Ahead of the Game

Argentinian Adolfo Cambiaso—the youngest player in the history of polo to receive the sport's top ranking—is reinventing the world's oldest game

It's one o'clock in the afternoon on a Sunday in Palm Beach. The hot wind blowing through the polo fields and pastures is electrified in the nearby barns, where preparations for the day's matches are under way. In fact, beneath the friendly banter between grooms and players, tension is strung tighter than the tendons in a pony's leg. In a mere two hours, over two dozen horses per team (valued at $20,000-$100,000 each) need to arrive at the field in perfect condition, prepared to carry their riders through a game conceived over 2,000 years ago as practice for war—a contest that if lost historically cost the vanquished team their heads, and presently costs team sponsors tens of thousands of dollars per match, win or lose. (Most patrons spend well over a million dollars a year to field a high-goal polo team.) Players have the added burden of surviving a game in which accidents are like being thrown from a car at 40 mph and then being trampled by a horse. Or four.

Though situated at the heart of all this, the Outback Polo team seems far removed. Take away the luxurious trappings of the Mediterranean-style tiled barn with its world-class horses, and the players in the aisle could be gathered for an asado (an Argentine barbecue) drinking maté (tea). There's no hint that they're on a schedule. It is Adolfo Cambiaso, the world's best polo player, who is responsible for setting this mood.

It is hard to reconcile the image of Cambiaso draped insouciantly over a black director's chair with the way he is most frequently seen: roaring down the polo field like an Apache on the warpath. He looks as calm, loose, and content as if today's game were already in the bag. Gray wool gaucho beret slung low over one eye, foot folded on knee, hand under T-shirt absentmindedly rubbing his belly, he says, "I don't care what other people say. The important pressure, you put on yourself. The pressure that others put on you? I ignore it."

Just 26, this polo player who grew up breaking horses on the Argentine pampas has held a ten-goal rating, the highest in polo (see Polo Lingo), since he was just 16—making him the youngest person in the history of the game to receive that honor. There have never been more ten-goalers on the planet at one time. For years, it was not possible to field a 40-goal match (four ten-goalers against four ten-goalers). It is today. So to say that Cambiaso is the best in the world is to say that he may be the best ever.

Cambiaso has won every important international polo tournament: the Gold Cup, World Cup, Hurlingham, U.S. Open, and Argentine Open—several more than once—thrilling crowds of up to 40,000 in England, Palm Beach, Bridgehampton, Greenwich, Brunei, and Palermo. But polo insiders are watching him particularly closely these days. After five years as a hired gun for Kerry Packer's Ellerstina White team in England and three with Peter M. Brant's White Birch team headquartered in Greenwich, Connecticut, Cambiaso has finally been offered the one thing he had yet to experience: control of his own team. Patron Tim Gannon, the founder of the Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain, offered him the reins of Outback Polo in Palm Beach.

"I was always second in the other organizations," Cambiaso says, "I wanted total control and leadership. I wanted to buy the horses and choose the players. Tim was the only guy who would give me the opportunity; everyone else said that I was too young." They also questioned Cambiaso's ability to create and gel a powerful team, given his age, his fierce independence, and his unorthodox approach to the game.

Cambiaso left White Birch abruptly, breaking a contract that Brant said was to run for another year. "He's one of the best polo players in the world, if not the best," says Brant. "But he's out for himself. He's not always a man of his word, and I think it will catch up to him. Polo is a small world."

While Cambiaso might have left bad blood behind at White Birch, his current teammates vouch for his loyalty, pointing out that when Cambiaso came to Outback he insisted that his childhood friend Bartholome "Lolo" Castagnola be hired as well. "I said I play with Lolo or not at all," says Cambiaso. "One of the greatest moments of my life was winning the Argentine Open with Lolo. We dreamed about it as zero-goalers, and we did it." And if Outback's record since Cambiaso took over three years ago is any indication of his ability to captain a team, the skeptics were wrong: In April, they won the U.S. Open for the third straight time, cementing their position as the best team in the country.

Cambiaso is extremely private. Before an important match, he spends hours alone with the horses. Between chukkers, he retires to the players' tent to silently reflect on the game; there are no halftime pep talks. And if his team is playing flat, in need of motivation? "I go out and score a couple of goals to wake them up," he says.

