Despite Tragedy, the Gracida Family Remains a Dynasty in the Game of Kings | The Daily Pulp | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida


Despite Tragedy, the Gracida Family Remains a Dynasty in the Game of Kings

On February 25, 2014, Carlos Gracida raced down the field at the Everglades Polo Club atop a powerful thoroughbred pony. After decades of being among the best to play the game, having already won every major prize and tournament multiple times in his long career, the 53-year-old had nothing left to prove -- certainly not in the midlevel tournament he was participating in that day, the Freebooters Classic 14.

If there's one thing he never got the hang of during his life, it was losing. So Carlos, a medium-built man with a sun-kissed tan, lurched forward to edge out another player for the ball. As he did, a mallet -- either his or another player's; to this day, no one is sure which -- struck his horse's head. The horse jerked its head backward, colliding with Carlos' forehead, knocking him unconscious, to the ground.

The double impact of horse skull and hard ground caused Carlos' brain to swell and bleed. An ambulance rushed him to Delray Medical Center, but nothing could be done. The polo legend died playing the game of kings.

"The irony is just devastating," says his older brother, Guillermo "Memo" Gracida Jr., a trim 58-year-old with an easy smile. He is dressed in jeans and a bright-white Façonnable shirt during an interview at the Palm Beach International Polo Club. It has been a year since the freak accident, but the elder Gracida's eyes still tear up when he talks about his brother and former teammate.

"He was such a great rider," says Memo. "He knew everything about the game. I've heard of accidents happening with less-skilled players, sometimes novices, but Carlos Gracida?"

Imagine Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as brothers and you would have the polo equivalent of Memo and Carlos Gracida. Individually, the brothers are two of the best players to have ever hit a ball. Combined, their records will likely never be repeated. Although they didn't always play together, they rarely lost when they did.

Memo was the organizer, the field general. He prepared the horses and set the strategy. Carlos was the phenom, with more pure talent. Carlos could maneuver his way through a maze of players to get through to the goal. Or score a shot from an impossible angle. Had SportsCenter covered polo, Stuart Scott would have given Carlos a tag line.

Although polo is often considered a genteel game, in reality, it's a contact sport played with heavy, four-legged animals that thunder down a field. In this world, the Gracida family is a dynasty: In addition to Memo and Carlos, their father and uncles won major tournaments, and their sons now have big-time wins under their belts. The untimely death of Carlos closed a chapter in the Gracida story, but their legacy continues in Wellington, which the Mexican-born brothers have helped make a hotbed of international polo competition. Here, wealthy 1-percenters throw around millions just to share the field with the family.

The first organized polo games began in sixth-century B.C. Persia, when warriors -- as many as 100 a side -- played as a training game for battle. In time, it became a game of nobility played by the Persian elite, who called it "chovgan."

In British-occupied India during the 19th Century, Europeans started a polo club. Soon, the game made its way to England as a military exercise. British cavalry units faced off on teams with eight players per side. As many as 10,000 spectators came to the matches.

In America, polo clubs began forming during the late 1800s at private fields outside New York City. But it wasn't until the 1920s that polo reached Mexico, where Carlos and Memo Gracida's grandfather was among the first to play.

Modern polo is played with two teams of four, on a field 300 yards long and 160 feet wide. Mallets, shaped like the tool but with a skinnier, longer head, are used to knock a 3.5-inch ball (made of wood until plastic became the go-to material in the 1970s) into an unguarded, 7.5-meter-wide goal. The game is divided into six "chukkers" that last seven minutes each. Although the 15-minute halftime is necessary to clean up the mounds of horse dung that accumulate during the game, a tradition is for the crowd to walk on the funky-smelling field during this time to stretch their legs and mingle.

The horses in polo are called ponies. Technically, a pony refers to a horse under 58 inches tall, but in polo, all horses are called ponies. This is due to tradition; polo players of old preferred small horses for their swiftness and maneuverability. But these days, speed and strength are crucial, and the most valuable animals can bust out at top speeds while pivoting on a dime. Thus, Arabian and quarter horses are the most common breeds seen on the polo field -- they're big, fast, and agile. A pony usually isn't ready to compete at high levels until age 5, but a healthy one can play for ten years.

The average high-goal polo team will have 20 to 40 of these highly trained horses ready for a game. "High goal" is the term used to describe the professional-level games played in tournaments across the world.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Downs
Contact: Ray Downs

Latest Stories