There has been some interesting discussion about who is the best polo player of all time. Personally, I would have thought that Adolfo Cambiaso would be the obvious choice of almost everybody. But it is not so. Other very knowledgeable people have their own ideas of who is the best. Two other names have come up already, Juan Carlos Harriott of Argentina, who won no fewer than 20 Argentine Opens!, and Cecil Smith of Texas who was a 10-goal player for 25 years!. Personally I like all three of these great players, although in different ways. Perhaps we can learn something from each of them. But there is one who is my personal all-time favorite, and I will talk about him first. Please feel free to post your own personal favorites. Maybe we all can learn something.
Here's a guy who ruled the sport in the 1920s. Has anyone ever been better?
Cecil Smith was born on Valentines Day, on the Moss Ranch, near Llano, Texas in 1904. The small community in the Texas Hill Country was cattle country and Smith began riding when he was 3 years old. He was a dollar-a-day ranch hand through most of his youth and dropped out of school as soon as he was able to earn “adult wages” as a cowboy.
In the early 1920′s Smith came in contact with a horse trader named George Miller who had began breeding and training polo ponies to sell to the East Coast elite. A polo pony brought a better price than a cow pony, so many horsemen in Texas had become involved in the business during those years.
Always a gifted horseman, Smith became interested in the sport that put his skills on horseback to the ultimate test. With no polo balls available, he began by hitting rocks and tin cans. In short order he was hitting the ball the distance of a polo field, 300 yards, in 2 shots. In addition to being the most gifted rider of his generation, Smith was known as the best ball striker. Slowly he garnered the attention of the East Coast polo establishment and was soon playing in the biggest matches at Meadow Brook.
In those days a top polo match would draw over 30,000 spectators and featured the all stars of the game, such as: Tommy Hitchcock, Pete Bostwick, Michael Phipps, Roberto Cavanagh, and Stewart Inglehart. But, Smith quickly became the main attraction. He was the most graceful player of the day, combining effortless skill with constant awareness of the intention of every player on the field. To watch Cecil Smith ride in those days was to watch the best to ever play the game.
In 1939 he teamed with Michael Phipps, Tommy Hitchcock, and Stewart Iglehart to form the first 40 goal American team. It was to be the Dream Team of polo; at the time, the greatest collection of polo talent to ride together. However, Smith was injured before they were to play in the Westchester Cup and the team was never able to play side-by-side.
Smith’s crowning achievemant came in 1933 when he led the West team, comprised of cowboys and ranchhands, against the seemingly invicible East team in a three-game series in Lake Forest, Illinois. Smith scored 6 goals in the deciding third game to secure the upset. He also removed any doubt as to the game’s greatest player as East star Tommy Hitchcock was held scoreless in game 3. Humorist Will Rogers wrote of the match:
“‘Well, the hillbillies beat the dudes and took the polo championship of the world right out of the drawing room and into the bunkhouse. And she won’t go East in years. … Poor old society. They got nothing exclusive left. The movie folks outmarried and outdivorced ‘em, the common folks took their cocktails, ‘near’ society look to bridge. Now polo has gone to the buckwheat belt.”
When the Polo Hall of Fame opened in 1990, six players were elected on the first ballot – Smith, Tommy Hitchcock, Harry Payne Whitney, Devereux Milburn, Bob Skene and Stewart Iglehart. Cecil Smith spent 25 years as a 10 goal player, the longest tenure in the history of the game. His Hall of Fame inscription simply reads:
“Cecil Smith was endowed with unquestionable talents both as a horseman and polo player. With determination and fortitude, he developed his abilities to perfection. Over the years, he played on more fields with more players than perhaps anyone else in polo. He has always been and still is the inspirational leader of the game.”
Cecil Smith played in his last polo match at the age of 83. He died in 1999, a day before his 95th birthday. He died as a cowboy and horseman, but will forever be remembered among the best to ever play the Sport of Kings.
Love it – this is brilliant!!!
Can it be possible that there was a time when polo in America was actually better than Argentina? It is probably true that the horses and riders in Argentina today are better than anywhere else in the world. No one would seriously argue with that. But what about in the 20s and 30s? Would anyone from Argentina agree that polo was actually better in the United States in those days? And if it was better once, is there any chance it will someday be better again? Personally, I find that hard to imagine.
