Despite Tragedy, the Gracida Family Remains a Dynasty in the Game of Kings

carlos-1On February 25, 2014, Carlos Gracida raced down the field at the Everglades Polo Club atop a powerful thoroughbred pony. After decades of being among the best to play the game, having already won every major prize and tournament multiple times in his long career, the 53-year-old had nothing left to prove — certainly not in the midlevel tournament he was participating in that day, the Freebooters Classic 14.
If there’s one thing he never got the hang of during his life, it was losing. So Carlos, a medium-built man with a sun-kissed tan, lurched forward to edge out another player for the ball. As he did, a mallet — either his or another player’s; to this day, no one is sure which — struck his horse’s head. The horse jerked its head backward, colliding with Carlos’ forehead, knocking him unconscious, to the ground.

The double impact of horse skull and hard ground caused Carlos’ brain to swell and bleed. An ambulance rushed him to Delray Medical Center, but nothing could be done. The polo legend died playing the game of kings.

“The irony is just devastating,” says his older brother, Guillermo “Memo” Gracida Jr., a trim 58-year-old with an easy smile. He is dressed in jeans and a bright-white Façonnable shirt during an interview at the Palm Beach International Polo Club. It has been a year since the freak accident, but the elder Gracida’s eyes still tear up when he talks about his brother and former teammate.

“He was such a great rider,” says Memo. “He knew everything about the game. I’ve heard of accidents happening with less-skilled players, sometimes novices, but Carlos Gracida?”

Imagine Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as brothers and you would have the polo equivalent of Memo and Carlos Gracida. Individually, the brothers are two of the best players to have ever hit a ball. Combined, their records will likely never be repeated. Although they didn’t always play together, they rarely lost when they did.

Memo was the organizer, the field general. He prepared the horses and set the strategy. Carlos was the phenom, with more pure talent. Carlos could maneuver his way through a maze of players to get through to the goal. Or score a shot from an impossible angle. Had SportsCenter covered polo, Stuart Scott would have given Carlos a tag line.

Although polo is often considered a genteel game, in reality, it’s a contact sport played with heavy, four-legged animals that thunder down a field. In this world, the Gracida family is a dynasty: In addition to Memo and Carlos, their father and uncles won major tournaments, and their sons now have big-time wins under their belts. The untimely death of Carlos closed a chapter in the Gracida story, but their legacy continues in Wellington, which the Mexican-born brothers have helped make a hotbed of international polo competition. Here, wealthy 1-percenters throw around millions just to share the field with the family.

The first organized polo games began in sixth-century B.C. Persia, when warriors — as many as 100 a side — played as a training game for battle. In time, it became a game of nobility played by the Persian elite, who called it “chovgan.”

In British-occupied India during the 19th Century, Europeans started a polo club. Soon, the game made its way to England as a military exercise. British cavalry units faced off on teams with eight players per side. As many as 10,000 spectators came to the matches.

In America, polo clubs began forming during the late 1800s at private fields outside New York City. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that polo reached Mexico, where Carlos and Memo Gracida’s grandfather was among the first to play.

Players are each rated, from minus-two goals to ten goals, based on factors such as technical skill and horsemanship. To be a ten-goal player is to be considered an expert in every facet of the game — literally perfect, according to the International Polo Association. Fewer than 30 players have reached this plateau since the handicap system was implemented in 1890. Carlos Gracida was a ten-goal player for a record 15 years, Memo for ten.
In high-goal tournaments, teams go from 12-goal teams — in which the combined skill levels of the eight players adds up to no more than 12 goals — to 26-goal teams, the highest in North American competition. There is no central league in the polo world. Games are organized around tournaments in which teams of equal ratings face off against each other.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the sport is that, even at the 26-goal level, the owner of the team gets a spot on the field, no matter how great or how terrible a player he is. It would be like Robert Kraft suiting up with the Patriots. Known as a “patrón,” the Spanish word for “boss,” the owner pays the cost of players’ salaries, horses, transportation, and staff. Luxury brands such as Rolex and Maserati often sponsor tournaments, such as the U.S. Open, the highest competition in American polo.

