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."
To their immense credit, the Heguys understood the role ofbetter horses and more professional players long before the competition did. The family has also matched prowess on the field with unerring entrepreneurial sense. Earlier than anybody else, they realized that they could parlay the vanity of the jet set into an extremely profitable business. If the Sultan of Brunei or some Palm Beach mogul wanted to captain and play on the best polo teams money could buy, well then, the Heguys would broker their fantasies. Royalty and magnates pay handsomely to have the Heguy boys on their polo teams, and as a fat bonus, agree to buy at a premium the horses the Argentines bring to the matches.
This is why polo is the only sport in which amateurs, by virtue of owning a team, get to play alongside their superstar employees. The arrangement works because the rules of the game specify that in official international matches, no teams may have players with a collective handicap of more than 22 goals. (The handicap limit was instituted several decades ago precisely because Argentine players were so dominant.) This allows, say, Kerry Packer, the hefty Australian billionaire who has suffered several heart attacks, and another amateur of his choosing to team with two Argentine professionals with 10-goal handicaps for the Queen's Cup in Britain.
Asked whether he finds it somewhat incongruous that owners claim the right to play alongside the pros they have hired, Ignacio Heguy, another superstar in the family, replies: "They pay, so they can do what they want, can't they? I mean, is it any different than owning a baseball team in the United States?" Well, it's true that over the years, George Steinbrenner has run the Yankees anyway he damn pleases. But he hasn't yet insisted on playing first base.
The annual paychecks of several hundred thousand dollars collected by the top polo pros can almost make convoying rich amateurs through a match seem like fun. "For the owners, it's like playing with a Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson on your side," says Eduardo Heguy, Ignacio's brother. "It's OK because the other team has Larry Bird and Shaq O'Neal."
So, for eight months a year, the Heguy boys gladly hire themselves as top guns for the Sultan of Brunei's teams in Asia and Europe. But they save their greatest enthusiasm for their three-month annual return to Argentina. Here, on the playing fields of Tortugas, Hurlingham and Palermo--the triple crown of Argentine polo--all-pro teams with no limits to their handicaps can square off for glory. These matches may not be officially recognized in the United States and Europe with their respective 26- and 22-goal handicap limits. But anybody vaguely familiar with polo knows the real champions are decided in these competitions. "In Europe and America, nobody has ever seen 40-goal teams like the Heguys," says Jeremy Mains, a former British polo player in Buenos Aires to view the Argentine Open.
Among the major polo-playing countries, Argentina was one of the last to be introduced to the sport. Polo was brought here in the 1880s by British railroad executives who were building train lines connecting the agricultural interior with the port of Buenos Aires. Many were former cavalry officers who had learned the sport during tours in colonial India, where native horsemen first developed a prototype of the game centuries before. The enormous, flat landscape of the Argentine pampa proved a perfect setting for polo. Acreage was cheap and plentiful enough to sustain large herds of polo horses, alongside commercial cattle-raising and grain farming.
Besides providing entertainment in the vast, lonely expanses of the countryside, polo offered social incentives that spurred its popularity among the big ranchers, or estancieros. To play the sport well provided entry into elite society abroad. By the 1920s, polo and tango were synonymous with the wealthy estancieros who spent months every year cavorting in Europe--on the playing fields during the day and in the cabarets at night.
Polo is still largely a patrician sport in Argentina. Santiago Zuberbühler is a prototype. He is heir to one of the finest estancias, Acelain, a palatial manor house in Buenos Aires province built in Spanish-Moorish style and surrounded by a 1,000-acre private park of palms, cypresses, oaks and pines. Beyond this preserve lie two polo fields and 15,000 acres of grazing lands and grain fields. Henry Kissinger and the then-Crown Prince Akihito of Japan are among a long list of international celebrities to have stayed at the estancia.
Already an accomplished player as a teenager, Zuberbühler spent his year of compulsory military service playing polo for the army cavalry corps. "When my commanding officer found out I knew polo, he asked me to join his team," says the estanciero. Now nearly a septuagenarian, he has no plans to quit the sport. "Just recently, I attended a match in which a 92-year-old played three chukkers," he says.
