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Royal Horseplay

Horsemen from Prince Charles to Outback Steakhouse's Tim Gannon Are Passionate about Polo
Eric O'Keefe
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

(continued from page 1)

Since the late 1970s, south Florida has been their battleground, and the king of the hill nowadays is Gannon, 51, whose Outback Steakhouse team dominated the 1999 high-goal season with tournament championships in the United States Polo Association Gold Cup in Boca Raton and the U.S. Open in Palm Beach. Late-summer victories in the Spanish Silver and Gold Cups in Sotogrande only sweetened the season.  

Although he caught the polo bug in high school, it took several decades for Gannon to achieve his ambition of playing at the high-goal level. Only at this uppermost echelon are found the dozen or so professionals who hold the elusive 10-goal rating. (The U.S. Polo Association awards a skill rating from minus-2 to 10 based on such factors as skill level and won-loss record. This handicapping system enables players of different skill levels to compete against one another as long as the total of their team's ratings is similar.)

Most of the top players, like Cambiaso and Castagnola, are Argentine; a few are from Mexico and the United States. Through the game's rigorous handicapping system, they can be teamed with playing sponsors, known as patrons, such as Gannon. The result is something akin to the New York Yankees suiting up George Steinbrenner at shortstop. But a top polo team, with just four players per side, can't afford a weak link. Aggressive patrons such as Gannon are often the difference between the winner's and the loser's brackets.  

This unique aspect to polo--the opportunity to play with and against the world's top professionals--is one of the game's principal attractions, and for Gannon it fulfills a lifelong ambition. "It all goes back to a road trip I took after my junior year in high school," he says from his seat at central London's posh Ritz Club, one of the world's most exclusive casinos. (Whenever polo calls Gannon to England, he stays only at the Ritz, which he describes as "the best hotel in the world.")   "Towards the end of my junior year in high school," he continues, "Phil Heatley and I decided to hop in my '57 Chevy and drive out to El Paso and spend the summer riding horses along the Rio Grande near his father's horse farm. He lived right by the Sunland Park Race Track and about 100 yards from the [Mexican] border and about the same distance to a great old place called Rosa's Cantina, just like in the Marty Robbins song.

Getting out there was an epic in itself, but the real kicker came when we finally arrived with our big plans only to find the piles of manure Bud Heatley had for us to shovel." The comment and the laughter are typical of Gannon's Irish wit, and as he describes his life after graduating from high school in Fort Lauderdale and college in Tallahassee, it's clear that one of his greatest strengths is his sense of perspective.  

"Back when I was an art history major at Florida State, if you had told me I was going to end up serving more than 100 million meals a year, have my own polo farm in Palm Beach, and jet off to England and Spain and Argentina for tournaments, I would have laughed you off," he says. "In those days when I came to London, I saw the Ritz from the top of a double-decker bus and stayed over in the East End at Mrs. Pister's for a pound a night."

Those who knew Gannon back when he was a regular at Mrs. Pister's and know him today say that Gannon is much the same man. The secret of his success seems to be a combination of perseverance, talent and an ample dose of what friends and cohorts refer to as "the Gannon Luck."

His first forays out of college in 1970 offer ample evidence of that last trait.   Armed with an art degree, Gannon found himself faced with a mystifying shortage of job offers. "Not many companies beating down the doors to hire a good archivist back then," he says, "or, for that matter, today." So the graduate went west, to Colorado, where he got his first taste of the restaurant business as a cook at Aspen's Four Seasons. "Everyone wanted to bartend or wait tables and there was good money in it. But it seemed to me that without a good cook there wouldn't be a restaurant in the first place. That's how I got my start in this business."  

In 1974, on a trip to Boston to catch up with Heatley, his high school and college confidant, Gannon responded to an ad in a local newspaper. He soon was learning the managerial end of the restaurant business in the Steak & Ale organization in Maryland. Not only did it give him the opportunity to understand the financial aspects of his chosen profession, but his outgoing nature led to a friendship with the restaurant's manager, Chris Sullivan. Although they were just trainee and mentor in the mid-1970s, they teamed again in the late 1980s to form their own company. In the interim, Gannon had honed his culinary skills at several restaurants in New Orleans, and Sullivan, along with Bob Basham, had run Bennigan's national operations.  

Although they were at first unsure of a name or a theme (Basham later saw a movie about Australia and came up with the Outback theme) the three were hoping to open about five locations in and around Tampa, Florida. Gannon, Sullivan and Basham were good restaurateurs, but they were lousy forecasters.

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