By Jamie James
Sports Illustrated, March 18, 1985
 
When Memo Gracida says, “I want to be recognized as the best polo player in the world,” there is no vainglory in it. “On some days, I know I am perfect,” he says matter-of-factly. “But I want to be better.” Gracida is standing in a clearing in the primordial swamplands of south Florida. This is his place. He is currying a pony, and when he pauses to readjust his cap, the brilliant winter sun sparkles on the sweat coating his brow. He looks a trifle sheepish at what he has just said, but he carries on. “To be a 10 [polo’s top ranking], you have to be perfect, to be untouchable out there.”
He turns back to the pony, a gray mare named Hush, who stands beautifully, in patient, watchful repose. “I have to make sure that everything is in top condition, just so, right down to my mallet heads. But the main thing is my horses.”The winter season in south Florida is in full swing, and for the first time Memo (short for Guillermo) is working out of his own spread, a grassy 20-acre meadow cleared from the swamp. He and his wife, Mimi, are planning to build a house here, but they’re true polo people, and the barn comes first. The contractor had promised to have it ready by January. When they arrived, however, all they found was a big pile of sand. Their 3-year-old daughter, Michelle, was delighted. “Papa, look at the mountain!” she cried. Papa was less thrilled.  

Casa Gracida doesn’t look like much yet. A hard freeze has left the turf a murky shade of brown, the canals are slimy, the barn remains conceptual, a few cinder blocks. But Memo Gracida says proudly, “It’s all ours.”

This is a typical morning: Gracida will exercise each of his six ponies for tomorrow’s game, schooling them in tight circles, weaving fancy upfield patterns, galloping full speed down the pasture just to rein in and pivot at the last moment. Then he will help his grooms water down the ponies, and if any of them requires doctoring or dental work, Gracida will attend to that, too.

Most amateur polo players in Florida, on a February morning like this, are still lazing around the condo or getting in a few holes of golf and letting their grooms attend to all that bother. Of course, they are not, like Memo Gracida, in the business of improving on perfection. They are not rated 10.

In polo, the measure of a man is his handicap: Every year official committees assign each player a number of goals, from minus-one to 10. Most players are rated below two goals; very few rise above five. To be rated 10 is to achieve theoretical perfection. There are only five 10s in the world this year: Argentina’s Ernesto Trotz, Gonzalo Pieres, Alfonso Pieres and Alfredo Harriott, and Gracida, 28, a native of Mexico City.

The hallmark of the Gracida game is, above all, horsemanship. It’s not so much that he controls the horse perfectly, though he does; or that he’s singularly graceful as a rider, though he is. It is more that Gracida and his mount achieve a synergistic unity. In consequence, Gracida’s playing style is supremely fluid and seemingly effortless; where many other top players make a great display of power when they hit the ball, his swing seems almost casual.

And pay no attention to the soft voice and boyish smile; he is a muscular, gritty man who has led teams to victory in everything there is in the sport to win—the U.S. Open four times, the World Cup twice, the British Open, Mexico’s Camacho Cup. In 1982 he became the first non-Argentinian member of the winning team in the Argentine Open, whose trophy is the Holy Grail of polo, in nearly 30 years.

Gracida is smart and well-spoken, but not a wiseacre. He’s strong as a bull and graceful as a swan. He’s a loving husband and a good father. He doesn’t smoke or drink, or cuss in front of ladies.

Now if only this model of modern manhood could get a little respect. Like all professional polo players, Gracida chafes at the popular image of his sport as a diversion for powder-puff millionaires. Polo is in fact an exceedingly rough and arduous game, demanding as much skill and fitness and strength as any sport going. When you’re on the field and see eight men thunder by, galloping full-bore, bumping each other, mallets poised for the attack, you don’t think of them as powder puffs. Your hair stands on end.

