Behind the Hedge

At the nation's premier polo grounds, a row of ficus separates rich from poor

Octavio and his co-workers don't give much thought to their place in polo's caste system. The head groom has worked in polo most of his life, learning the rules of the game in his hometown of Lobos, Argentina.

Polo was spread thousands of years ago by marauding Mongolians. Europeans delivered the sport to South America not long before it was first played in Palm Beach County in the 1920s, and Argentines quickly flourished as players. The small but nimble horses they breed -- called ponies because of their size -- played a role in the nation's quick rise to polo prominence. Asked whether he's proud to see Argentine brands on the backs of the ponies in Wellington or to know that many of the best players are from his country, Octavio shakes his head and smiles. "I used to take pride in it," he says. "But it's just business now."

The grooms, including Octavio, possess expert skills as horsemen. These abilities are particularly obvious when they hurtle onto the tiny saddles used in polo and kick the horses into 30-mile-an-hour sprints. The grooms angle galloping ponies into arching turns as well as anyone, despite the fact that most of them would never dream of playing. "Me? No," Octavio responds when asked whether he's thought of taking the field. The fantastically friendly head groom stops to see whether the question is serious and then appears mildly affronted. "You have to have played since you were little. You have to learn how to hit the ball early on. You have to have money. You cannot just start playing this game one day."

Mr. Straub has paid more attention to real estate like the condos, pictured at bottom right, than the grandstand or the playing field. At top right, Pablo sprints a mare during daily exercises.
Colby Katz
Mr. Straub has paid more attention to real estate like the condos, pictured at bottom right, than the grandstand or the playing field. At top right, Pablo sprints a mare during daily exercises.

The grooms begin work at sunup. Twice a day, they feed, brush, exercise, and bathe the ponies. They take a siesta in the afternoon unless the Broward Yachts team has a practice or game. On those days, two or three times a week, the crew works 12 or perhaps 14 hours to keep the ponies in top shape.

Octavio is the only groom who owns a car, so he must ferry the others to the grocery store or the pub; such errands are usually run late on Sundays because there's no game on Mondays. He organizes barbecues once a month or so and has the only mobile phone in the stables.

Now in his second season with Mr. Straub, Octavio assembled the team of workers from all over the world for the winter polo season in Wellington, a sprawling and wealthy suburb west of Lake Worth. It isn't hard to find Argentine crew members nowadays, Octavio explains, because of the economic turmoil back home.

Ann Morrison came to Wellington from Scotland and, at 23 years old, has already traveled to Australia and New Zealand for jobs in polo. While pitching hay into stalls, she explains that she first became interested in horses as a kid, when her Gaelic-speaking parents bought her a pony that she rode on the beach. After learning English in school, she took a job at a polo grounds outside London. She gets home for a few weeks every summer. "They call me Horsey Ann," she says with a smile. "I think they believe I'll get it outta my system one of these days."

After dumping the last bit of hay, Ann and the others retire to their apartments. Their rooms fill the north end of the stables, just off the polo grounds' parking lot. Their 12-by-12-foot rooms include a vanity with a miniature sink and stove. The petite appliances match the arms-length bathroom jammed into one corner. An exposed bulb hangs overhead, with a single bed on one side and a round kitchen table on the other. The rooms are filled with the barnyard aroma of horsehair, musty hay, freshly cut grass, and manure. It drifts inside through the windows and is carried in on the grooms' clothes.

Before sitting down to a dinner of Cocoa Puffs, Ann's already-rosy cheeks redden when she's asked about the two glass vases on her table. In the first, one yellow and two red roses wilt and blacken with age. In the other, three pink blossoms have just opened. She sheepishly admits she has an admirer: a groom from another stable.

Polo team owners generally discourage relationships among the grooms. A few married couples work in the trade, but they sometimes have a hard time finding work because stable owners fear they'll bring marital spats into the stables. Ann says she isn't interested in her suitor, who doesn't speak much English and sometimes forgets to bathe. A bit shy and too gracious to outright refuse the flowers, Ann has tried to gently dissuade the man. "Oh, he's sweet," she says with a laugh. "But he doesn't have a chance."

Although it's uncommon for the grooms to find love, occasionally they move up. In Argentina, on the grassy plateaus and open pampas, locals raise horses or may know a friend in the game of rich men. For them, polo is a way up the ladder.

Halfway through the Broward Yachts' January 19 match versus a team called Santa Clara, a thundering horde of horses barrels toward the north goal. The sound is akin to a stampede on a Midwestern prairie or a cavalry attack on the plains. In the front of the pack rides 20-year-old Pablo McDonough, the Broward Yachts' star player. He whacks a perfectly placed shot to a spot ten feet in front of the goal. He returns his mallet skyward, holding the reigns in his left hand, and leans into a precarious left turn. Out ahead now, sprinting like a jockey headed into the final turn, he's the only one who can reach the stationary ball. But his headlong dash toward the crimson goal posts could come at a price.

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