It all starts with the horses. America had the cowboys. Argentina had the gauchos. Many of the greats grew up riding from a very young age. Maybe that is a big part of it. I've always wondered why Australia and New Zealand doesn't produce many great polo players. They have horses. They have the cowboy culture. What is it about America and Argentina? And before that, India and England? What is it that makes riding on a horse and hitting a ball seem so magical, so surreal, so timeless? Maybe life has to be very hard before the freedom of polo can seem so sweet.
I don't know about Juancarlitos, but there is no doubt that Cecil Smith and Cambiaso were always very close to their horses. And that will probably always be true for the greatest players in the game, of any era.
may be, just may be, its because there is less elitism in the game in argentine than in say USA, UK, NZ and australia. The fact that anyone with a horse can play/breed. But as i heard from a friend there is alot of family interconnections in the argentine high goal sharing ties, horses and probably skills.
‘’Can it be possible that there was a time when polo in America was actually better than Argentina? It is probably true that the horses and riders in Argentina today are better than anywhere else in the world. No one would seriously argue with that. But what about in the 20s and 30s? Would anyone from Argentina agree that polo was actually better in the United States in those days? And if it was better once, is there any chance it will someday be better again? Personally, I find that hard to imagine.’’
Thanks GB Polo. This is an interesting post and your comment above is rather interesting too.
There is no doubt about it today Argentina produces the best players and ponies in the world.
However there is, like in anything in life, an evolution…
To make a few comments about the post (let’s make short ones without writing an essay…):
1/ Number of 10 goal players per country:
Thomas Hitchcock Sr
Harry Payne Whitney
J. Watson Webb
Thomas Hitchcock Jr
j. Malcolm Stevenson
Bob Skene (also of Australian passport)
Total: 22 (8 after world war 2)
J. Hardress Lloyd
Luis Lacey (also of Argentine nationality)
Total: 11 (none after world war 2)
Total: 2 (pre world war 2)
Juan Carlos Otamende
Guillermo ‘Memo’ Gracida
Bob Skene (also in the US list)
David Pelon Sterling
Juan Carlos Alberdi
Juan Carlos Harriott
Alberto Pedro Heguy
Horacio Heguy Jr.
Juan Ignacio Merlos
Milo Fernández Araujo
Miguel Novillo Astrada
Gonzalo Pieres (h)
Ignacio Novillo Astrada
Pablo Mac Donough
Lucas Monteverde (h)
Juan Martín Nero
Total: 42 players (7 ten goalers pre world war 2)
It is interesting to see that it is the second half of the 20th century that has produced 80% of the Argentine 10 goal players. The first half was dominated by American Polo players.
As I was not around it is hard for me to comment on the quality of the horses produced in the US versus the horses produced by Argentina. To note of course that even the finest connoisseurs and experts all agree to say that the quality of the horses produced today in High goal polo in Argentina is far more superior then one would find in the 70s, 60s, and before in Argentina. So undoubtedly the quality must be superior then in the US…
There are between both regions many key common denominators:
Both countries have athletes performing at top levels in all types of sports
Both countries have a very strong equestrian culture
Both countries have climates and geographical space to have polo played
Both countries have had a polo activity starting at around similar period
Etc etc etc
However for me one key argument that stands out, and this is not to diminish Argentine Polo vis-à-vis the rest, is that Argentina versus the US, the UK and other polo playing nations never went through World War 2!
Well one could say this is a minor factor and I would disagree!
Firstly because the second World War put polo to a stop in the US and in Europe.
Let’s not forget that in the late 1980s there were about 350-400 polo players in the UK, around 50 in Paris, and a few, very few polo clubs in the US. Even less polo in all these regions before the 1980s.
It took a long time to restart Polo since the war.
The war destroyed in all these regions the polo playing youth, the polo playing military officers, the infrastructures and the assets used for the game. Several top players died in the war, and others lost their wealth with the war.
This never happened in Argentina where the game went on (the Open was just not played in 1945).
I am not American but this is an important factor that no one never looked.
It is hard to elect a best player of all time as very few players have seen both Hitchcock Jr, Harriott, Pieres Snr, Cambiaso and Facundo Cambiaso play in their lifetime.
From what I understand and what I saw the best players list of all time look like this:
Thomas Hitchcock Jr.
Juan Carlos Harriott Jr.
Gonzalo Pieres Sr
4/ I think that Mauricio forgot Carlos Gracida in his list…..