Still, modern polo could scarcely exist without millionaires. It costs a fortune to keep a four-man team in tack and ponies (at least six or seven per player) and the Florida real estate to exercise them all. Thus, a typical team consists of one low-ranked amateur, usually a businessman with more love and money than aptitude for the game, and his hired high-goal pros, sometimes with a middle-goal son thrown in. There are few leagues, rather a succession of cup competitions; the personnel of the teams changes from month to month as new deals between sponsors and pros are struck. All the best players in the world seem to compete in Florida from January to April.

This winter Gracida played for Henryk de Kwiatkowski, the Polish aircraft magnate and fabulously successful thoroughbred owner. Among other distinctions, de Kwiatkowski campaigned Conquistador Cielo, the 1982 Belmont winner that set the alltime record for stud syndication, $36.4 million. If Memo Gracida is the modern Cid, with a mallet instead of a lance, then de Kwiatkowski, a tanned, dandyish little man of irresistible good humor, is polo’s Don Quixote—bumbling as a player yet charming. One often hears people say how absurd it is that de Kwiatkowski should be on the field, but whenever he makes a good play, the stands erupt with cheers that may be partly ironic but are entirely affectionate.

Like everything else, the salaries of polo’s top-rated pros have been escalating. The sport still clings to its traditional image as a pastime for the noble amateur, a gentlemanly game, but it is the Gracidas of the game who give it a solid underpinning of athletic prowess.

Gracida was to the bamboo mallet born. His father, Guillermo Sr., played excellent polo, and so did his five uncles. The family wasn’t rich, but Papa always kept a couple of horses for Memo and his younger brother, Carlos, now a nine-goal player himself. When he was 13, Memo went to his first polo tournament, in Monterrey, Mexico. “I played with my father. We won it,” he says. “I started loving horses more and more, and so I decided to study veterinary medicine.” He enrolled at the University of Mexico, playing polo on weekends, but he was getting too good too fast to be left to his own devices. In 1976 Mexico was playing the U.S. to reclaim the Camacho Cup, the top Mexican polo prize. Gracida, 19 and rated at five goals, was pressed by his father, a member of the Mexican team, to go to Houston for the tournament. The American team was rich and far better mounted, “but we killed them,” Gracida says, and rattles off the scores.  

Memo Gracida was the star of the event, and he caught the eye of polo big shots in Houston, including Texas oilman and polo player Steve Gose. Recalls Gose: “He just floated on that horse like a great ballet dancer. I thought, ‘Here’s a young man who will be doing something tremendous.’ ” He enlisted Gracida for his own team for the U.S. Open, which it won. The two have been closely connected ever since; Gracida calls it “the best relationship in polo.”

Best business relationship, maybe. When Gracida talks about Mimi, he gets the goony, faraway look of a teenager in the throes of his first heavy crush. She is the daughter of George Oliver, formerly a nine-goal player, who in 1961 had played on the winning side in the U.S. Open with a man named Guillermo Gracida.

“After a 1977 match in Boca Raton,” Mimi says, “I went up to Memo and said, ‘Hi, my name is Mimi Oliver and my father played with your father, dah duh dah duh dah.’ Memo didn’t speak English then—I mean nada. But after I went away, he asked someone who I was.”

“When I first met her,” Gracida says, “I thought, ‘This is the girl I’ve been looking for. This is the perfect woman for me.’ ” He pauses, basking in the warm glow of the reminiscence. “We won that game in Boca Raton. I scored a lot of goals. It was just a perfect day for me.” They were married within the year.

The story since then, if not quite an unbroken string of victories, has at any rate been very impressive. Gracida has gathered together one of the grander collections of useless engraved silver under one roof, but this ever-growing hoard has never really had a permanent home. For years Gracida has been the hardest-working, most traveled professional player in the world. He owns a house in San Antonio, near Gose’s spread, but home for years has been temporary digs at a club in Buenos Aires and rentals in West Palm Beach, Deauville, France and Midhurst, England.

