Not long ago, I attended a party thrown by gym magnate Bob Roberts and his wife, Lauren Day Roberts. Walking around their opulent Southampton villa, I found myself talking to a small cluster of people hanging out by the infinity pool—the outdoor one, not to be confused with its heated indoor companion—asking what they do for fun. Besides cluster near infinity pools, that is.
“Well, polo season is about to start,” former rock journalist and current PR maven Liz Derringer told me.
“I love polo,” I said. “I used to play it all the time.”
I received some incredulous stares, since I guess no one suspected a sleek urbanite such as myself actually spent her formative years in Newark, Delaware, where everyone who was anyone played water polo.
“Well, then you have to meet Nacho Figueras next weekend at the Bridgehampton Polo Club kickoff,” my dear friend (and publicist) R. Couri Hay suggested. “Maybe we can even set you up with a lesson. When was the last time you rode a horse?”
That’s when it dawned on me that they were talking about polo polo: the kind played by very attractive men who appear in Ralph Lauren campaigns. The kind that’s like croquet on horseback, where you gallop at full tilt while bending over to hit a very small plastic ball with a 10-20 pound mallet.
Whatever. How hard could it be? (Truth be told, I had never really played water polo, either. I think I was confusing it with “Marco Polo,” at which I am excellent.) I did have some experience with horses, having ridden a pony on at least three separate birthday occasions, and I’d been a natural. So throwing caution to the wind, I signed up for my introductory lesson.
In preparation, I even bought the requisite white jeans for the occasion, though they seemed an odd choice. (If you’re going to piss yourself in fear, wouldn’t something dark be more appropriate?)
I arrived the next day in New Jersey, at a sprawling estate belonging to taxi tycoon Simon Garber. There I met my two instructors, Mauricio Sanchez Andre and Serafin Monteverde, both extremely good-looking 23-year-olds (from Uruguay and Argentina, respectively).
“We’re medium-good,” Mauricio responded when I asked him about the pair’s talent level. “Not as good as Nacho, but he’s much older than us.”
Both young men had been practicing since they were around nine years old and now played for various sponsors: older gentlemen, for the most part, who want to play high-level polo and have a lot of extra cash to throw around. Players like Mauricio and Serafin are generally hired for a season and given a place to live on a sponsor’s horse farm. In exchange, they round out the four-man team.
“Some sponsors are great; others, not so much,” Mauricio said. Later in the year, the duo would head south to play on the Palm Beach circuit, and then go on to the Argentina Open, where one can line up fat-walleted sponsors for next season.
If it all sounds very Hunger Games, don’t worry: it’s theoretically possible for a team to win without killing the opposing players. (Though statistics show that for every 100 hours of polo, there is an accident severe enough to receive medical attention. Katniss would feel right at home.)
Before getting on the saddle, I zipped up my boots, put on my helmet, and whispered to my brown horse, “If I die, you’re going to the glue factory.”
It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship, one in which the noble beast (let’s call him Brownie) spent the next hour trying to dash out of the 300-by-160 yard field of play and back to his feeding pen. That’s when he wasn’t galloping, kamikaze-style, into the giant pine trees that bordered the area.
“You have to direct him with the reins!” Mauricio would shout. “No, not with both hands! Left hand only! The other hand is for the stick!”
That’s right: in polo, you’re supposed to control a 1,000-pound, four-legged monster with one hand, because in the other you are holding a very large, very heavy mallet. Meanwhile, in order to hit the three-and-a-half-inch polo ball, you have to tip yourself down and to the side while simultaneously swinging this Thor-like hammer with the grace of a tennis racket. Worse, you have to do it with your right hand, even if you’re a Southpaw. Which, obviously, I am.
“Haven’t you ever played tennis before?” Mauricio asked, somewhat frustrated, when he finally caught up to Brownie and me.
“Not really,” I said, trying to detangle my mallet arm from the forest of branches in which Brownie had deposited us.
“Okay, what about hockey?
“Well, it’s the same motion as when you ski,” Mauricio said patiently, trying to exhibit once again what seemed like a natural, easy motion: a fluid, over-the-shoulder backswing and follow-through, executed at a 70-degree angle from the horse.
“Oh no, I’ve never been skiing,” I said. “I’m way too klutzy for that.”
Over the course of the next 45 minutes, I galloped between the two goal posts, trying to hit those tiny little balls without accidentally smashing my horse in the face, dropping the mallet, or—the most likely scenario—just falling off Brownie and getting trampled to death.
“Hey, if I do fall off, what do I do?” I asked at one point, after a particularly successful chukker. (That’s polo-nese for “period of play.”) I had actually managed to lightly tap the ball with my increasingly leaden right arm, and figured that if I were going to fall off, I should at least know some “stop, drop, and roll” techniques.
“Don’t think about falling off,” was the response.
As I was getting ready to leave, Mr. Garber appeared with his family in tow. “What do you want to know about polo?” he asked in a thick Russian accent.
I asked if a lot of women played in USPA (the United States Polo Association).
“Some, but not many,” his daughter, Enette Garber, answered. “It’s like, really, really dangerous.”
“Wait, you signed a waiver, right?” Mr. Garber asked.
“If you killed yourself, you could have sued me!”