5/ My vote does to: Gonzalo Pieres Sr and Carlos Gracida
However for me one key argument that stands out, and this is not to diminish Argentine Polo vis-à-vis the rest, is that Argentina versus the US, the UK and other polo playing nations never went through World War 2! Well one could say this is a minor factor and I would disagree! Firstly because the second World War put polo to a stop in the US and in Europe. Let’s not forget that in the late 1980s there were about 350-400 polo players in the UK, around 50 in Paris, and a few, very few polo clubs in the US. Even less polo in all these regions before the 1980s. It took a long time to restart Polo since the war. The war destroyed in all these regions the polo playing youth, the polo playing military officers, the infrastructures and the assets used for the game. Several top players died in the war, and others lost their wealth with the war. This never happened in Argentina where the game went on (the Open was just not played in 1945). I am not American but this is an important factor that no one never looked.
That is such an interesting point, and I've never thought about it before. And it's so obvious. The War was when everything came to a halt except winning the war. And of course there was no choice. America's back was to the wall, and we had to concentrate everything on winning or face elimination. So polo was one of the things that was lost. I think you may be right, but what a tragedy!
Otherwise, great, great post.
1/ About the list: well the thing is Tommy Hitchcock is such a legend it is hard to exclude him. Account of his polo skills put him above the ten goal group of his time. But the fact is that I have never seen him play, nor have I have seen the other pre-war players play.
2/ Same thing for an English ten goaler: the last is Gerald Balding who had is ten goals before the way and then lower after the war.
3/ The question of the post was the best player of all time so this is a seperate issue from nationality.
4/ It is a interesting comment you make about Memo versus Carlos. Not sure I entirely agree. Memo was recognized as the great general/organizer. His domination of American Polo was incredible with I think:
16 US Opens
21 years as 10 goaler
One Argentine Open
There are some win in the Queens Cup and the Gold Cup
And of course many others.
Carlos on the hand has maybe not held that handicap for so long but has a different track record, lets not forget:
5 Argentine Open
10 British Gold Cups
9 US Opens
and the rest.....
So his polo record is less US focused. I think Carlos is more a star in the UK and Memo more a star in the US. Both fantastic players.
- There might have been a British player who won the open before the 1st World War as a lot of the players then were a mix of Argentines (who were 1st generation of people who had immigrated) and foreigners who lived in Argentine (and would probably stay there beyond that time) but none in the past 100 years.
Of course Luis Lacey had dual nationality (UK/Argentine) and won the open 7 times.
The main foreigners who won the Open are: Gaston Peers, Bob Skene, Memo Gracida, Carlos Gracida, Pelon Stirling.
There was 1 US team that won the Open in 1932: Meadow Brook with Michael Phipps, Winston Guest, Elmer Boeseke, William Post.
Julian Hipwood got to the final of the open twice, and unfortunatelly with his team lost, but that's were they made him an 8 and 9 goaler player...in Argentina.
I'm a little surprised that Cecil Smith is not on your list. Tommy Hitchcock may have been great, but C. Smith is the one most people think of as the greatest American player. Twenty-five years as a 10-goaler (still the longest ever!), started riding when he was three, learned polo by hitting rocks, routinely hit the ball 300 yards with two shots, known for graceful and effortless play under all circumstances, tall and extremely rugged player, and played his last game at 83. True, he never played in Argentina, but if we are talking about, say, the top five players of all time, I think we have to include Cambiaso, Harriott, and C. Smith. The other two, I don't know. ;-)
I will suggest may be the greatest player of each decade from 1900 to date, it may ease the selection, otherwise we will just have lots of individual choices. It is obvious that all contributors have their own diverse choices of who the greatest is (which is subject to individual criteria).
That would be interesting, but there is no "selection" process involved here. We are not trying to pick a winner, we are merely discussing different opinions. The idea is to learn more about the great ones of all eras so we can better understand the differences and perhaps discover similarities we hadn't thought of before.
Unfortunately, discussion of their best qualities is the only thing available to us. In order truly to determine the best, we would need to put all of them on the same polo field, all in their prime, and all with their best horses and let them play. The winner would be the best, at least for that day. As it is we can only talk about them, and everyone is sure to have a different opinion. From my standpoint, all of the great polo players that have been mentioned here are interesting to me in their own way, and I think I can learn something from each one of them. Who knows how many more there are that we haven't found yet. Again, photos, videos, articles, interviews, whatever, would be very welcome.
Cecil Smith is well known to me because he is an American and Texan legend. But if we want to know the secrets of true greatness, we must study the habitual attitudes and practices of great players from all over the world.