But Gracida has made his big move: He has left the employ of Gose and has struck out on his own. This year he is playing on short-term contracts for a number of sponsors. His arrangement with de Kwiatkowski ended recently. This spring his sponsor will be Alan Connell, a former race-car driver from Fort Worth. In May, Gracida will be in England for Guy Wildenstein, a famous art dealer. One of his teammates there will be Charles, Prince of Wales.

In other sports, the money players make is pretty well known, but polo tries to preserve the illusion of amateurism. Complicated six-figure deals are cut with a discreet, gentlemanly chat and are sealed with a handshake in the stables.

This can be something of an uneven contest—the sponsors are, after all, businessmen—but Gracida is just as masterly at the polo game off the field as he is on it. Other pros frequently chaff him about how rich he’s getting; he smiles and winks good-naturedly, but he never says a word about his business deals. That’s the way it is in polo—everyone’s always making deals, yet protocol demands that one act as though he has never heard of such things, that it’s all just for sport.

  How much does Gracida make playing polo? A lot. One insider estimates that his total compensation from Gose over seven years was in “the middle six figures,” and it’s hard to believe that de Kwiatkowski hasn’t been matching Gose on a short-term basis. And that doesn’t take into account the money Gracida makes on his own as a horse trader.

A shrewd judge of horses, he makes a lot of money from being Memo Gracida. According to Alex Webbe, a writer and polo player familiar with the Palm Beach scene, “If I sell Memo a horse for $5,000 in the morning, he can sell it that afternoon for $10,000, just because it’s his horse.” One sponsor, in Florida for the winter season, offered Gracida $50,000 apiece for his top six mounts—$300,000 cash for high-strung, accident-prone horseflesh. Gracida turned him down.

After a recent victory over a team sponsored by Glenlivet, the Scotch people, de Kwiatkowski buoyantly proposed a holiday in the Bahamas. Now, Gracida’s idea of a night off is to settle into an easy chair with a tall, cool glass of Diet Coke and watch videotapes of polo games. So when de Kwiatkowski suggested the trip, Gracida didn’t have to be dragged screaming onto the Learjet, though he did seem to have mixed feelings about leaving his ponies for four days. He arrives at the airport wearing polo duds; he brings polo books and polo magazines for his vacation reading. Also along for the ride are Howard Hipwood, at nine goals one of England’s finest polo players, and five-goaler Martin Brown, son of a British knight, known to his chums as Pinky.

Serendip Cove, de Kwiatkowski’s estate in Nassau, is picturesque almost to excess. The Mediterranean-style villa has a favorable situation on a little private cove, with bungalows for guests around a hotel-size pool. Just as one is about to remark that the place looks like a location for a James Bond movie, de Kwiatkowski points out the Jacuzzi and tells you that the love scene in Never Say Never Again was filmed there.

De Kwiatkowski loves to entertain, and he does so on a Lucullan scale. For a big night out he assembles a few captains of industry and their wives. The evening begins on his lawn, coveside, with champagne in the moonlight, and then moves on to Paradise Island and dinner at a swell restaurant. Afterward, the party repairs to the casino, where de Kwiatkowski buys little stacks of $25 chips for his guests and very large stacks of $500 chips for himself. Gracida sets his sights on winning enough for a new Rolex, but by the end of the night he’s a little in the hole. De Kwiatkowski clears over $100,000. That will buy a lot of oats, and a little of Memo Gracida.

After a few days of swimming in the cove, playing golf and shopping with Mimi, Gracida has finally relaxed. As he digs his toes into the pure powdery sand of Serendip Cove, he waxes philosophical. “Until now, it has been work, work, work, work and more work,” he says. “In fact, this is the first holiday I’ve had since the last time I was here, two years ago. This vacation is a good thing, I think. It will help my game.

“But, you know, I can’t take off too much time. This game is so demanding. And this is an important time for me. I think I’m at my peak now.” He takes a handful of sand and lets it trickle through his fingers. “I want to go so deep into this game, to play it so intensely, that when I stop playing, I can say I’m satisfied.” He smiles, but this time it’s a small, quiet smile. “That’s why I work so hard.”