Hall of Famer Memo Gracida is the newest columnist for CLICKPOLOUSA, read about his recent trip to the National Finals Rodeo as he discusses first impressions and the importance of fellow Hall of Famer Tommy Wayman to his career. 

I was finally able to fulfill a lifelong dream and attend the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas, Nevada, this past December. Normally, this event coincides with the Argentine Open and I end up staying in Argentina to attend the Finals and do some business. But, for the first time in years, the Open was held earlier in December, so my wife and I flew to Vegas.

National Finals Rodeo is essentially the “Super Bowl” of Rodeo. It is what the World Series is to baseball. It is what the Final at Palermo is for polo. The best of the best rodeo participants compete for ten nights straight. Each night, these athletes go flat out in front of a sold-out crowd at the Thomas Mack Arena, competing to win the title and the money. On the last night, the cumulation of scores determines who wins the average. We went for the last two evenings of competition. I have attended other major rodeos, but nothing compared to NFR. The thousands of cowboy hats filling the stands, the lights, the announcing, the horses, the sponsors, the athletes. It was spectacular and far surpassed any of my expectations. The passion in the air was intoxicating and I couldn’t have been more fulfilled by my first impression of this rodeo.

But, on top of seeing these superior rodeo athletes perform, what truly made the trip was catching up with one of my greatest polo idols, Tommy Wayman, who attends the Finals Rodeo on an annual basis. I had heard Tommy would be in town and I knew I had to see him because we hadn’t seen each other for years. We met up for a drink before the last night of the rodeo and, although we were surrounded by thousands of cowboy boots and cowboy hats and turquoise jewelry and rhinestone belts, Tommy’s presence immediately took me back to my childhood and I became transfixed by our passionate conversation regarding what polo once was.

“I will never forget my first impression of Tommy. While his stature was stout and strong, his ability, his horsemanship, and his team work on the field made me feel as though I was watching an artist paint a picture. He was perfection on the polo field and I immediately had a new idol to look up to. ”

I first saw Tommy play in October of 1975. He was competing in Juarez, Mexico, in the Camacho Cup for the United States. I was 19 years old at the time and 1975 was Tommy’s best year. He only lost two matches the entire year, one of which was the middle game of this international tournament. I will never forget my first impression of Tommy. While his stature was stout and strong, his ability, his horsemanship, and his team work on the field made me feel as though I was watching an artist paint a picture. He was perfection on the polo field and I immediately had a new idol to look up to. I’ll never forget thinking in this moment, “Someday, I would like to be like Tommy.” Little did I know at the time the path that was ahead for me and little did I know that soon enough I would compete against this legend.

As Tommy and I sat outside of the Thomas Mack Arena that last night of the rodeo, I thanked him for being an idol and an example for me. I learned so much from him. He was tremendous with his horsemanship and he and my father are the two greatest horsemen I have ever known. Tommy rode beautifully and he truly knew how to create and maintain a polo pony through appropriate schooling. I learned from Tommy to school my horses the morning before each game. This technique is something I continue to do and I know it helped give me an edge more times than not over my competitors. Tommy was also a true gentleman with his clients and sponsors. He maintained loyal relationships with them and he also used his patrons on the field as a fourth player. He tried to make each player on his team play better and I carried this forward into my organization. Over the years, we always maintained a high level of respect for each other and as we sat enjoying our cocktails, this was never more true.

As the rodeo was about to begin, our conversation came to an end. Being excited to see who would come out the average winner in each event, neither Tommy nor I wanted to miss the action. I gave Tommy a big hug and headed into the arena. We were asked to stand for the National Anthem at the start of the rodeo and, as I stood next to my wife, I felt a sense of deja vu. The excitement and energy I was feeling at the beginning of this rodeo was similar to what I felt back in 1975 when I first saw Tommy play. It was in this moment that I realized how incredibly important it is for the past, current, and future professional polo players to maintain the passion, essence and heritage of the sport of polo, just as what happens in the rodeo world.

“My hope is that past generations of professional polo players get the recognition that Tommy gets from me. And, my hope is that the present generations become aware of the responsibility they have to play as passionately as they possibly can. Through this passion they are preserving what past players have provided and cultivating what future players will exude.”

So, when “Click Polo” asked me to start writing for them, I felt it was my responsibility to transmit my passion to benefit the game of polo through writing. As such, my hope is that future generations get to experience the same feelings that I had when I first saw Tommy play. My hope is that past generations of professional polo players get the recognition that Tommy gets from me. And, my hope is that the present generations become aware of the responsibility they have to play as passionately as they possibly can. Through this passion they are preserving what past players have provided and cultivating what future players will exude.