It was spring in Buenos Aires last week, the social and sporting season was in full swing and a band of intrepid Americans were present to help celebrate that most traditional of Argentine horsey attractions—a series of high-goal international polo matches. For the hosts it was an especially happy occasion, because 1966 marks the 150th year of Argentina's independence. Appropriately enough, they beat the U.S. team in two straight matches for the Cup of the Americas, symbolic of world supremacy.
The U.S. defeat in Argentina comes as a surprise only to those nonthinkers who expect us to win every international team sport in which we become involved. The real surprise for polo enthusiasts was that the U.S. four did so well. Our team had never played together before three months ago, and it faced the world's finest players who have been competing with and against each other for half a dozen years. "We came down here with a pickup team to gain experience and do the best we could," said 37-year-old U.S. Captain Northrup R. (Norty) Knox, former Yale hockey star and world open court-tennis champion. "That we lost was not entirely unexpected. What we gained from this trip was renewed interest in big-time polo in the States. One of our major projects for 1967 will be to get our top players together more often under international conditions."
The challenge facing Knox, the newly elected chairman of the U.S. Polo Association, was tough though not entirely hopeless. It was roughly similar to fashioning—after a few weeks of practice—an All-Star team victory over the National Football League champions. Few sports demand more precision teamwork than is required to unite four men and their high-strung ponies into an efficient polo team. The U.S. had such teams once and ruled the world until American polo slipped into decline during World War II. High-goal polo has always been—and still is—a rich man's game, and the names on the oldtime rosters, such as Hitchcock, Guest, Sanford, Phipps, Harriman and Milburn, were synonymous with wealth and social position. Later, the polo "professional" was born when some of the rich team owners with skidding handicaps could keep up with the new generation only by "making it possible" for a hard-riding cowboy or western ranch hand—the great Cecil Smith, for one—to join a top eastern team in exchange for expenses and unlimited use of the best ponies the owner could buy.
American polo never quite made it back to the big time after the war. Many famous fields like those at the Meadow Brook Club in Westbury, N.Y. gave way to housing developments. The rising cost of participating in the sport (a minimum of $10,000 per year for a man with five ponies who expects to travel the club circuit and play in major tournaments) discouraged likely young prospects. Today there are fewer than 1,000 active players in the U.S., of whom about 750 have a U.S. Polo Association handicap of anywhere from zero to 10 goals depending on their overall ability and performance during the previous season's play. By contrast, Argentina has 4,800 players, about 900 with handicaps and 1,500 playing tournament polo at more than 180 widely scattered clubs. Of primary importance in the international picture, however, is the fact that Argentina can claim 70 players handicapped at five goals or more, including Juan Carlos Harriott, the world's only active 10-goaler. The U.S. has only 34 five-goal-or-over players, and when Bob Skene of Santa Barbara, Calif. retired last year, it marked the first time in 31 years that America has been unable to field at least one 10-goaler. Other countries where polo is played are doing as poorly. In England, despite the impetus Prince Philip has given the sport, there are about 200 registered players. There are only 40 in India, where once the Maharajah of Jaipur invited the pick of 1,000 players to make up three 30-goal teams.
December 5, 1966
All this leaves Argentina squarely on top, and the magnificent turf of the Palermo field in suburban Buenos Aires has become the polo capital of the world. After a 16-year lapse since the last Cup of the Americas series—the U.S. had won in 1928 and 1932 but lost in 1936 and 1950—the defending champions were ready to show off a new generation of talent. In a dazzling six-week period, Palermo witnessed the best polo seen anywhere in the world for a long time.
To add to the festivities, the Argentines put on a separate tournament for teams limited to 30 goals, in addition to the Cup of the Americas series. It was hoped that Mexico would join this field, but only England and the U.S. came. That turned the event into a round robin—and a runaway victory for Argentina's 30-goal team.
Preparing for these events at Oak Brook, Ill. where the U.S. tryouts were held last summer, Norty Knox had had his hands full. Finally he and the selection committee narrowed the squad to eight players. None of the eight had ever seen two 35-goal teams in action, much less played in such a match. "To make it worse," says Knox, "in order to get our maximum goal power we had to play men at unfamiliar positions. We actually came to Argentina with two No. 2s and two No. 3s. We improved with each practice, but not enough."
