Behind the Hedge

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

Mr. Straub bought the club knowing the game of polo is a money pit, which is why few below him in the hierarchy would wish to join him at the top. He skillfully added to his fortune by using the club's vast land holdings to build hundreds of homes in gated communities that now surround the polo fields. He built this real estate empire while putting little back into the club. He tore down the eastern grandstand when fewer fans showed up for games and let the western one deteriorate with a leaky roof and peeling paint. Decorative planters now sprout weeds, and the stands are filled with ratty beach chairs.

Although Palm Beach Polo and Country Club still holds the nation's best tournaments, attracting the largest collection of polo's greats, it has seen better days. In an effort to attract more than the couple of thousand fans who generally attend each game, the club started giving away admission tickets this year that used to cost $5 and up. The drop-off is particularly significant when you consider that, in the mid-1980s, Prince Charles played at the club before 15,000 paying spectators.

It's likely that the drop in popularity is due in part to the enemies Mr. Straub made while covering his property with subdivisions. Last year, he angered Wellington city leaders when he bought a defunct golf course they had planned to turn into a park. And his shabby treatment of employees and fellow players has become legendary. His behavior was enough to convince a faction to start the Palm Beach International Polo Club in Wellington last year. The upstart organization has attracted 11 teams to play on its six fields, which are less than a mile from Mr. Straub's club. Though the founders of Palm Beach International Polo don't plan to sell real estate, they believe they will soon overtake their rival to become America's premier polo grounds.

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.

Many of the people running the new club are Mr. Straub's former employees. One of these is Tim O'Connor, who once handled Mr. Straub's public relations and now is spokesman for Palm Beach International. "He's a pretty demanding individual," Tim says of his former boss. "He puts in long hours seven days a week and expects his employees to do the same. But he doesn't show loyalty to the people who have worked so hard for him."

Despite his reputation, 56-year-old Mr. Straub will always have a place on the Broward Yachts. American polo upholds the English tradition of allowing the team owner to play with his pros. Mr. Straub carries a ranking of one out of a possible ten, competing with Argentines who are the Michael Jordans of their sport. Mr. Straub and his fellow team owners typically fill the premier offensive position; their pros set them up to score goals. For comparison, imagine George Steinbrenner playing shortstop and hitting cleanup in Yankees pinstripes.

The 36 owners of teams playing this season at Mr. Straub's club will pay him $15,000 in greens fees for the season. For each tournament, they will shell out at least $5,500 more. Ponies cost about $15,000 per; each player needs six. Add salaries for grooms and players, boarding fees, and veterinarian bills and a team costs about $1 million a year.

Few tournaments offer a monetary prize, and if they do, the sum generally pays only for the greens fees or less. So team owners, aside from getting to play, stand to gain only the silver trophies they might take home.

Mr. Straub didn't return phone calls, but before the Santa Clara game, he took a moment to speak about polo. He stretched his hamstrings in a half-split in front of a row of mallets laid out that morning by Octavio near the southwest corner of the field. The mallets lay next to meticulously polished boots and kneepads. Behind them were directors' chairs with navy-on-white jerseys folded into square packages. "You want to know about polo?" he asked, brushing his wispy gray hair from his forehead and showing a thin smile. "It's a young man's sport, I'll tell you that."

He talked briefly about his short life in polo. He said he didn't become serious about it until he bought the club, but now he plays all winter. He cut the conversation short to ready himself for the game, which was to begin in just 11 minutes. "All right," he said in abrupt conclusion, "I assume you've gotten what you wanted."

Nearby, grooms were sprinting horses along the south side of the field, readying them for play. On this day, the best groom and a veteran player will square off in an argument only one of them can win.

In the sixth and final period of the January 19 match, Cali sprints his horse to the corner of the field where the grooms wait. Mr. Straub has illegally cut off an opposing player, so there is a break in play while Santa Clara sets up for a penalty shot. "Caballo! Caballo!" Cali shouts from his mount, the signal that he needs a new pony.

Typically, the players switch horses during the break between periods. But sometimes the mounts tire quickly or fight the riders. Broward Yachts is winning 14-5, but Cali knows polo scores often change quickly. A worn-out pony could give Santa Clara the edge it needs.

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