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Octavio carefully adjusts Mr. Straub's ride
Octavio carefully adjusts Mr. Straub's ride
Colby Katz

Behind the Hedge

A cold breeze rustles the thicket of cypress trees overhead as Octavio Ferro leans against a metal horse trailer, props his foot up behind him, and puts his hands into his pockets like a Ralph Lauren model. With carefully tousled blond hair, a chiseled chin, and clothes that make him look more like a rock star than a horse trainer, the 33-year-old sports an enviably handsome image. Today, a white scarf fills the space between the wide collars of the corduroy jacket that he wears atop cowboy boots and jeans. Next to him, a mare tied to the trailer stomps her foot at a rival pony that has moved too close. "Hey, tranquilo," Octavio shouts, and the ponies break apart.

Nearby, his crew of seven horse trainers, commonly called grooms, works quickly to prepare a team of ponies for a Sunday-afternoon game at Palm Beach Polo and Country Club. Located in Wellington, this is the country's premier polo grounds, a place where players become unknown champions and underlings spend their lives backstage making the whole thing work. The grooms saddle the ponies, wrap bandages around the animals' ankles, and carefully braid and tape the tails into neat packages. Every strap and buckle must be perfectly secured to prevent riders from slipping as they stampede while riding at dangerous angles toward the goals. Each of the four players on the home team, called Broward Yachts, will use at least six horses today. Because there are more ponies than saddles, the grooms will work feverishly between periods to prepare horses for riders.

Knowing the crew has done this flawlessly dozens of times before, Octavio leaves the cypress thicket at the south end of the polo field. He walks along a ficus hedge that hides the grooms from the 2,000 or so spectators who will fill the stands in a half-hour. Then he follows a path that spills out from behind the hedge at the corner of the field, its golf-course-quality Bermuda grass looking almost fluorescent under a sun as bright as the flash of a camera.

Although Octavio is king behind the hedge, his position isn't worth as much on the field. It becomes evident when a slate-blue Range Rover pulls up a few minutes later behind a tent that serves as a staging ground for the home team. Glenn Straub jumps from the driver's seat wearing the white jeans that players don for games. He owns the team, the stadium, and many of the cookie-cutter housing developments nearby. Mr. Straub, as everyone here calls him, employs Octavio's crew. He also pays the salaries of three professional players, who will pass him the fist-sized ball during the game as he waits in front of the goal.

"Give me one of those bandages," he commands Octavio, who rustles through a bag. Mr. Straub undoes his pants and pushes a hand down to his thigh, where riding has left a burning rash. "I'm going to stuff one in here. I don't want it getting worse."

"Which ones do you want?" Octavio asks, pulling out a sweatshirt, a kneepad, and a neatly folded golf shirt from a blue duffle bag with the club's crest on it.

Mr. Straub impatiently tightens a back brace around his waist. His short temper is well-known, and those who work for him say he's a man who has little respect for those he considers beneath him. "Never mind," he says, arrogantly brushing Octavio out of the way with the back of his hand. "I'll find it myself."

Unfazed, Octavio takes a step back, toward the ficus hedge. He knows his place in the hierarchy of polo. Hidden from public view, Octavio and his grooms dwell in dingy apartments located in a barn with the horses they tend, typically earn a measly $1,500 a month, and work nearly every minute that the sun is above them. They do this seven days a week, only occasionally taking a day off, when they can find a substitute. They've brought this life from South America, Africa, and Europe. They've brought to the United States a caste system that keeps them from moving up.

But then, they work in the outdoors with perhaps the world's most beautiful horses. They ride twice a day, each groom leading five ponies like a victorious Indian chief. All the grooms describe their work as part of a treasured profession. "It's a hard life, that's for sure," concedes one of Octavio's charges, a blond-haired Scot named Ann Morrison. "But you have to love it."

It's a cloudy Monday afternoon, and Octavio stretches his legs out from a plastic chair in a hallway that runs the length of the rectangular stables, which are painted inside and out the color of tobacco stain. As he relaxes, the grooms return from exercising the 40 ponies they tend. As the horses pass, the clicking of metal shoes on concrete sounds like a hundred cups being slammed onto a table after a toast. Today is supposed to be a time that grooms can rest. "The owner, he thinks we take a day off, but how could we?" Octavio says. "Who would care for the horses?"

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."

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.

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.

"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.)

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.

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.

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."

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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