Rated ten, Adolfo Cambiaso plays as if 11 were a possibility. He does things with a pony, mallet, and ball that no one has ever seen before—such as dribbling the ball, a mere three inches in diameter, on his mallet head seven, eight, nine times in a row while galloping downfield at 40 mph. Such as standing in his stirrups, bamboo-shafted mallet stretched to the sun to intercept an airborne ball, redirecting it on the fly, and smacking it 150 yards through the goalposts in one fell swoop. Such as downshifting his pony from a gallop to a dead stop in a matter of strides to cup the ball behind his mallet head while the rest of the field rushes past, wondering where the ball went. Such as tapping the ball beneath his pony's belly only to pick it up again on the opponent-free side of his horse, then hit it high over the heads of the other players.

"In every sport, there are those players like a Wayne Gretzky who can trust their instincts because their instincts are usually right," says nine-goaler Adam Snow, who plays for Templeton. "Cambiaso's strength is that he can be unorthodox in an effective manner. I get excited to play against him; it's almost an honor."

Long before the three on Cambiaso's uniform—the number often worn by the strongest player—comes into focus, you can spot him on the field. He is the one slicing gracefully and easily through the melee of swinging mallets and jostling ponies as Argentines, Americans, and Brazilians take turns screaming, "I've got Cambiaso!," though no one actually does. He's the one defying physics, leaning far beyond the point of safety as his 1,100-pound Thoroughbred mare leaps about like a spider on amphetamines to avoid the other players trying to broadside her. Oh, and he's usually the one with the ball. "A lot of it is in his mind," explains La Dolfina teammate Sebastian Merlos. "Whatever he wants to do, he thinks he can. And he always wants to do things no one else tries."

One reason audiences enjoy watching Cambiaso is for the unpredictability of his play. The four players who comprise a traditional polo team typically play in zones—two offensive, two defensive—closely marking their counterpart on the opposing team and passing the ball methodically up the line from the number four player to the three, two, and then the one, who tries to score. Cambiaso prefers Outback to exercise a rotating, free-form style of play—more of a he-who-gets-there-first-gets-the-ball approach, a highly unusual strategy.

As the number three player, Cambiaso should theoretically be in a head-to-head battle with the opposing team's number three player. Instead, he is omnipresent, alternately marking the number one man, stealing the ball from the number two, scooping the ball out of the mouth of the goal like a number four and, now and then, hassling the number three as he is supposed to. "I play the way it's most effective for the team," says Cambiaso. "They used to say I hit the ball too many times. They don't say that now."

Over the years, the game of polo has evolved from its roots as a rehearsal for the deliberate machinations of war into a wild contest of speed and power, a game of hit-and-run. In the last decade or so, however, control has become increasingly important—Polo has never been faster, and yet it's never been more artful. Cambiaso in particular is actually changing the way the game is played.

Cambiaso's extraordinary degree of ball control enables him to alter the speed and direction of the play—but there is nothing methodical about his approach. Instead, he is spontaneous, inventive, and fluid on the field, in comparison to such legendary players as ten-goaler Memo Gracida, whose precise positioning and elaborate, formalized plays make the CBS chalkboard look like an Etch-A-Sketch. If Gracida sees polo as a chess game, Cambiaso sees it as a wave, to be surfed instinctively.

"Cambiaso is dynamic, with the rare ability to take command of the game at critical moments," says Snow. "He can do this because he can both control the ball and hit it great distances with uncanny accuracy."

It is a skill he has been developing all his life. First on a horse at age two, Cambiaso could ride before he could walk. Immersed in the sport on his family's La Martina ranch outside of Buenos Aires, Cambiaso had a head start on greatness: His father was a four-goal player. In Argentina, where polo fields are as common as basketball courts are in America, there was also formidable competition, and yet he ascended to ten goals with breathtaking speed.

At 14 years of age, Cambiaso was invited to play in America by Ernesto Trotz. Midway through his first U.S. practice match, Cambiaso's four-goal rating was revised to six goals. When he won his first Gold Cup, it jumped to seven—and rose to nine after a victory in the U.S. Open. Then, when he was just 16, it leaped to ten. "Typically," says Cambiaso, "polo is like school. You cannot skip grades—you have to go all the way through. I went fast."

