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.
Hahaha Great post, Mauricio. I like the "ball pasted on the cigar" idea. It sounds as if Bruce is right in a way. Even if Bauti did not originate the Ball Control Game, it may be that he perfected it to such an extent that his technique was phenomenal compared with everyone else in the game at the time. Personally, I still like the idea of the Long Ball Score. If you're at midfield and you think you can score, why not knock the paste off the cigar and put the ball through the goal posts. The long shots may be risky, but they are a lot of fun to watch. I think Adolfito can probably do it both ways, no?
According to Frank Milburn, the "long game" in polo was "invented" by Harry Payne Whitney around 1909 to mount a challenge to the then dominant English teams.
"Instead of imitating the English positional changes of moving the ball upfield incrementally, man by man, Whitney favored long passes, hard riding, and continuous switching of positions."
(Milburn, Polo The Emperor of Games pp.59-60.)
Whitney proved his theories correct in successive Westchester Cup victories. This method of polo was adopted by all other teams and continued to be the basis for team polo until after World War II..
What changed the game substantially was the lack of enough top players after the war. The patrón system came more into use, in which a rich, playing sponsor, called a "patròn", hired 3 other players and played together with them on the same team.The patròn footed the bill for the tournaments, the players and all the other neccessary costs. That made the patròn invaluable to the team. It also made for a weak link in the team. No longer could the top players hit up to the patròn and expect this player to be able to handle the ball or the pace of the game. The "long game" broke down. Instead, the top pros guarded the ball, controlling the pace of the game, waiting for an opportunity to place the ball in front of the goal for the thankful patròn to (hopefuly) knock the ball through the uprights. Along with this change came the change in true "Open" tournamnets, for an example at the US Open and the British Open, to the present system which has a cap at 22 or 26 aggregate goals per team.
Only in Argentina, where top players thrived, did the tournaments continue up to a 40 goal level. Still, players who had been playing abroad using this "short game" brought this game back with them and continued this manner at the tournaments in Argentina. Gone are the true "team play" systems which proved so successful against individual performances. The sole exception might be the team La Aguada, playing for over 10 years with four brothers. Even at the beginning of the 21st century, La Dolfina, with the 9 goal hcp Merlos brothers (at one time or another 10 goalers) continued to use this short game with Castagnolo feeding Cambiaso, as the two Merlos brothers just watched. Oh, how much more dominant they could have been had they used all of their players in a true team effort! From the year 2000 to 2003, they won only once in four final tries at the Argentine Open. La Aguada beat them in 2003 Argentine Open final using a "team play" system, taking the triple crown for that year. Few would contend that La Aguada had the better individual players. La Dolfina's team today is composed of four individually talented players who each have the ability to change the momentum of a game by themselves. It makes one wonder, however, how much better they could be if they harnessed this potential together in a "team play" system using fast breaks and hitting up to teammates to cover the field with uncanny speed.
So, how does one judge the players of yesteryear with those of today? That has been the challenge of every sports journalist. In the end, one cannot really compare athletes of different eras to one another. The best athletes have always been those that have risen to the challenge. That is why they were the best in their own time. The qualities of desire, heart, competitiveness, the refusal to be defeated, the ability to adapt and to improve, to overcome one's shortcomings and rise to the top - all of these qualities are not quantifiable. That leaves us only with our opinions about who we feel were the best.
Perhaps of interest to anyone curious about polo history is the book The Evolution of Polo by Horace A. Laffaye. For a short read into this book, check google books at:
Thanks, MC. Great post. Sounds as if the Long Ball Speed Game is, at least potentially, still alive in Argentina!
Mauricio's post is indeed enlightening and raises many important questions. I don't think it can be overemphasized how the transition from the Long Ball Speed Game of the past to the Short Ball Control Game of today affects how we judge who is "the greatest" or "the best" polo player of all time. It is easy to see how the best Long Ball Speed Game player might not be the best Short Ball Control Game player, and vice versa. So in judging who is the best polo player of all time, we are forced to ask the following question: Which polo is the best polo, the Long Ball Speed Game or the Short Ball Control Game? The answer to that question probably involves a consideration not only of players and their skills but also of the horses and their qualities. From my personal point of view (and also perhaps from the point of view of which game is better for the sport as a whole), the questions are: (1) which game is more fun to play, (2) which game is more fun to watch, and (3) which game will require us to develop better, faster, and more agile horses?
Although Maltese Cat clearly implied that he thought the Long Ball Speed Game generally prevalent in the past is "better polo" than the Short Ball Control Game generally prevalent today, he chose to respond to Mauricio's excellent post rather than directly answer the question I have posed above. Unfortunately, no one else has chosen to answer the question either. Let me ask it another way. Does ANYONE, for ANY REASON, think the Short Ball Control Game generally prevalent today is better than the Long Ball Speed Game generally prevalent in the past?
Alright, if NO ONE thinks that the Short Ball Control Game of today is better than the Long Ball Speed Game of the past, we must admit to the possibility that generally speaking we are now witnessing an inferior game of polo across the board. Therefore, at least for purposes of our discussion, wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that the "best polo player of all time" must have played in the days when the game of polo itself was better? In other words, could the Best Short Ball Control Game player ever hope to be considered better than the best Long Ball Speed Game player?
Hearing no disagreement, I think we have reached a point where it is safe to say: the best polo player in the history of the game is the best Long Ball Speed Player, whether that player lived and played in the past, the present or the future. Personally I would like to hear someone speak of Cecil Smith, a 6'4" who learned to play polo by hitting rocks on a Texas cattle ranch. Perhaps JCH himself saw him play. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Cecil Smith could hit 70-80-90% of his shots from 150 yards, and apparently no one can do that today.
Thanks for your opinion, Sani. But perhaps you misunderstood what I was saying. I do not find it surprising that a reasonably competent polo player can hit a shot from 150 yards. It happens all the time. But it is my understanding that to do it consistently, at the level of 70% or more, is not being done by anyone today. Perhaps I am mistaken about that, and perhaps others can assist us in arriving at the truth in this regard.
Being Argentine and having heard this discussion a few times, I believe JC Harriot was the best player in history. But then again... myths can be tricky to measure. His 20 Argentine Open wins record might never be broken again. Add to this that EVERYBODY respects his chivalry and MOST people say he was one of the finest horsemen they've seen ... and my vote goes to him. All my best and thanks for the posting!