Only in the past two years has polo been shown on national television. In 2014, more people watched a high school slam-dunk contest on CBS than the U.S. Open on the NBC Sports Network. And although admission to the biggest matches in the fanciest polo fields can cost hundreds of dollars, ticket revenue is not a substantial source of income for American polo. So the sport is exclusive by design and has thus attracted the rich and powerful. That was the case even when polo initially spread to Mexico, where the Gracidas first swung a mallet.

Just after the Mexican Revolution, Joaquin Amaro, an avid horseman and then secretary of war for the Mexican army, brought polo to Mexico. His passion for the game bordered on — or egregiously surpassed, depending upon how you judge men in high positions of power — sociopathy. In October 1925, Amaro shot and killed his horse groom for failing to exercise a polo pony.

Amaro formed the first Mexican polo team, which included Gabriel Gracida Sr., a lifelong military man who had achieved the rank of colonel.

Memo describes his grandfather as a horse whisperer and a pretty good teacher of polo too: Four of his sons made up the entire Mexican polo team in 1946. They traveled north to compete against the American team in the U.S. Open in Meadow Brook, Long Island, the same field where Memo and Carlos would pull off an upset 48 years later.

The four brothers, whose only competition had been against each other and local sparring teams on hard, hole-covered surfaces, were in awe of the luxurious fields of New York. According to Memo, the Mexicans were perceived as less skilled than the Americans and their horses inferior, especially after having trekked north via train for two weeks.

But Memo says the Gracida team, led by his father, Guillermo Sr., used this to their advantage. They gave their ponies healthy servings of the superior American horse feed, which resulted in a Popeye-spinach effect.

“They weren’t used to this kind of food,” Memo says. “So they ate this new food, and their energy just went up — and the Mexican team was able to compete.”

After a hard-fought match, the Mexican team pulled off a major upset, 8-7. It was the only time a team made up entirely of brothers has ever won the open.

“For the Mexican team to go there with Mexican players, Mexican horses, Mexican grooms, Mexican everything and beat the Americans on their own ground, it was unheard of — just extraordinary,” Memo recalls. “And I don’t think [an all-brother team] will ever happen again.”

Memo and his younger brother Carlos grew up hearing these stories.

“We would sit at the dinner table and talk about politics, economics, schooling, et cetera, but it always ended talking about polo,” Memo says. “And my father just indulged us with those fantastic stories. It was a fairy tale for us to hear all they experienced.”

Modern polo is played with two teams of four, on a field 300 yards long and 160 feet wide. Mallets, shaped like the tool but with a skinnier, longer head, are used to knock a 3.5-inch ball (made of wood until plastic became the go-to material in the 1970s) into an unguarded, 7.5-meter-wide goal. The game is divided into six “chukkers” that last seven minutes each. Although the 15-minute halftime is necessary to clean up the mounds of horse dung that accumulate during the game, a tradition is for the crowd to walk on the funky-smelling field during this time to stretch their legs and mingle.

The horses in polo are called ponies. Technically, a pony refers to a horse under 58 inches tall, but in polo, all horses are called ponies. This is due to tradition; polo players of old preferred small horses for their swiftness and maneuverability. But these days, speed and strength are crucial, and the most valuable animals can bust out at top speeds while pivoting on a dime. Thus, Arabian and quarter horses are the most common breeds seen on the polo field — they’re big, fast, and agile. A pony usually isn’t ready to compete at high levels until age 5, but a healthy one can play for ten years.

The average high-goal polo team will have 20 to 40 of these highly trained horses ready for a game. “High goal” is the term used to describe the professional-level games played in tournaments across the world.

Memo and Carlos, born in 1956 and 1960, respectively, grew up in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City, a wealthy section of the capital. Their father had become a professional racehorse breeder, training horses on a ranch outside the city. On weekends, the brothers would play there.

“What caught my attention is, there are two athletes in the game of polo: the polo player and the horse.”
But it wasn’t until Memo saw a Disney movie that he decided he really wanted to be a polo player. That movie was Stormy, the Thoroughbred, a film about a wayward pony that wanted to play polo but couldn’t because an age cutoff made him too young. However, a Mexican polo horse trainer came around a