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Royal Horseplay

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

No matter the setting, no matter the sport, there are always those moments when an entire contest--sometimes even a season or a championship--comes down to the last play of a game. Quite often, in those final few moments, it is a single athlete's poise and talent (or lack thereof) that decides the day. Yet on this glorious summer afternoon in the south of England, there is no question in the minds of hundreds of onlookers about the outcome of the polo match soon to conclude on the immaculate grounds of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.  

Despite the participation of some of the world's best known amateur and professional polo players, it is assumed by the spectators (and most of the players, for that matter) that Adolfo Cambiaso will ride out from among his teammates and, much like Michael Jordan on a fast break, slap the 30-yard penalty shot straight through the goal posts to clinch the victory with no time left on the clock.  

It's something everyone has come to expect from the dazzling Argentine, who reached polo's topmost tier, a rating of 10 goals, a decade or so ahead of his peers at the unheard of age of 16. Cambiaso, now a seasoned veteran at 24, has lived up to his reputation as polo's prodigy by winning all of the game's top tournaments. He plays high-goal polo nearly year-round: in south Florida (January to April), England (May to July) and his native Argentina (September to December).   Yet after a brief huddle with his three teammates, Cambiaso and his mount remain motionless. So, too, does Prince Rashid of Jordan, himself a Sandhurst alumnus, who has spent most of the afternoon at full gallop as the team's offensive lightning bolt.

Tim Gannon, cofounder of the Outback Steakhouse franchise and high-goal polo patron, has been in man-to-man coverage with Lolo Castagnola, the match's other 10-goaler, all afternoon, and the two seem to be discussing the umpire's call with Castagnola's teammates: Dr. Amin Badr-El-Din, a well-known polo player from the United Arab Emirates who helped found the Ghantoot Polo Club in Abu Dhabi; Gen. Arthur Denaro, commandant at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst; and Mark Cann, a former cavalry officer who has helped organize today's match. Judging from their animated gestures, a difference of opinion exists.  

As if on cue, the crowd of cadets, field marshals, London models and polo denizens set aside their Pimm's Cups and Veuve Clicquot as the fourth horseman begins to canter toward the penalty line on a buckskin mare. HRH The Prince of Wales, a polo player since his school days, will take the shot and with it earn the praise or wear the blame for the outcome of the afternoon's competition.  

Sound like a good time? Moments like this--and there are plenty in almost every polo match--are why the game of kings is best described as an addiction rather than the oldest team sport in existence. Polo dates back several thousand years to the steppes of Central Asia. But it has only been in the past few decades that polo has become the province of hard-charging men and women who demand the same sort of challenges and rewards off the clock that they get running their own empires.  

Polo's seductive blend of speed and strategy, horsemanship and one-upmanship has attracted countless aficionados since British cavalrymen--with Sandhurst pedigrees to their credit--first came upon this most ancient of pastimes in India during the mid-nineteenth century and brought it back to England.  

Nowadays, Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones, the Sultan of Brunei, media magnate Kerry Packer and Franklin Mutual Series Fund chairman Michael Price are only a few of the marquee names whose idea of an afternoon off is to mount a 1,200-pound thoroughbred and go head-to-head against some of the sport's top professionals. In Los Angeles and Palm Springs, actors such as Jones, Stefanie Powers and Bill Devane are the latest in a long line of screen stars and studio heads to play polo.

Their predecessors include Will Rogers, Spencer Tracy, Walt Disney and Darryl Zanuck. In England, heads of state and royals such as the sultan, Prince Charles and Prince Rashid compete on fields where the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Windsor, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Sir Winston Churchill once played.

Along the U.S. East Coast, in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Long Island, New York, in Boca Raton and Palm Beach, Florida, polo has long-standing ties to Wall Street heavyweights and entrepreneurial mavericks such as Ambassador Averell Harriman, Abercrombie & Kent chairman Geoffrey Kent and restaurateur Norman Brinker, the driving force behind Steak & Ale and Chili's.  

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.

Today there are 13 Outback Steakhouses in the Tampa Bay area, 46 more throughout Florida, 495 nationwide, and 33 overseas. Outback Steakhouse became the success story of the 1990s, going public in 1991 and winning the three owners Inc. magazine's Entrepreneur of the Year award in 1994. Wall Street responded to this success by continually rating Outback's stock a strong buy.

The company now boasts a $2 billion market capitalization, and the three principals have reaped multimillion-dollar returns.  

After years of owning one or two horses, Gannon was finally able to enter the world of big-time polo. His first step was convincing Heatley that selling his law practice and taking charge of Outback Polo was a dream come true for both of them as well as a great life for their families.  

He was right. Since the mid-1990s, Outback Polo has won two silver cups, three gold cups and three U.S. Open championships. In case anyone thinks that Outback Polo has had its fill of championships, Heatley is overseeing the final touches on the team's 40-acre polo complex in West Palm Beach County, home to some of the country's top polo organizations. U.S. Open winner John Goodman's Isla Carroll Farm, nine-time Gold Cup winner Peter Brant's White Birch Farm and Henryk de Kwiatkowski's Calumet Farm are neighbors.

