By John Garrity
Sports Illustrated, December 24, 1990
 
The umpires agreed: sudden-death overtime in a polo match doesn’t justify sudden death for a horse or rider, no matter how bold the players might be. And bold they were, for the two all-star teams that met Sunday at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif., consisted entirely of 10-goal players—that is, riders with the highest rating possible in the sport.

This so-called Match of the Century, contested by teams named Westbury and River Plate, ended shortly after umpire Daniel Gonzales called a rough-play foul on Westbury’s captain, Memo Gracida, for riding his horse at high speed into an opponent. River Plate’s Carlos Gracida, Memo’s brother, promptly converted a penalty shot from 30 yards to give his team an 8-7 victory.

But no one on either team accused the 34-year-old Memo of anything worse than valor, despite the foul. He has held his 10-goal handicap longer than anyone else in Sunday’s match—10 years—and is perhaps the game’s best player. At Indio, Memo scored five goals.

In short, he lived up to his share of the pre-match hype, which was a feat in itself. Sunday’s game, also billed as The Polo Master of the Masters, fed off memories of the only other 80-goal encounter in polo history, a 1975 match in Buenos Aires between El Trébol and Venado Tuerto, where more than 40,000 people packed the national polo stadium for that battle of eight 10-goalers.

In recent years, only a handful of players have simultaneously held the coveted 10-goal rating. Polo handicaps, which run from -2 goals to 10, are assigned by handicap committees and are based on such largely subjective criteria as ability, recent performance and the quality of a player’s ponies. In the 100 years since the U.S. Polo Association devised the system, only 60 players in the world have reached the 10-goal level.

Currently, though, 10 of these polo black belts are at large—enough for two full teams plus two substitutes. That is what inspired the French television production firm Masters Communication and Management to stage Sunday’s exhibition, which will be edited for TV and shown worldwide in early 1991. “It is the match of the century,” Memo Gracida said last Saturday before the match. “I’ve been waiting for this event for a lifetime.”

The players’ enthusiasm aside, there was little to suggest that the match was more than an equine equivalent of golf’s televised Skins Game. Most of the 10-goalers played on borrowed ponies—50 thoroughbreds from Memo Gracida’s stable in Wellington, Fla.—so, in effect, viewing the action was like watching Ozzie Smith play shortstop with Cal Ripken’s glove.

It didn’t help, either, that the match was played in California, where enthusiasm for polo has historically been confined to Hollywood moguls and the like. Or that the teams, which were named after two famous polo clubs, one located in New York and the other in Argentina, were practically drawn out of a hat and represented no country, city, corporate sponsor or pizza parlor. “You can’t say it’s the same atmosphere as when you play for a team in the final of the Argentine Open,” said Gonzales, who played for El Trébol in the 1975 80-goal match. “You don’t have the fear of losing.”

Beyond all that, high-goal polo is so inbred that Sunday’s match seemed cozier than a company picnic. All the 10-goalers in the world come from just two countries, Argentina and Mexico, and answer to just five surnames. Of the eight men who performed in Indio, only Ernesto Trotz, the Westbury back, didn’t have a relative on the opposing team. Four members of Argentina’s Heguy family were in uniform—Eduardo, Gonzalo, Horacio and Marcos—causing the match commentator to blurt out during the second chukker, “All these Heguys—I’m totally confused!”

The surprise, then, was how good the play turned out to be. Memo Gracida scored the first two goals of the match, but River Plate took a 4-2 lead in the third chukker on consecutive scores by captain Gonzalo Pieres. Memo got his third goal just before halftime to pull his team within one.

The second half demonstrated how excited the 10-goalers were to be competing together. Obliged most of the year to play pro-am polo with rich amateur patrons, they began to show off for their peers. As clouds built up over the mountains and the air turned cool, the game turned hot. With only 60 seconds left in the sixth and final chukker, Eduardo Heguy, at 24 the youngest player on the field, sent the match into overtime by dribbling in for River Plate’s seventh goal. “At times you think these guys are Musketeers, they’re so quick with a stick,” said Memo, impressed.

The overtime was enlivened by near misses at both ends, but River Plate generally controlled the action until Eduardo Heguy stole the ball near midfield and raced off with Gracida in pursuit. Seconds later, as Heguy was turning the ball into the goal, Gracida’s mount crashed into his. Heguy was knocked out of his saddle and for about five seconds, hung from the neck of his horse—like Harpo Marx in A Day at the Races—before he scrambled back into his seat.

“It was a dangerous play,” umpire Lionel Macaire said later. “A horse weighing 600 pounds running at full speed—if he hits you, he kills you. He breaks you in pieces.”

“The foul had to be called,” said a mildly dejected Trotz. “But I think it looked more spectacular than it actually was.”

You could say the same for Polo’s Master of the Masters.