Cambiaso is built for polo—lean and not too tall, with the long muscles of a runner. Add to that a mountain goat's sense of balance, the reflexes of a mongoose, the flexibility of an octopus, and an obsessive dedication and focus. Even his opponents talk of his love of the game and deep understanding of how it is played. Says Snow, "He is an incredible sportsman. If you miss a goal, he'll say 'bad luck.' If you score, he's one of the few players who will compliment you." Outback's manager, Phil Heatley, concurs, "There have been times both the flag boy and the referee have called the ball 'in' and he said, 'No, it was out.' "

"I believe in enjoying the game," says Cambiaso with a shrug. "If you make it too much work, that's not good."

"I wasn't excited about polo anymore," says Gannon, a 17-year veteran of the game. "When Adolfo joined us, I started having fun again. I see us as partners."

Outback's success has a lot to do with Cambiaso and Gannon's relationship, which is unusually close for a patron and player. "Tim is a great guy," says Cambiaso, "He's fun on and off the field. I like patrons to be comfortable and to be my friends. I play better with people I like. We should have a good time, no?"

As though on cue, Gannon roars into the barn astride a chrome behemoth of a bike, his toddler daughter clinging to the handlebars. The mood at the Outback complex echoes that of its polo barn. Gannon's home, overlooking his field, has become the unofficial clubhouse, full of children, players, and friends at all hours of the day.

Says Cambiaso, "Tim treats all people the same, whether they have money or don't; and the way he is with the grooms is unbelievable. If I had more money, I'd play for him for free." Asked whether he envies the astronomical salaries that are earned by his peers in other sports, Cambiaso adds, "I don't want to be a millionaire. I just want to be good. I only need enough money to keep things running here, and at [my ranch] La Dolfina, so that I can be the best." Didn't anybody tell him?

Championships aside, Cambiaso has an innate ability to inspire a team, says Heatley. "Off the field, Cambiaso picks his people very carefully, then delegates and leaves them alone. He has a broad, loose style of leadership, and he's pleasant and easy to be around. On the field he directs the team every inch of the way. There is a lot of reward through his success; everyone works hard—and he brings home the bacon."

"The hardest thing," Cambiaso says, "is to keep winning." On that note, he rises from his chair, all trace of a slouch gone, looking every bit the Apache as he walks to the tack room to prepare for the game.

Outback Polo Club can be reached at 813-282-1225; www.outbackpolo.com.

Polo Lingo

A polo game comprises two teams of four. Players try to score by hitting a three-inch ball through two goalposts with their mallets while galloping down the 300-yard field.

Ten-goal Player Polo handicaps range from -2 to 10 (best), based not on average goals scored per game but, rather, on a player's ability relative to all other players. Since 1894, only 43 players have been rated a ten by USPA. A "high-goal" team has four players whose handicaps add up to 20 or higher.

Chukker The game is divided into six chukkers, each lasting seven minutes, with three-minute breaks in between.

Pony American polo ponies tend to be exceptionally fast, agile Thoroughbreds, sometimes crossed with quarter horses. The speed of play in a high-goal game is so intense that players change ponies every chukker.

Patron Fielding a high-goal polo team is an expensive hobby. An ambitious patron might stock his stables with 40 or 50 prize horses, and spend $250,000 to $1 million on a single tournament. The sultan of Brunei has hundreds of ponies in air-conditioned barns.

Where to Watch

Some of the best polo in the world is played on the East Coast each July and August. Matches are on Saturday afternoons, usually around 1 p.m. Call for exact times:

Greenwich Polo Club Conyers Farm, Hurlingham Drive, Greenwich, CT; 203-863-1213; www.greenwichpolo.com.

Bridgehampton Polo Club The highlight of the season is the Mercedes-Benz Polo Challenge in mid-August. Hayground Road, Bridgehampton, NY; 631-537-8450. www.bhpolo.com.

Saratoga Polo Club Whitney Fields, at the corner of Bloomfield and Denton Roads, Saratoga Springs, NY; 518-584-8108; www.saratogapolo.com.

Regan Hofmann wrote about the new Hermès hunter/jumper saddle in Departures' March/April issue.