Polo Was His Life

The man credited with saving polo in Palm Beach killed a man Thursday night.

John Goodman, heir to a giant air-conditioning fortune and founder of the International Polo Club, blew through a stop sign and slammed his black Bentley (sound familiar?) into a Hyundai driven by Scott Wilson, a 23-year-old recent college graduate. The impact of the high-speed crash sent the Hyundai into a canal, where it was submerged. 

Alcohol is suspected to have been involved; Goodman had been at the Players Club Bar and Restaurant immediately before the 1:05 a.m. crash. Before that, he reportedly had attended a YMCA fundraiser called "The Polo Bartending Challenge" at the White Horse Tavern.   

And I believe the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office is already handling Goodman -- who has a net worth suspected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars -- with kid gloves. I've seen a whole lot of fatal car crashes like this, and usually you'll see the driver go to jail and a mug shot in the next day's newspaper. PBSO let Goodman, who suffered minor injuries and has hired big-name Miami attorney Roy Black, go free. And this from the Palm Beach Post:

"[PBSO spokeswoman Teri] Barbera said traffic fatality investigations often take months to complete, and that the sheriff's office would likely forward its evidence to state prosecutors to decide if any charges would be filed." 

Did Goodman refuse a Breathalyzer test? He was admitted at the Wellington Regional Medical Center, so a good blood sample should be available. I'll be watching this one.

Just to give you an idea of how wealthy a guy Goodman is, understand that he sold Goodman Manufacturing, his family's Houston-based air-conditioning and appliance company, for $1.43 billion in 2004. Another tidbit: The company purchased Amana in 1997 and sold its

appliance and microwave divisions to Maytag in 2001 for $325 million.

We're talking huge money, and although Goodman was the company's chairman, it was his father, Harold, who built it from the ground up and left it to him after his death in 1995. His son, born into great wealth, was relatively aimless before he found polo, according to a 1998 profile in one of NT's sister newspapers, the Houston Press. From the article:


Outside Goodman Manufacturing, the parking lot was packed with Chevrolets and Fords, and Goodman's BMW was sprawled across two spaces at the front door. His office was adorned with paintings of horses; his large, leather-topped desk was barren of papers. Behind the desk, looking very Brooks Brothers, Goodman didn't know how to use his computer. His gaze was unsteady, his speech uncertain. His secretary had kept his afternoon entirely open so he could get a flu shot.

"I don't know what I do, but I stay busy," he said. Then he added, "But don't make it like I'm real busy, okay? Because I don't want to be like I'm a big shot."

... John Goodman had a big, blue-collar kind of body, and at T.H. Rogers Junior High, he was on the football team. Then his dad began raising thoroughbreds, and John was sent off to boarding school in Massachusetts. There was no football team at the Winchendon School; John took up lacrosse.

He can't remember ever having a goal as a child. Goodman always knew there was room for him in his father's business. From his Massachusetts boarding school, he went to his Delaware college. After graduating from Wesley, Goodman came back home to Texas with a brand-new marketing degree and an abiding love for lacrosse.

Dad right away made young Goodman vice-president of international sales. Goodman married a girl from the neighborhood (Tanglewood), moved into a $2.6 million house in a better neighborhood (River Oaks), and though the company was soon bringing in about $400 million a year, he went looking "for something to do." 

... Goodman was drawn to polo for its tradition and camaraderie, he said. He wanted to compete on horseback, in something more vigorous than dressage. In 1989, on the green fields of the Houston Polo Club, Goodman began taking lessons, and when he began playing in club matches, he found himself living as he never had. Within the span of a game, he felt sadness and joy, fear and power. "It's like a war," he said. "Something bad can happen to you, and then something good happens." Life was more interesting when it was threatened; polo was the perfect antidote to boredom.

"I guess it's helped build my... um, I don't know if I should say that. It's certainly given me a lot of confidence," he said.


He started a professional polo team, Isla Carroll (named after his wife), that he sank millions into to help make it the best in the world at one time. In polo, though, you don't call them owners; you call them patrons. And anybody who can afford a team and to pay professional players gets a special perk in polo: They get to play on the team. Goodman played on Isla Carroll, though NT sister paper Houston Press remarked in 1998 that he looked "ridiculous" alongside the real players. Goodman, a self-proclaimed "polo-holic," also sank at least $4.5 million into a publication called Polo Magazine only to have Ralph Lauren sue the magazine for trademark violation. Lauren won.

About that time, Goodman, a friend of actor and polo patron Tommy Lee Jones who financially backed the Hilary Duff flick Material Girl, began transitioning to South Florida, specifically Wellington, where he started the International Polo Club Palm Beach on a small private field. It was a casual affair at first, but he got serious in 2003, when he bought additional lands and erected a stadium on the 120-acre grounds. The first game in 2004 featured Tommy Lee Jones' team, San Saba, and a helicopter landed on the field at halftime to dole out free champagne for the fans.

Goodman hosted the big-time U.S. Open Polo Championship in his first season in 2004 and in time took over the market from the established and staid Palm Beach Polo. "An angel descended to save polo in South Florida," the wife of one polo star told the Sun-Sentinel in 2005. In that same year, Goodman bought the Wellington Golf & Country Club for $9 million and soon gave it a "face-lift."

But it was all about polo for Goodman. To get an idea of what that's about, let's go back to the Houston Press article:

The team didn't really come into its own until after the death of Harold Goodman in 1995. A management company was hired then to run Goodman Manufacturing, and John Goodman converted his father's horse farm to a polo ranch. For a season of polo, it was necessary to have 35 horses, and since Goodman was playing year-round, he bought 70. People say they are some of the best polo ponies in the world. The prize of the stable is the black mare Sue Ellen, a $400,000 gift from his wife.

Goodman is uncomfortable discussing lucre, but many patrons spend about $2 million a year on their teams. There are no revenues. Since a top player alone can earn $2 million in a year, and since Goodman suits up with the best in the world, his expense may be considerably higher.

You can't compare it to George Steinbrenner playing for the Yankees -- "It's more like if the other team had a Steinbrenner, too," he said without humor. Goodman, who sits on the committee that rates the players, will soon be rated a two on a scale of ten. He counts as strengths his horses and his "hand-eye coordination." His weakness is that he just doesn't have time to practice more. Mike Azarro, a former team member, said, "He needs to get fit. I don't want him to think I'm saying he's fat, but you've seen him. Say it in a nice way."

The people who work for Goodman say that as a patron, he's one of the best. One notorious old sportsman simply trots to a corner of the field, where he sits on his horse, watching. Others offer the pros a bonus to place the ball where they can score. But Goodman is less imperious. He agrees to play a defensive position that usually keeps him away from the ball, and he's "very down to earth," said Carlos Gracida, one of Goodman's players. "He's one of you, you know?"

It's true that when he's late, Goodman sometimes calls to ask that the game wait for him. But no one minds waiting, said Darren Livingston, the club manager, because business is "much more important than polo."

It was difficult to find anyone to speak openly about patrons. Gracida would name none of the wicked ones. There are only ten big patrons in the U.S., he explained, "and if you talk bad about them, you close the door."

You get the idea; polo is basically a rich man's plaything, a sport anyone with the money and time can buy his way into. After Thursday morning's deadly collision, it looks like we might find out what Goodman can buy his way out of.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman