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?"

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton