Behind the Hedge

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

Galloping straight ahead now, Pablo swings his mallet like an underhand softball pitch and rips the ball, which sails through the goal posts. Unable to turn at the last second, he runs the chest of his horse into the left post. The impact makes barely a thud on the padded pole. But it's a risky move for Pablo because the pony could get caught up and throw him. Instead, his pony manages to hurdle the post, and he yanks the reigns southward. "Owww," Ann cringes at the other end. "It's padded, so she'll be all right. But it looks like it smarts, doesn't it?"

Soon, the third period is over, and Pablo and the other players race their ponies to the grooms, who wait just behind the hedge. Pablo is the first one there, followed by veteran defensive player Tommy Biddle.

"Hey, Pablo, tranquilo, tranquilo," Tommy shouts, trying to calm his teammate.

Octavio carefully adjusts Mr. Straub's ride
Colby Katz
Octavio carefully adjusts Mr. Straub's ride
Octavio, top right, warms up a mare named Snow White. Ann, finishing her 12-hour day, bottom right, can tell horses' emotions from the position of their ears. The angle in both photos on the left shows trusting calm.
Colby Katz
Octavio, top right, warms up a mare named Snow White. Ann, finishing her 12-hour day, bottom right, can tell horses' emotions from the position of their ears. The angle in both photos on the left shows trusting calm.

"OK, sorry," Pablo answers as he dismounts.

"Don't force it," Tommy warns. "It'll come."

Tommy, Pablo, and a third Broward Yachts pro, Cali Garcia-Velez, represent three different levels of the team's medieval hierarchy, which puts them above the grooms but below the owners who pay the bills. It is this standard, more than experience, high rankings, or big salaries, that determines who can bark the orders.

Pablo, for instance, is by far the team's best player, but he knows better than to tell the others when they're out of position or not holding their own. A second-generation pro from Argentina, he is just a step above the grooms. He spends much of his free time with them in the stables.

Mr. Straub hired Pablo, who is from Argentina, in December. The younger man's job requires that he serve as both a player and the club's resident pro. That means he must exercise the horses nearly every day they don't play.

But Pablo can advance quickly, making up to $30,000 a month after expenses. "I am just starting," says Pablo, who has competed in England and Spain in his two-year career. "I have a lot to learn."

On the second rung is 33-year-old Tommy, who learned polo from his father and grandfather while growing up in South Carolina. He left home after high school for Florida Atlantic University so he could play pro while studying. A burly man with wide shoulders, Tommy is famous among polo pros for his powerful backhand hits, which can send the ball 120 yards. Proceeds from polo allowed him to buy a seven-acre spread just west of Florida's Turnpike off Lake Worth Road. The land includes a modest home, two stables, and 27 horses. He works as a free agent and signed on with the Broward Yachts in December. He also competes at a polo field in Boca Raton on days Mr. Straub's team isn't playing.

Their teammate, Cuban-born Cali, started playing polo as a kid on his family's cattle ranch in the Dominican Republic. At 42 years old, he recently solidified his place near the top of the hierarchy by not only being a decent pro but by taking the post as director of polo operations at Mr. Straub's club. Cali, as friendly as the cream-colored Lab that accompanies him to practices, serves as the good cop to Mr. Straub's bad one. But during games, like many of the players, his commands can bite at the grooms while he's switching horses or demanding new equipment. "There's a saying that to play polo, you play with hot blood," Cali says, "and you play with a cold mind."

While these pros have made good money in polo, neither Tommy nor Cali nor Pablo will reach the next level. Ever.

It was two years ago in the semifinals of the U.S. Open of polo in Wellington that Mr. Straub nearly killed himself. His players hadn't expected the team to make it so far and had overworked their horses in the previous game. Their tired steeds couldn't compete, and the Broward Yachts players were getting hammered. In the third period, Mr. Straub's tired horse tripped in the legs of a pony galloping in front of him. The horse tumbled. Flailing hooves punctured the rider's lung and broke his collarbone.

When the paramedics loaded him into the rescue helicopter, Mr. Straub asked where they were taking him. He didn't like the answer. Cali recalls what happened next: "He told them to put him back on the ground. He said he wouldn't go to that hospital." Instead, Mr. Straub ordered an ambulance driver to take him to another hospital.

Mr. Straub's strong-headedness didn't surprise most who know him. He made millions in mining and asphalt businesses before buying the 2,000-acre Palm Beach Polo and Country Club in 1993. Since then, he's built a reputation as a ruthless businessman and employer.

(Incidentally, two years after buying the club, Mr. Straub bought a five-bedroom, eight-bathroom mansion in Boca Raton. The home on Wood Duck Drive covers 10,646 square feet, which would equal the size of 73 of the apartments where his grooms stay. And the home's $1.7 million value could pay all eight of their salaries for nearly 12 years.)

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help