A natural No. 2 himself, eight-goal Knox elected to play at No. 1 and leave the 2-spot to Billy Linfoot, the 42-year-old nine-goal veterinarian from Pleasanton, Calif. The two No. 3s were 27-year-old Roy Barry (9 goals) from San Antonio and his 48-year-old uncle, Harold Barry (9 goals). Inasmuch as he weighs about 275 pounds and is only allowed to ride one pony at a time (same as everyone else), Harold was moved back to No. 4 and nephew Roy stayed at No. 3. Another nine-goaler on the squad, Lewis Smith, who has played for the Knox family in East Aurora, N.Y. for many years, was injured early on the trip. Available spares were Allan Scherer (5 goals) of Long Beach, Calif., Jack Murphy (7 goals) of Hinsdale, Ill. and Bobby Beveridge (6 goals) of San Antonio. The latter two teamed with Knox and Roy Barry to make up the American 30-goal team that lost to the English 13-8 and to Argentina 13-6 in the round robin.
Facing our so-called big team, with its average age of 38, were three young men in their 20s and 10-goal Captain Juan Carlos Harriott, who reached his 30th birthday as the matches began. As it has been in the U.S., Argentine polo is a family affair, with whole teams of brothers or cousins or fathers and sons. Today's stars, Harriott and his brother Alfredo, Gastón and Francisco Dorignac, and Horacio and Alberto Heguy are such wonderously talented horsemen and team players that they should make world polo the family affair for all of the foreseeable future.
The typical young Argentine polo player comes from a wealthy, if not necessarily a social, background. (There is no better way to crash Buenos Aires society, however, than to play top polo.) His father was a polo player before him, and from the time he first learned to ride on the family estancia he was also learning to swat that small elusive white ball with a polo mallet. Always on hand at the major tournaments at Palermo were the proud parent-champions of past decades, urging their handsome sons on and reminding the youngsters of the days when they played against the fantastic American, Tommy Hitchcock.
One interesting question in this year's matches was whether the American horses belonged on the same field with the quick and shifty ponies bred on the pampas specifically for playing this stop-and-turn-and-go-game. The U.S. players brought with them 36 ponies, most of them loaned by well-wishing poloists at home. Only one of the 36 was an Argentine-bred, and it never saw action because of an injury. "Naturally," said Captain Knox, "the Argentines think they breed the best. They breed a specific type, usually by a Thoroughbred stallion out of a three-quarter or seven-eighths mare, and then this pony is trained by the players who will eventually use him. Like our own ponies, which are also mostly by Thoroughbreds and often come to us from the racetracks, they don't reach their peak until the age of 7 or 8. I don't believe the Argentines produce a better polo pony, but they produce more of them. Our best are the equal of their best, but ours drop in quality if we get too many injuries."
Knox's theory stood up during the first game, which the Americans lost 10-6 after playing their younger opponents to a standstill for three of the seven chukkers. "The Argentine horses are trained to turn on their front legs," said Knox. "Ours stop on their hocks and turn. They have an edge in speed; we think our edge is in maneuverability. Their game is speed; ours is strategy."
American strategy in the first game was simple enough: press and harass the enemy from the opening whistle. For most of the game it worked so well that Juan Carlos Harriott, despite his five goals, never looked like the great player that he is. Nearly every time he thought he was going to break loose his escape was thwarted by Billy Linfoot.
Linfoot's own two goals, a pair on penalty shots by Roy Barry and Knox's opening chukker score kept the Americans right in the match for three periods, after which they trailed by only 6-5. But the Argentine overall class and experience as a team won it for them in the last four chukkers.
In the second game the Americans were seldom outplayed, though they lost 14-10. With his team trailing 7-11 going into the sixth chukker, Knox scored three consecutive goals—the first on a perfect pass from Roy Barry, the second alone and the last after picking up a loose ball. An amazing upset seemed possible, but the Argentines rallied, cut off further U.S. scoring and made three more goals of their own. It was a brilliant contest, and speed won out.
The big lesson to be learned by the U.S. from these matches is that you cannot expect victory against the Argentines if you play your men in unfamiliar positions. And the reason they played that way at Palermo is because in our low-goal polo system most of the best Americans play on different teams. They never get a chance to team up and practice together until somebody decides it's time to play another international match. With its plethora of talent Argentina has unlimited open teams. Until the U.S. Polo Association lifts the limit of 25 goals imposed on all teams competing for the U.S. open championship, no American team will be able to muster both the firepower and experience that is required for a serious challenge at the world title.