By Alejandra Ocampo
Special Thanks for their cooperation on this article:
– Dr. Horace Laffaye (Historical data)
– Mrs. Brenda Lynn, Museum of Polo & Hall of Fame, Wellington, Florida (Archive photos)
– Mr. Darío Welschen (Archive photos from the books El Polo en la Argentina, by Francisco Ceballos; Campeonato Argentino Abierto de Polo, Cien Años de Historia, 1893.1993)
Every polo player dreams of two things: Playing the Argentine Open, and reaching 10 goals in handicap. Since they get on their first horse, their goal is to become one of the few to reach the highest rating of 10 goals; today, only nine players are rated at 10, eight Argentines – Adolfo Cambiaso, Juan Martín Nero, Pablo MacDonough, Gonzalo Pieres Jr., Facundo Pieres, Polito Pieres, Sapo Caset, Hilario Ulloa – and one Uruguayan – David “Pelon” Stirling.
Handicaps have always been a subject of controversy; in Argentina’s 40 goal polo, it’s the players who go down, or don’t go up, that cause debate; in the US and UK, it is the opposite, because while every one loves going up, it usually means that a team has to be altered to accommodate the handicap changes.
But first, what exactly is a handicap?
According to historian Horace Laffaye’s book “The Polo Encyclopedia,” a handicap is the “individual rating given to each player for their team, and is measured in goals.” Any changes, such as the rating going up or down, are made according to each player’s performance during the season; each player is evaluated by the different polo associations (the Argentine Association of Polo, Hurlingham Polo Association, and United States Polo Association, are the top three in the world). After each respective Handicap Committee, each association releases their “verdicts” – the ups and downs of players handicap, which come into effect on January 1 of the following year.
The changes can be annual or biannual; in Argentina, for example, handicaps are evaluated after the autumn (May-June) and the high goal season (September-December).
A handicap ranges from 0-10 goals; in England it starts from -2, a rating common with patrons and very young or amateur players. In the US a player can have a handicap T, which means “temporary” (for example 8T). This means that the handicap will be reviewed at the end of the season.
There is a general handicap system which rates male and female players, and one specifically for female players. The first exclusively female handicap system was established by the Argentine Association of Polo; England’s HPA followed suit last year. The female system applies to all-female tournaments only; if women played mixed tournaments then the regular handicap system applies.
But how and when did handicaps appear? What is the story behind the number that is so important to every player’s career?
Approximately in 1868 the English military was sent to India, where they discovered polo; they took the sport to the West and made a few alterations (such as changing the number of players per team), created an Association (the HPA), and wrote the rule book. But it was the US that gave polo its final touches.
In 1876 an American named James Gordon Bennett discovered polo after watching a match at Hurlingham. While Gordon Bennett became a great advocate for the sport of polo in the US, Hermann Oelrichs was in charge of the rules, sticks, balls, photographs and everything in between. It was a great success; the Americans were very much enthused and became England’s great rivals, so much so that in 1886 the Westchester Cup, which saw the two teams go head to head, was established.
The handicap system was set up in 1888, initiative led by Henry L. Herbert, who would later become the first President of the United States Polo Association, founded in 1890. At that time, the maximum was 5 goals and there were only two players with that rating: Thomas Hitchcock and Foxhall Keene. The 0-10 rating was established in 1890, and in 1891 American Foxhall Keene became the first 10-goaler in history. Keene maintained those 10-goals until 1913. He was an excellent player – the best of his time – and no other American surpassed him in those 22 years; he was in excellent shape and shone at tennis, hunting, shooting and car racing.
Handicaps were only established in Argentina and the UK in 1911. That year Walter Selby Buckmaster became the first Brit to reach 10-goals; Captain Frederick Barrett, also known as Rattle, reached 10 in 1912. The HPA established -2 and -1 handicaps after the Second World War with the aim of giving opportunities to beginners and young players.
In Argentina was polo governed by the River Plate Polo Association and handicaps were also established in 1911. John Traill, born in England in 1882 but based in Argentina from the age of five, went from 4 to 9 goals that year; in 1913 he became the first 10 goal player in Argentina. He achieved the same handicap in England in 1922. With a polo career that included eleven Argentine Opens, Traill played polo up to the age of 74, when he was still rated at 3 goals. No Argentine Open was played in 1914 due to the First World War, so Argentina only found its second 10-goaler in 1915: Lewis Lacey, who was born in Canada but, like Traill, based in Argentina from an early age. Lacey was the best player of the Hurlingham Club in Argentina; his father, William, was played a fundamental role in the development of the club.
After Lacey, there was not another 10-goaler in Argentina until 1943, when three players reached the highest rating: Enrique Alberdi, Luis Duggan and Charlie Menditeguy. In 1944 two more players joined the 10-goal club: Juan Carlos Alberdi and Julio Menditeguy. Ten years later, in 1954, Roberto Cavanagh, Venado Tuerto team member and 1936 Olympic Champion, was put up to 10. And in 1961, the great Juan Carlitos Harriott reached 10 goals – a handicap he maintained for twenty years.
As the years went on, 8- 9- and 10-goal players appeared in England, the US, New Zealand, India, Mexico (represented by the Gracida brothers), but Argentina specifically became synonymous with the maximum handicap. In 1973 Coronel Suarez became the first team in polo history to reach 40-goals; the formation of Juan Carlitos and Alfredo Harriott, Horacio and Alberto Pedro Heguy, became legendary. In 1991, third generation Heguy’s became the first team of four brothers to reach 40-goals; Horacio Jr., Gonzalo, Marcos and Bautista formed the legendary Chapaleufu team and set that handicap record.
As was mentioned at the beginning of the article, there are only nine 10-goal players in the world today and Adolfo Cambiaso is the player who has become synonymous with the highest handicap rating. In 1994, at only 19 years of age, Cambiaso, who then played for Ellerstina, was put up to 10-goals after winning the Triple Crown with Gonzalo Pieres. That year he became the youngest player in history to reach 10-goals, and he has managed to maintain his handicap for almost twenty-two years. In England, Chris Hyde is the only player who boasts a 10-goal handicap, albeit in arena polo (he is rated at 6 in “conventional” polo). In female polo, Brit Nina Clarkin is the only player to be rated at 10 (4 in general polo). In terms of female polo, it is worth noting that the highest rated female player in general polo was Sunny Hale, with 5-goals; Hale was also the first woman to win the US Open, with Outback, a team made up of Tim Gannon, Adolfo Cambiaso and Lolo Castagnola, in 2000.
England brought polo to the West; the US established the handicap system; and Argentina monopolised the maximum rating. They are can be a hot topic of debate and controversial at times, but it is clear that handicaps are a fundamental element of polo.