By Harvey Araton
New York Times, September 25, 1994
BETHPAGE, L.I., Sept. 24 — Doug Matthews’s team plays for the 1994 United States Open polo championship on Sunday, a half-million-dollar investment that will return, if he wins, such lucrative rewards as a trophy and a higher personal rating within the sport.
There will be no winners’ and losers’ purses, no sponsor stipends, no network payoffs, no merchandising receipts, no proceeds from the gate. The four-man team he calls Aspen, together since March in preparation for this particular event, will disband on Sunday, win or lose.
The polo superstars whom Matthews signed for a few hundred thousand dollars apiece, Memo and Carlos Gracida, will become unrestricted free agents. They will be free to play for another owner for the next circuit event, or season, whichever is the better deal.
Matthews will enter his next tournament, return to the bidding wars for the top professionals. He will not tell them they must accept a salary cap. He will not lock them out if they refuse his terms. He is a rich man, but polo is his pastime, his passion. It is not business and has nothing to do with municipal tax breaks or antitrust.
By definition, that makes Matthews a sportsman, which is what George Steinbrenner fancies himself while growling at his ballplayers between bites of his hot dog from the Yankee Stadium owner’s box.
One more thing. Doug Matthews is also a player.
“It’s as if Steinbrenner said, ‘We’re playing Chicago tomorrow, and I’m playing third base,’ ” he said on Friday.
Another way to explain high-goal — or world-class — polo is to envision a basketball league in which one of the five players on every team had to be an owner, not a hired professional. Say the 39-year-old Madison Square Garden president, Dave Checketts, organized a franchise. He could start himself at shooting guard, buy the best available talent. But if he were a joke of a player, he would become a laughingstock trying to drive the lane against Patrick Ewing.
“This is not like a celebrity pro-am golf event,” said Matthews. “I am in one-on-one situations against the best players in the world. Every one of the owners is extremely rich, but every one is a guy who is willing to get out and put his butt in a saddle.”
Matthews is a 49-year-old Annapolis graduate and former Navy pilot. His business is aircraft buying and financing. He said high-goal polo owners — or patrons (pronounced pa-TRONS), as they are called — are, on average, men of comparable means to the baseball Steinbrenners. Some, like the Australian Kerry Packer, are much, much richer. Most of them spend millions a year to finance their teams.
The average three-week tournament, Matthews said, requires about a quarter-million in expenses such as player contracts and transportation and care for horses. The United States Open, culminating with Sunday’s championship match between Aspen and the White Birch team of Peter Brant from Greenwich, Conn., has lasted six weeks at the Meadowbrook Club.
Once upon a time, Matthews tried to buy pro basketball’s Atlanta Hawks from Ted Turner. Five years ago, about the time he became infected by the polo bug, he took a look at the financial records of the New Jersey Nets. With the benefit of perfect hindsight, he is thrilled to be paying the likes of the Gracida brothers, out of Mexico City, as opposed to investing for the privilege of renegotiating Derrick Coleman’s contract.
In their own right, the elite polo pros, most of whom are from the horse culture in Argentina and train their own horses, make a nice living. Polo players, amateur or pro, are rated on a scale of 0 to 10 goals. A 10-goal player, Matthews said, can earn about $1.5 million a year. Out of approximately 150 high-goal pros, there are a dozen 10-goalers. Both Memo and Carlos Gracida, whose combined resume includes 18 United States Open titles, are 10-goal players.
In college, Matthews set pistolry records that still stand. He played some basketball. After four years on the polo tour, his rating is still zero goals, as compared with Peter Brant, a 17-year veteran whose rating is six. That makes Matthews’s signing of the Gracida brothers to go with a third player, the six-goaler Tiger Kneece of Aiken, S.C., a major coup in this, his first United States Open.
“There is some reservation when a new sponsor approaches you and says he intends to play high-goal polo,” said Memo Gracida. “But Doug’s approach was very serious. He convinced us he was ready to work. We’ve been at this since last March. Riding, training the horses, watching films.”
There are greater considerations for the pros, he said, than the size of their contract. No 10-goal player in a sport in which reputation rules wants to get stuck with an ego-tripping loser. Athletically speaking, Carlos Gracida compared high-goal polo professionals to Pete Sampras and Michael Jordan. None want to risk their careers with a bumbling patron who might get them hurt.
Matthews, in fact, had a fall at the beginning of the Open.
“We had to slow him down,” said Memo Gracida. Things have worked out. The Aspen team won all eight of its matches to reach the final.
“They are looking for new challenges,” Carlos Gracida said, when asked why high-goal polo’s patrons are out there with them.
To which Doug Matthews added: “You’re out there on a finely trained horse, going 35 miles an hour, making stops and turns, no seat belt, trying to knock into the other guy without injuring the horse or yourself.
“Then a hard ball leaves that mallet at a hundred miles an hour. People have no idea how much goes into it, how much you really have to feel that horse.
“What’s the reward?” said Matthews, repeating the question. “There is no reward, other than the competition, the pure exhilaration of being out there. This is, in my opinion, the purest of pro sports.”