In addition to Gannon's own residence, which is done in an Andalusian style typical of the Argentine pampas, the complex includes a 60-stall barn, two polo fields, a quarter-mile gallop track and a jumping ring, which is where Kathleen Gannon is schooling her father in the intricacies of hunter-jumpers (horses that compete on a course designed after fox-hunting courses).  

Divorced, Gannon shares his love of horses with Kathleen, 14, and his son, Chris, 16. Kathleen trained and competed in Lake Placid last summer and is looking forward to having the home-field advantage once the equestrian circuit stops in Palm Beach. Chris has grown up playing polo and carries a one-goal handicap.

Father and son have played together on Outback teams in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and in Sotogrande, Spain; last year, Chris teamed up with Gonzalito Pieres, Santiago Chavanne and Tommy Lee Jones to form Outback II, a medium-goal squad that played at Palm Beach Polo & Country Club. His father thinks that learning to take charge of a feisty horse and work on your game is a talent anyone--teenager or adult--can benefit from.  

"Polo is a sport that requires total focus. That's one of the reasons it's so rewarding. You get what you give--and then some," says Gannon. Not surprisingly, a long list of other corporate heavyweights share his sentiments, including Steak & Ale founder Norman Brinker, who once won polo's U.S. Open.

Brinker has been a mentor for Gannon and his partners at Outback, all of whom worked at Steak & Ale early in their careers. During an interview at the Dallas headquarters of Brinker International, he points out that playing polo requires much the same mindset as running a business and is the ideal antidote to a demanding workweek.  

"Polo is like any business, so it appeals to that same psyche," says the 64-year-old Brinker, who no longer plays but remains involved with the sport. "You get a team, you coach the team, you have a sense of direction and you know exactly where you want to go.

You have benchmarks along the way. You have win-loss records, and you can tell how you're doing. Plus, it's an exhilarating sport and the people are exciting. I played for 35 years and never missed a season, even though I had a lot of accidents and broke a lot of bones. But I never stopped."  

Like Brinker, Gannon plans to play the sport for many years. Numerous patrons such as Bill Ylvisaker, who founded the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club, and the late John Oxley, whose family started and operates the Royal Palm Polo Club in Boca Raton, demonstrate that polo can be played into one's 70s and 80s. Gannon keeps his interest keen once the south Florida high-goal season ends by playing less competitive low- and medium-goal polo in charity matches around the world.  

"In addition to being such a high-energy sport," says Gannon, "polo is a great way to relax, to open your eyes to new people and to new places, and to see the world. Despite its blood and guts reputation, it's important to remember that polo is as much about fun and friendship as it is about challenging yourself and your teammates. Kind of like what Adolfo did to Prince Charles at Sandhurst."  

What Gannon is referring to is the storybook ending to the closely fought match at the Royal Military Academy. The royal roster and the presence of two of polo's top 10-goalers was straight out of central casting, but the conclusion, Prince Charles taking--and making--the game-winning penalty shot was scripted to perfection.  

Afterwards the prince admitted that taking center stage hadn't been his idea. "Blame it on Cambiaso," he told a group who had gathered on the grounds after the match. "I certainly wasn't in a hurry to take the shot myself, but he insisted that I do so."  

Few know that despite his crowded schedule, Prince Charles regularly plays in a polo match or two each month for charitable causes. His efforts have raised more than $10 million for a wide assortment of organizations. The Sandhurst match, which Mark Cann coordinated for the Combined Services Polo Association, benefited Britain's Army Benevolent Fund. The match was underwritten by Fifth Avenue Channel, an Internet company.  

On most days, Charles plays only for the love of the game, garnering a few bumps and bruises. At today's match, however, the competitors receive handcrafted silver spurs much like the ones General Patton wore, forged in the style of a cavalry straight spur by Firmin & Sons, a venerable English firm that dates back to 1677.  

Once the match is over and congratulations are offered, the throng proceeds to a catered barbecue on the grounds at Sandhurst. A sense of celebration is palpable. To have witnessed a classic match in an unforgettable setting on a picture-perfect day is what draws so many to play and follow polo worldwide. Many of the guests have traveled from the States, from the Continent and from the Middle East, and Gannon, host of the reception, thanks everyone for joining him for the fund-raiser.  

To cap off the festivities, a magnum of Champagne is brought out. After a moment or two it's clear that something is afoot, and an unsuspecting Gannon is caught square in the middle. It seems as if the English are about to uncork the bubbly using everyone's favorite kitchen accessory, a sword.  

Gannon is selected to wield the weapon, a blunted saber also from Firmin & Sons. Firmin's chief executive, Frederik Hsu, says that although his company's Millennium Sword has become something of a rage as a fin de millénaire memento, "it wasn't really designed to guillotine fine Champagne." A polo player himself, Hsu knows a thing or two about the delicate operation Gannon has before him.  

"To pull it off," Hsu says, "he's got to have a chilled bottle and take that blade right up the neck along the seam. Even then, there's a good chance that everyone may have to take cover if he doesn't cut it cleanly." A moment later, Gannon swings for the fences--and executes a perfect opening. Champagne flutes are hurried round.  

"I don't mind telling you that now that he's done it, I can't believe he did it," says Hsu. Those who know better call it the Gannon Luck.  

Eric O'Keefe, the editor of Cowboys & Indians, formerly was an editor at Polo magazine.