A significant minority of polo players come from more modest circumstances, and are sometimes recruited from the ranks of the gauchos, or Argentine cowboys. The social gap between elite sportsman and humble ranch hand is enormous. Nonetheless, the polo-playing son of a wealthy estanciero depends on the gaucho to act as a groom for his horses and as a teammate when friends aren't available. Occasionally, like a caddie rising to golf pro, a gaucho becomes a ranked polo player. This is what happened to Manuel Güiraldes.
Estancieros often joke that they carried out agrarian reform in Argentina by dividing their lands among their numerous offspring. At the turn of the century, the Güiraldes family had more than 100,000 acres of pampa ranch land. But by the time Manuel, one of 13 siblings, was born 50 years ago, none was left for him. He was,in effect, a gaucho descended from estancieros. "I was so poor that I had to carve my own wood mallets and balls," Manuel says about his adolescence. But his charm and athletic talents made him a favorite among wealthier polo players. He thrived as a player and coach in Europe. A few years ago, he returned to Argentina to manage a polo school at an estancia once owned by his granduncle, Ricardo Güiraldes, author of the great gaucho novel, Don Segundo Sombra.
The Heguys fall somewhere in between Zuberbühler and Güiraldes in the social spectrum of polo. Their great-grandfather, a French-Basque immigrant named Bautista, arrived in Argentina at the turn of the century when land was cheap and bought several thousand acres about 300 miles west of Buenos Aires. The family polo tradition began with the first generation of Argentine-born Heguys. But it was the second generation, the brothers Alberto and Horacio (who died this past January), who reached the pinnacle of international play. A veterinarian and agronomist, respectively, they were astute enough to realize that unless they could turn polo into a profitable business, their sons might not be able to afford to become champions themselves.
Thanks to their fathers' business acumen, the sons never had a financial worry and could devote their lives entirely to polo. "As a kid, there wasn't a day I didn't play polo," recalls Eduardo Heguy, now 31 years old. He began swinging a miniature mallet like a croquet stick as he waddled around the lawn. He was riding horses before he could walk properly. At nine years of age, he played in his first official polo tournament. "Other destinies were possible, I suppose," says his brother, Ignacio, 24. "But they seemed so much harder than polo." These comments are echoed on the other side of the family, by the rival team of Heguys. "We all do the same things and talk the same language," says Bautista, 26. "We have spent almost every day of our lives together at least eight hours a day."
The best way to meet the Heguys is to stalk them on the sidelines of their practice fields in a polo club about a 30-minute drive outside Buenos Aires. The club is located amid flat, loamy farmlands partitioned by eucalyptus and pine groves. Six polo fields surround a clubhouse built in Spanish colonial style with a terracotta tile roof. At the stables, grooms are sponging the horses--wonderful thoroughbreds with braided tails and glistening black, reddish or palomino coats. A grizzled veteran with a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth, points to a practice field several hundred yards away.
The thunder of hooves heralds the players even before they come into view. "Dale! Dale! Dale!" ("Come on, come on, come on!"), the Heguys, all of them 10-goalers, shout to one another as they crush a scrap team of players with mere seven- and eight-goal handicaps. A hawk swoops down on the field and neatly clutches a mouse flushed out of its hole by the galloping horses. The sidelines look like a fashion shoot. Women in cashmeres lean against Mercedes and BMWs, while men in fine gabardines light up cigars.
Among the seven Heguys, the ones most often singled out by the press for their personalities and playing styles are Eduardo and Ignacio from one team and Bautista from the other. Eduardo, nicknamed "El Ruso" (The Russian), has a burly torso and a poker face with small, hooded eyes. If a match is hard and physical, he is the player to have on your side. His cousin, Bautista, is a mirror opposite. With the lean build of an adolescent and feline grace, he is arguably the fastest rider and most accurate striker in the game. His style and matinee idol looks have turned him into a sex symbol.
Ignacio, better known as "Nachi," relishes his image of wild unpredictability. Nobody knows what color he will tint his hair for a match. He took a drubbing in the press for a hard foul against his cousin Horacio during the 1996 Argentine Open final. Horacio had lost an eye in a polo mishap years ago, and in the '96 final, Nachi rammed into him from his blind side, in an incident that shifted the momentum of the match to Nachi's team. "It was an accident," says Nachi, wearing red sneakers, jeans and his hair in its natural brown color, as he watches Horacio and his other cousins on the practice field. "We've talked about it and he's never held it against me. Beyond that, we both know that once we're on the field, we play to win no matter who we're facing--hated rival or close relative."
The routines of a polo player's life are pretty much the same for all the Heguy cousins. In the countryside, they each have adjoining estancias, partitioned equally from their parents' estates. In Buenos Aires, they all live within a close radius, in the swank Barrio Norte, a district of limestone apartment buildings and elegant parks extending north of the city center along the broad, coffee-colored River Plate. In Buenos Aires, says Nachi, "We're only ready to face the day at noon. We get to the practice field about then and finish about five. Then we spend an hour drinking mate [a bitter herbal tea popular in the Argentine countryside] with the grooms and help them wash down their horses. At night, we each go out with our own friends to restaurants, discos and pop concerts, and get home late."
According to Bautista, polo is a perfect sport for superstars who seek sublime off-field hours. It's too elite to draw bothersome mobs of adoring fans, but offers enough celebrity for any healthy ego. "I can still walk into a restaurant without creating a scene, and yet always come across people who won't allow me to pick up the check," he says.
Nonetheless, all the Heguys say that they much prefer the quiet countryside to the cosmopolitan distractions of the big city. That's probably an advantage, because they have to spend a lot of their time on the island of Borneo, in Brunei, under contract to the Sultan, in a Muslim society that forbids alcohol and extramarital sex.
The sultan, who recently lost his title of the globe's richest person to Microsoft's Bill Gates, has apparently decided to console himself by owning the world's best polo players. So, he has signed up all seven Heguys, and rotates them two at a time on his teams (one of the sultan's nephews usually rides in one of the other two spots) to comply with international handicap rules. The sultan's contract has been controversial not only because his teams steamroller their competition, but because he has prevented the Heguys from practicing enough together to maintain their supremacy back in Argentina.
The 1997 Argentine Open at Palermo Field is only a couple of weeks away, and for the first time in recent memory an Heguy team isn't favored to win. "It's true that we've barely had time to practice together as teams because of our commitments with Brunei," says Bautista. "But this is Palermo--not the place to bet against the Heguys."
As it turns out, he was nearly right. The 1997 championship is almost as much of a nail-biter as the previous year's final. But the Heguy team led by Bautista ends up on the losing end of a 15-14 score. The winner, Ellerstina, is owned by Kerry Packer, who had the good sense to allow his Argentine pros to practice in Argentina as a team as many months as they needed, rather than insisting they play with him in Europe and the United States.
My days as a polo spectator and hanger-on have left me wondering what motivated a Kerry Packer and a Sultan of Brunei to spend so much money and risk so much personal dignity on polo. Like any middle-aged American male, I indulge in sports fantasies: hitting a three-point shot over Michael Jordan's outstretched hands; rocketing a Greg Maddux slider into the bleachers; snaring a game-winning pass from John Elway. So I head over to Manuel Güiraldes's ranch, a 90-minute drive from Buenos Aires, for a polo lesson.
"I'll have you out on the playing field in a half hour," promises Güiraldes. It takes that long to get through a lesson on a wooden training horse he has installed in a barn. Forward and backward swings are delivered from either side of the horse. The forward motion can best be described as a tennis serve that turns into a one-arm golf stroke. Reverse that for a backward swing. Then, from the other side of the horse, the motion seems more like a tennis backhand that finishes in a croquet stroke. Soon I am hitting balls with the same sweet thud I've heard at Palermo.
On a real horse that is almost as tame as the training dummy, I follow Güiraldes and his mount to the polo field and watch him hammer the ball from every angle at full gallop. As my mare moves between a trot and a canter, I swing and miss on my first dozen attempts. The horse, sensing my ineptitude, moves closer to the ball, comes to a standstill, and...thwack--the ball dribbles through the posts for a goal. Illusions of going one-on-one against an Heguy are out of the question. My helmet's off to Kerry Packer for playing out his fantasies.
Jonathan Kandell, z freelance writer in New York, was formerly a correspondent in Latin America for The New York Times.