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Professional Polo: High Speed, High Priced

In the High-Speed, High-Priced World of Professional Polo, One Family Has Created its Own Equesrian Dynasty
Jonathan Kandell
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

Every sport has its championship moment--the singular contest that becomes recognized as the game of the century. For polo, that pinnacle may have been reached in the 1996 Argentine Open final in Buenos Aires. Some 15,000 spectators crowded the stands of Palermo Field in the city's ritziest neighborhood. The aroma of fine cigars was unmistakable. Waiters in white waistcoats served Champagne to suave men in blue blazers and chic women in tweeds. From the terraces of multimillion-dollar apartment buildings overlooking Palermo, condo owners trained their binoculars on the grassy expanse below as the match got under way.

Charging up and

down the field at full gallop, horses and riders seemed fused into centaurs of mythology. Animals came to abrupt halts and veered off or spun around in the wink of an eye. Players swung their mallets from every angle--right, left, forward, back--and...thwack!!!--the wooden ball sailed--as much as 60 yards--through the goal posts for a score.

Defensive plays were equally astonishing. Several times, players stuck out their mallets to intercept passes in midflight and begin a rally with the same stroke. After eight chukkers--periods of play lasting seven minutes each--the seesaw match ended in a 17-16 score. Even elderly veterans of world-class polo agreed it was the most thrilling exhibition they had ever witnessed.

More remarkable, though, was that the two teams were fielded from what was once a single polo club, called Chapaleufu, and all but one of the eight players were siblings or cousins. The winning team, Chapaleufu II, consisted of three sons of Alberto Heguy, plus another Argentine. They defeated a squad, Chapaleufu I, made up entirely of the four sons of Alberto's brother, Horacio.

If polo is the sport of kings, then the Heguys (pronounced EH-ghees) enjoy a near-absolute dynasty. In their youth, Alberto and Horacio Heguy were recognized as the world's best polo players and played on teams that won the Argentine Open 18 times. Today, six of their seven sons have a 10-goal handicap, the ultimate rating in the sport, and their teams have taken the championship six of the last eight years. This leads some people to suspect that the older Heguys practiced genetic cloning long before the recent scientific hullabaloo over a couple of British sheep.

Asked how one family could have produced so many talented athletes, Eduardo Heguy, who duels with his cousin, Bautista, for the mantle of supreme polo player, mentions "passion, dedication since early childhood, family tradition," and then adds: "Genes also must play a role." There is an anecdote often repeated about Eduardo's father, Alberto, a veterinarian who sometimes slips into his profession's earthy humor. When a friend asked Alberto if he would loan one of his sons for a friendly match, Alberto declined and instead offered to help his friend's wife breed a champion.

But the genes involved in the Heguys' supremacy also belong to the studs in the stable, as well as those in the saddle. "The real secret of their success is their breeding and selection of horses," says Manuel Güiraldes, a polo instructor and former international player. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when Argentina was in deep economic crisis, most polo-playing families were in such desperate financial straits that they sold their best horses abroad. "But the Heguys always set aside for themselves the best horses they bred," says Güiraldes. "And horses are 70 percent to 75 percent of the game."

Santiago Zuberbühler, who once competed against the older Heguys and at 69 still plays polo regularly, also believes that horses are a key factor in the family dynasty. "The game has changed a lot over my lifetime," he says. "Back in the '40s and '50s, horses were much inferior. Today they are bred to be so nimble that you can quickly circle around the ball and hit a forehand instead of a backhand. That's why they cost a fortune." (A quarter of a million dollars isn't an unusual price for a top polo horse, and a championship team may require a herd of 60 horses for training and competition.)

According to Zuberbühler, the other key difference between polo today and decades ago is the rise of the professional player, the same phenomenon that transformed tennis, that other, once-elite amateur sport. "All the great polo players today are professionals," he says. "There's no room at the top for amateurs anymore."

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