There are not too many sports occasions that can make kindred spirits of the Emperor Tamerlane, the man who produced Hair, Lord Cowdray's nagsman and Harold Barry from Truscott, Texas. But on a recent Sunday in England an event with just such qualifications had more than 4,000 people nosing their cars through the green, perfumed twilight of the lanes that meander about the leafiest corner of Sussex. Others, impatient to get at the action, came whirring down in helicopters from a sky that was clearing to warm brightness after a morning of ferocious rain. The parking fee for helicopters and cars was the same.
The crowd gathered beside a wide, flat field set amid some of the most soothingly verdant countryside in England. As far as the eye could see, the only conspicuous building was the ruin of Cowdray castle, burned in 1793. Its lawns are now a playground for cricketers, and on this afternoon the local stalwarts, uniformed in virginal white, were enacting their languid ritual.
But the spectators had been drawn by an older, more violent sport than cricket, by a game with a longer recorded history than any other. They had come to watch polo, which, if some match reports handed down by the ancient Persians are to be believed, was being played fiercely as early as 350 B.C. Of course, the game was never so rugged as another ancient tearaway, Tamerlane, was inclined to make it. He encouraged his soldiers to play polo with the heads of their slain enemies.
The players at Cowdray Park the other day were expected to contain their zeal some way short of the Mongolian example, but no one looked for an excess of gentleness. England was taking on the U.S., for the first time since 1939, for the Coronation Cup, and the home team was anxious to prove that the longstanding discrepancy between the two countries had been healthily narrowed. Lord Cowdray—whose enthusiasm as a player was so far from being diminished by the loss of an arm at Dunkirk in 1940 that he, more than anyone, brought about the revival of the game in England after the Second World War—beamed on the most impressive assembly of aficionados and potential converts his grounds had ever accommodated. The Duke of Edinburgh, who had been a serious candidate for inclusion in England's four-man team, was to referee, adjudicating from the sidelines on disagreements between the two mounted umpires. Watching for any loopholes in his interpretation would be his son Prince Charles, and an even more searching critic: his uncle, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, whose writings under the slightly arch pseudonym of "Marco" have the status of a textbook on the game.
August 8, 1971
Less formal pronouncements were available at Cowdray Park from Harold Freeborn, who rejoices in the title of Lord Cowdray's nagsman. He is a slightly stooped man, with the complexion of one who has risen early in the country most mornings of his life, and he dispenses horse sense with a broadly accented irreverence. "A polo pony wants to have a wonderful mouth, a calm brain and speed," he affirmed, after joking loudly about the sex life of his girl assistants. "And it needs to have a smooth, flat action. A pony that starts climbing up in the air all over the place is no good to you." His stables supplied six mounts for the English team.
The U.S. riders appeared on paper to be appreciably the stronger, however. Good players in polo are graded according to a handicap system that sets a number of goals against each man's name. The U.S. had two eight-goal players and two six-goal players. England had two seven-goal players, a five-man and a three-man. In a handicap tournament the Americans would have been obliged to give the English six goals, but the Coronation Cup is played on level terms, and Harold (Chico) Barry, the U.S. captain, was entitled to be confident. He would probably have been confident anyway. He is a big bulging man with a lot of hard fat on him and a tough, not unfriendly face in which the eyes rarely open wide enough to let in a hurtful amount of sunlight. Barry makes people wince for the ponies that have to carry him, but Hap Sharp, who is in partnership with him to train polo ponies, says the big man's reticence about his official weight is impenetrable. "We've had him drunk often and we've never been able to get him on the scales."
It was soon obvious to the British supporters that neither Chico Barry's pounds nor his 52 years prevent him from playing up to his eight-goal rating. He and Bill Linfoot, a trim California veterinary surgeon who is five years his junior—and one of the top 10 players in the world—both made a vital contribution to the U.S. victory. Barry rode his ponies fast, wheeling them in and out of tight situations with an instant flexibility, and Linfoot drew lavish praise from the most laconic of the English watchers. His game is fluid, swift and imaginative, full of dramatic surges, skillful stickwork and a tactical intricacy worthy of the soccer field.
The ground was slow after the heavy rain and—though the English tradition of having the crowd "tread in" the divots between chukkers kept it from cutting up too badly—the surface and the ball's uncertain behavior deprived some American stick play of its customary refinement. Nevertheless, when Harold Barry's son Joe produced a late surge of excellence any faint hopes the English still harbored were rapidly killed.
Yet they had no reason to be depressed about their performance. Their seven-goal players, Paul Withers at back and the captain, Julian Hipwood, played forcefully and well, and Julian's brother Howard ensured that the family was not embarrassed by comparison with the Barrys. Perhaps the most pleasing achievement was that of young Mark Vestey, who was a bold and persistent attacker in his first international. Vestey, scion of a family that controls a worldwide business empire conservatively estimated to be worth $500 million, gave England an early lead after a stirring break along the right by Howard Hipwood. But the Americans readily increased the momentum of their game and, helped by a series of easy penalty shots, won comfortably, 9-6.
"We were not outponied," Paul Withers said without sourness. "We were outexperienced. But we are a young team and I think the Americans must be pretty static at their present standard. We can win this cup back—and before too long."
Satisfaction with the revival of the Coronation Cup found more expression than discussion of the style and outcome of the match itself, however. In the marquee, the explosions of champagne corks punctuated perhaps the only dissenting chatter about the event. That came from Michael Butler, a man who had made more than a few charges on the goalposts at his father's polo compound in Oak Brook, Ill. before he made his more historic assault on Broadway with Hair. "The polo I loved," Butler said, but then his mouth drooped in alignment with his Mandarin mustache. "The promotion was garbage. We had a hit show in the wrong theater. Where are we—nearly three hours of driving from London? Properly handled, the match could have pulled in 10,000 people."
The son of Paul Butler, a four-goal player in his prime whose Oak Brook operation has long been the heart of the game in the U.S., Michael Butler is now looking for a good location in California to revive the sport in the States. "Polo is too good a game to be kept in a tight little circle of people," he went on. "It has danger, excitement, speed, contact and a lot of sex in it, too. Look at all these lovely birds here. The game's been drawing audiences for 2,000 years. I know I can promote it. I may be a zero-goal player, but I'm not a zero-goal producer."