Behind the Hedge

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

On the sidelines, Cali's last horse, Lucy, waits in the care of the most renowned groom, 35-year-old Epy Bolanos-Aguilar of Mexico. Epy joined Octavio's team in October; he had 11 years' experience in polo and a reputation as a skilled horseman who communicates well with the ponies in his charge. Before swimming the Rio Grande to reach America, he had ridden a horse to work every day as a farmer. Epy's bushy black hair rolls down his neck from a baseball cap and matches the pickle-sized moustache he wore until today. Downright shy, he does little more than crack a bashful smile when the others notice that he shaved it.

Cali angles Lucy alongside the replacement. He sits up slightly in the saddle, ready to make the dangerous jump between horses. But at the last second, the horse spins. "Let go, let go!" Cali shouts at Epy in Spanish. "She will stop spinning if you let her go."

"If I let her go," Epy answers, "she will spin even more."

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.

Epy has learned his place in the world of polo, typically bowing to the wishes of players, even if they don't know what they're doing. The other grooms will later say under their breaths that Cali should have listened to Epy. No one knows the horses better than the Mexican trainer; he cleans the manure from their stalls and provides feed filled with sweet-smelling apple vitamins. Epy calms the ponies with a kissing sound in their ears. And he sprints them on the sidelines before games. These warm-ups are meant not only to get the horses' blood flowing until their veins course beneath their coats like a twisting road map but also to work out any ill manners. "If the ponies do anything stupid," Ann explains, "they will do it when Epy's on them and not when they're on the field."

Epy surrenders to Cali's ill-conceived plan. "OK," the groom finally says. "I will let her go, and she will spin." He releases the fighting mare's reins.

Cali jumps from his tired mount and comes around to Lucy's side. He lifts his leg to put his boot up to the stirrup. Immediately, the horse makes a half-turn, forcing Cali to hop on his right leg as he tries in vain to get his foot up. Cali walks around Lucy, tries again, and again the mare spins.

"Grab her!" he yells to Epy, who seizes the reins with his left hand. The groom calmly places his right palm on Lucy's muscular shoulder, preventing the horse from spinning. Cali mounts and sprints downfield.

Afterward, when Broward Yachts handily wins, 15-5, Epy doesn't gloat about being right. He hands Lucy's reins to Ann, who disappears with the horse behind the hedge. With long, quick strides, Ann leads the sweat-covered horse, its nostrils huffing massive breaths, behind the hedge. She quickly washes the mare before undoing the bridle and saddle.

Epy follows her and begins work on the other horses, brushing and cleaning them, undoing the braces, making kissing noises in their ears -- all behind the hedge on the south side of the field.

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