Argentine had to study before finding a career in the game he continues to holds dear, especally in England, finds Gareth A Davies.
Eduardo Heguy, four-time winner of the most prestigious polo tournament in the world, the Argentine Open, is steeped in polo, his family having been involved in the sport for generations. He has even been sent off in the final of the Palermo Open, but in reality, Heguy – known as ‘Ruso’ for his shock of blond hair – is a fearsome opponent yet one of the most genteel men in the sport.
The famous back – No 4 – has also been a fixture in the English season for over two decades, and many of the British players, and indeed many others in the English seasons, have benefited from his desire to pass on the nuance and skills in the game.
History, indeed, dictates his standing and attitude towards the game. His father was a great influence.
“He taught us not to be selfish on the field, play as a team, and never give up. And the great Coronel Suarez team, composed of my father, my uncle [Horacio Heguy] and the two Harriott brothers. Juan Carlos Harriott won the Open 20 times, Horacio won it 19 times, my father won it 17 times and Alfredo Harriott won it 15 times. They were a champion team and they made polo history.”
Only the likes of Adolfo Cambiaso can hold a torch up to the great Juan Carlos, a revered name in the sport.
But what drives Heguy today, is developing the sport around the world. Accusations have been levelled in the past that the leading Argentine players in the English season take from the game, are well paid, but do not give back in equal measure.
It could never be said of Heguy. He says: “It’s a little bit true in many cases but it’s not in all cases. Now there is more of an exchange with young kids coming to Argentina and playing in the kids tournaments and a lot of British players going over there and training in Argentina. Now it’s more open to polo all around the world.’
“There are many South Americans with European passports because Argentina is a mix of Italian, Spanish, French, English. I always like to teach. I know people don’t enjoy it, but I do. I like passing on my experience to others. Why would you want to keep it just for yourself? Sharing those things is really important and I enjoy doing that. I started with Sebastian Dawnay and John Fisher in 1995 when they came and it’s been 20 years already. We finished winning, with my brother, the Gold Cup. Since that we were hired by the royal family.”
Heguy believes there is a synergy between British and Argentine polo and players, and relationships are even closer behind the scenes. “I can only tell of my own experience. I’ve been coming since 1989 and I only skipped one season in 1994. I played for many teams and many of the teams I played for I’m still friends with the patrons and players.”
“To me, it’s always been more important being a friend and enjoying it. It’s not only about winning, it’s also about having fun. I grew up like that. My tradition is a family tradition. My grandfather, Antonio, played and so did my father and uncle. My grandfather won the first British open in 1956.”
Heguy relates a remarkable tale from the history of the sport. “Antonio played for the first time here that year. It was for an Argentine team consisting of four Argentines. My grandfather got to five goals. He won the Argentine Open once. They brought horses over here, played the season, sold the horses in Deauville and then returned.”
“My generation is the first generation of Heguys being professionals and living the way we do. My father and uncle were both ten goal players and won the Argentine Open nineteen and twenty times. My father worked in a veterinary practice and my uncle was an engineer. We were pushed first to study, finish school and go to university. Two of my brothers went to university. Polo was something that soon became our way of life, however. We were so good and we were called (to go and play) in so many places. We ended up playing professionally. First of all we had to study and then polo came second.”
It sounds like an idyllic upbringing in Argentina. “My grandfather would put the car by the tree and watched us playing for hours and hours on little ponies. We had no helmet, no boots, nothing. We grew up like that.”
On this beautiful late summer day, Ruso is doing much the same thing at Billingbear, home of King Power, the mighty high goal team. We watch from the sidelines as Heguy’s children play the sport. “My sons are called Cruz and Pedro and daughters are called Pampa and Lujan.”
But keeping the right traditions going are deeply important to Heguy. The sport needs to be played hard, but he believes the social side must never be lost, or indeed, forgotten. Today, it can be dominated by a few great players at the high goal end, and less of a ‘team’ game. “That’s why polo sometimes gets a little bit boring,” Heguy explains to me. “It used to be so much fun. Now it’s just about winning and keeping the patron. It used to be more social. Last night we had a party at Cowdray because the King of Qatar organised an exhibition. That’s how it used to be. It used to be more fun.”
Yet Heguy’s greatest gift in recent years has been nurturing many young players in Argentina at the Heguy’s place – La Pampa – helping up and coming English players who do not necessarily have the funds to make it on their own. You only have to look at the track record of those who have learnt under him to see how they have progressed with his coaching and cajoling.
Heguy trained up Matthew Perry who won the Queen’s and Gold Cup in 2013 and the 2014 Queen’s Cup with Zacara, and Hugo Lewis who won both Queen’s and Gold Cup this season.
Before that, he helped Argentine Fran Elizalde who won the 2012 Gold Cup with Cortium, and in 2011 Iganacio Du Plessis who won the Gold Cup with Zacara. It is a fine record.
But organising tournaments at a junior level are key to his being so appreciated in the sport. “I organise a couple of junior tournaments, and they are the most important kids tournament in the world. I used to be the president of it in Argentina and my grandfather and my father were members. Our family were all members.”
“For the last 20 years I’ve been organising that tournament. It’s a one-day event and there are more than 60 teams taking part with kids as young as five years old up to fifteen. We start at eight o’clock in the morning and finish when it gets dark. I’ve been doing that for many years. The kids are not only from Argentina. They are from Malaysia, the States, England, all over. I enjoy it very much. I enjoy teaching what I learnt. We play together, we train together, we ride early in the morning. Then they have time for lunch, a siesta, swimming pool, and sometimes the kids have to study and they can do it at that time. It’s not a military academy, it’s a fun thing. You have to have fun in life or else it’s not worth the sacrifices you make.”
His secret to being a great tutor ? “The best way to teach someone is by example. You play together and they learn from you. At seven o’clock in the morning I am with them on the horse. I don’t need to be, but I’m passionate about the sport and the horses. You show them the way and they try to copy you. You teach them to respect their horses, their team-mates and the opposition. When you do that, they notice that this guy is not just telling them to do that, he’s it himself.”
Heguy may be Argentinian, but he truly appreciates what England does for the sport. And he’s happy to have been a part of it for so long.
“English show all their sports – cricket, rugby, football, polo – to the world. They rule it, they share it. Everything comes from here,” he says.
“They took it from different places, but they rule it and show it around the world. I always say that we have the best polo in the world in Argentina, but the best patrons in the world and the most important tournaments outside of Argentina are played over here. You have the best organisation of patrons in the world. Also, there’s a tradition here. You have the Queens Cup – that is really special. The tradition is missing in many other sports. The history of this sport is here. We are lucky that we can enjoy it and still improve it.”