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In polo, each team has four players, riding in a space roughly 300 yards long. Their challenge is to hit the ball with wooden mallets, moving it down the field and into a goal, without losing control or crashing their horses into one another.
Invented by hordes of nomadic warriors 2,000 years ago, the game has morphed into something both violent and genteel. "It's like a war," Goodman said in a 1998 interview with the Houston Press. [Disclaimer: New Times and the Houston Press are owned by parent company Village Voice Media.] "Something bad can happen to you, and then something good happens."
Polo was used to train cavalry in the Middle Ages and was played by Persian conquerors long before it became known as the "sport of kings." One warrior played with the decapitated heads of prisoners. Only centuries later did the game become a more refined affair, beloved by British royalty. It has spread around the world, finding special popularity in America and also Argentina, which is home to the best players on the planet.
A polo match is a spectacle, an outdoor show that combines speed, magnificent animals, and a certain unattainable status — not every kid in the Bronx can pick up a stick and learn to play. Wealth is required to assemble a team, buy the horses, and enter tournaments.
Teams are divided by skill level, from "low goal" to "medium goal" to "high goal." Most of the 3,000 polo players in America are low- or medium-goal competitors. But even they are an elite group, because a small stable of horses can cost $140,000 to $280,000 — not to mention the grooms, equipment, and other fees.
Goodman is a patron (pronounced pah-TRONE), the owner of a high-goal team. This puts him in a select group of about ten polo moguls in the United States. In 1991, he converted his dad's horse farm into a polo ranch. He bought 70 polo horses and started a team named after his wife, Isla Carroll. His stable was said to include some of the best polo ponies in the world, including a prize mare, a gift from Carroll, that cost $400,000. Many patrons spend $2 million a year on their teams, in addition to the salaries of their top players, which can reach $2 million apiece.
There's no profit in owning a team. A patron simply doles out millions on his favorite game, buying prestige and the chance to compete with the best players in the world. New friends come with the purchase.
The social boost could only help Goodman, since schmoozing was not his strong suit. "He stutters a lot," Goodman's former employee and polo teammate, Kris Kampsen, told a sheriff's deputy in a sworn interview. "He's a very introverted guy. So to even have, like, a conversation about the weather is hard, much less anything else... To get him to open up and even talk is pretty difficult."
According to the North American Polo League, Goodman's polo handicap is one, an amateur's ranking, while each of his teammates is ranked five or seven. But skill was never the point.
High-goal polo, at its core, is a spectator sport. It instantly conjures images of dashing, dark-haired athletes in collared jerseys or models in white dresses and red-soled Christian Louboutin heels. The goal is to see and be seen, often sipping champagne and sporting extravagant shades.
"You have some of the wealthiest people in the world; [it's] highly competitive," says Ken Braddick, owner of dressage-news.com in Wellington. "It is in fact very much like a Kentucky Derby. Every Sunday is an event."
A patron like Goodman, shy yet eager to please, could enjoy tremendous popularity by throwing the best parties, being the most gracious host.
"You're at his house and music's on; he's like, 'Do you like the music? Are you sure?' " Kampsen said. "He's kind of nervous about things like that. He wants you to be having a great time."
In 1997, Goodman caused a cosmic clash in the polo world. He bought the 22-year-old POLO Magazine and converted the niche sports publication into an homage to wealth. Its glossy pages featured a story on Claudia Schiffer's home in Monte Carlo and on the death of Gianni Versace in Miami. Ads extolled the virtues of Chanel, Gucci, and Breguet watches.
Ralph Lauren was not amused. His fashion empire was built on selling Americans the fantasy image of polo. Anyone who tried to do the same was hijacking his idea. Polo Ralph Lauren sued the magazine for trademark infringement and won a partial victory. The magazine was forced to run a disclaimer every issue stating that Ralph Lauren was not involved.
In 1998, a Houston Press reporter visited Goodman at the Goodman Manufacturing headquarters to interview him before the Lauren case went to trial. By this time, the patron had two kids and was playing the part of a good corporate son at his dad's company. Yet it was clear he had little interest in his day job.
"Behind the desk, looking very Brooks Brothers, Goodman didn't know how to use his computer," reporter Randall Patterson wrote. "His gaze was unsteady, his speech uncertain. His secretary had kept his afternoon entirely open so he could get a flu shot."