscle tuned, for horse as well as man, polo players think this seemingly idle activity is as important as baseball players regard batting and fielding practice.

There is a lot in polo, as in most other sports, to playing regularly with men who know each other's styles and special abilities. Low-goal players normally are confined to their clubs, scattered all over the country, and high-goal players nowadays no longer have the incentive of frequent international matches to make them play together as often as they did before the war.

Smith figures he has played his finest polo through the years with Stewart Iglehart, who, at 45, is one of the other two 10-goal players in the United States (Bob Skene of California is the third); but Iglehart does not play as much as he used to, and he and Smith now join up rarely. Along with Iglehart, Smith has most enjoyed playing with Mike Phipps, an eight-goal man. With Winston Guest (whose last rating was nine in 1947) at back, this quartet compares with the alltime best. The fact that there are few groups on the horizon to match it is due, Smith feels, to the dearth of good young players who are able to play polo regularly.

Going after his fifth national open team crown in the next fortnight at Oak Brook, Smith will be playing with his Hinsdale sponsor, Paul Butler, a wealthy airplane dealer and paper manufacturer, whose sponsorship of the sport, including financing trips for players and maintaining a large stable, outstrips his own ability as a three-goal player. The other two players on the quartet are Gus White Jr., a fellow Texan with a fine seven-goal rating, and Bill Skidmore, rated at five goals.

Smith expects Oak Brook to do better than it did last year, when it was whipped in the semifinals, but because polo remains a highly individual game, it's doubtful he'll lose his 10-goal handicap no matter what happens in the matches. The polo association's handicap committee know that Smith plays more constantly than anyone else and that, in spite of his advancing years, he still plays like a galloping Texas ranger pursuing his old hard-riding maxim as if he were chasing an outlaw—"take your man out and also hit the ball, and if you can't hit the ball at least take your man." That's how he began playing polo and that's how he will play until he racks up his mallets. There's no prospect of that as far as Smith is concerned. In more ways than one, it's as he says, "Polo is what keeps me going."

PHOTORICHARD MEEK ILLUSTRATION"I was so doing over ninety! The torque was 213 foot-pounds at 3800 rpm, the oil pressure gauge read 60 pounds per square inch and the BMEP...." ILLUSTRATION"My turn."

OUTDOOR POLO IS FAST AND ROUGH

Outdoor polo is played by two teams of four men mounted on specially bred polo horses and equipped with 50- to 53-inch lithe-handled polo mallets. The 3-inch diameter willow or bamboo wood ball is hit with the side, not the head of the mallet. Object is for one team to smack the ball through 10-foot uprights set eight feet apart at either end (back line) of the 300-yard field. Each goal counts one point. The players (No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and back) work the ball down the field, passing it back and forth and running interference for each other. Primary job of the back is to tend goal by hitting threatening shots back up the field. The No. 3 man is the playmaker and alternates between offense and defense, while No. 2 is the primary offense man, ready to take a pass and break for the opposite goal. Main job of No. 1 is to keep the enemy back out of play. No. 1 also does a great deal of the scoring. Positions are frequently interchanged in mid-play.

Basic tactical maneuver of the game is "riding off," or shouldering an enemy player away from the ball or out of play, all at top speed. Contact between the mounted players is frequent and rough so that polo horses must be trained to charge with blind obedience and endure bone-shaking collisions. Head-on charges are minimized by right-of-way rules prohibiting bumping at an angle dangerous to rider or horse.

Fouls, which occur most frequently when right of way is in contention, are punished by allowing 30- to 60-yard penalty shots at the goal. The penalized team must stay behind their back line until ball is hit, then they may ride out to stop it. The game is played in six or eight periods of 7½ minutes each (chukkers). There is no time out for changing horses (each man uses four to six horses a game, changing during the three-minute rest periods between chukkers). Time out is called for broken harness, for a fallen horse or a fallen rider if he is hurt. Substitutions are allowed if rider is unable to continue game.

TOP U.S. POLO TEAMS

American polo is solidly based on some 60 large and small member clubs of the U.S. Polo Association divided into circuits which spread across the nation. From these clubs tournament teams are drawn, although occasionally four players may band together, take a team name, and play without the backing of a club. Some of the clubs play only outdoor polo, others only the indoor game. A number of clubs play both, or else a combination game which is called "arena polo."

Top U.S. Polo clubs by circuit are:

NORTHEASTERN: Meadow Brook Club, Westbury, N.Y.; Blind Brook Polo Club, Portchester, N.Y.

CENTRAL: Ivory Polo Club, Detroit, Mich.; Milwaukee Polo Club, Wis.; Oak Brook Polo Club, Hinsdale, Ill.

SOUTHEASTERN: Brandy-wine Polo Association, Wilmington, Del.; Gulf Stream Polo Club, Delray Beach, Fla.; Aiken Polo Club, Aiken, S.C.

PACIFIC COAST: Santa Barbara County Polo Association, Santa Barbara, Calif.; San Francisco Polo Club, Calif.; San Mateo-Burlin-game Polo Club, San Mateo, Calif.

SOUTHWESTERN: El Ranchito Polo Club, Vernon, Texas; Polo Association of Dallas, Texas; San Antonio Polo Club, Texas.

NORTHWESTERN: Fairfield Polo Association, Wichita, Kan.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)