Story Courtesy of the Federation of International Polo (FIP) as seen in the FIP Magazine linked below.
“Boy, that looks like a lot of fun,” Dr. Richard Caleel thought as he watched his first polo match. Little did he know, that day in Chicago, Illinois, would be life-changing. “Forget it, Richard. You could never learn polo,” chuckled his friend. “That was absolutely the wrong thing to say to me,” recalls Caleel, who was in his mid-thirties at the time.
Although new to polo, the fast-paced sport appealed to him and would become a major part of his life. It was a journey that started in Chicago, Illinois, and ended in Santa Barbara, California, where he would retire. An adventure that took him around the world, Dr. Richard Caleel, the sixth President of the Federation of International Polo (FIP), experienced everything from facing off Adolfo Cambiaso in South Carolina to playing elephant polo in Nepal.
What do you recall from those first days?
“I was soon playing three times a week, so we purchased our first horses in the United States, sourced from Argentina. I advanced to playing at the Oak Brook Polo Club [Oak Brook] in Oak Brook, Illinois, which was the center of serious polo in the region. Playing on a team, I became all the more dedicated to improving and winning.
As I progressed, my enthusiasm level soaring, I started to build my own facilities on our 10-acre farm at Burr Ridge [in Illinois], which was originally named Devil Creek Ranch but later changed to La Maria, in honor of our first child. We built a barn first and hired a professional trainer from Argentina, Horacio Onetto Sr., to work with our horses. I bought scores of horses, mostly from Argentina. I had to be vigilant, though, in trying to discern the absolute best horses for our team.
Many teams at Oak Brook consisted of two or more family members competing together. This created a special bond between all the teams and led to many lifelong friendships. My most gratifying moments playing polo were when I played with my sons in various places around the country and around the world.”
Dr. Richard Caleel with professional trainer, Horacio Onetto Sr.
When did you join the USPA?
“My polo career was progressing, so in 1974 I joined the United States Polo Association. My son, Thomas, joined our team and rapidly progressed in his skills.
Oak Brook would invite foreign clubs to send their teams for special tournaments. We invited Prince Charles’ British team to play one year. There was an extra bit of excitement during that tournament and it drew a strong crowd. After the tournament, Prince Charles honored me by awarding me the club’s Most Improved Player of the Year.”
Presented by Prince Charles, Dr. Caleel was awarded Most Improved Player of the Year.
Besides Prince Charles, which other players did you play either with or against?
“We once traveled down to Aiken, South Carolina. One opposing team featured Patrick Hermes and Adolfo Cambiaso. It was a thrill to even be on the same field as the renowned Adolfo. Thomas was on our team by then and already showing his talent. It was a tough, exciting match and we likely played beyond our skill level, but we won the match. That remains one of my greatest thrills in polo.
My other son RG, being only 12 years old, came to our team around 1988 as a talented player. As the boys matured, they progressively got better and our team rose to a very fine level of play. They were capable of riding the very top polo horses, which is no easy matter. We played at Oak Brook, select tournaments around the country and several international events. It was a treat, all of us playing together.”
Team Caleel comprised of Dr. Richard Caleel and his sons Thomas and RG.
How did you join FIP?
“I was introduced to the Federation of International Polo by a friend, Henry Trione, who was a big developer in California. Through Henry, I met Glen Holden, who was the United States Ambassador to Jamaica and acting President of FIP at the time. Holden lived in Santa Barbara, California, during the polo season and invited me to play at the Santa Barbara Polo& Racquet Club.
My wife Annette came on the trip and it was our first introduction to Santa Barbara, a lovely area where the mountains meet the Pacific Ocean, red tile-roofed Spanish colonial style homes abound and the great Southern California coastal climate prevails. I would say it rivals any place on earth. We were very impressed with the area and started coming to Santa Barbara for several winter vacations, as well as, a few summers for polo. We were spending a good deal of time in Santa Barbara and when I elected to retire, we both agreed to do so in this nearly perfect locale.”
Dr. Richard Caleel and his wife Annette.
What was your first assignment at FIP?
“Polo was growing as a sport and the Federation of International Polo was very active in introducing the sport to new countries and coordinating competitive details around the world. I became increasingly active in FIP and was soon appointed as an Ambassador. We stimulated international growth and active play in Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Spain, France, Germany, India, Egypt and many other countries.
As an Ambassador, I had the opportunity to visit and play in many of these countries. Annette and I took a trip to Nepal to play elephant polo. This was played on a dirt field at the airport, which was across the river from our camp, so we began by riding elephants across the river. It was an interesting way to start your day.
The mallets were long and quite heavy, so we had to hold them and swing with both hands while a driver drove the elephant. The inflatable ball was about the size of a softball. From time to time an elephant would step on the ball, popping it, which would require a stoppage in play so that a new ball could be substituted.”
Played on a dirt field, Dr. Richard Caleel took a trip to Nepal where he learned to play elephant polo.
What is your legacy as FIP president?
“I believe that improving communications within the membership of FIP is very important. Also, the organization of FIP’s history and records enabled the appropriate registration of FIP with the government of Uruguay. We introduced polo to several new countries including Russia, Azerbaijan, Mongolia and China, helping local enthusiasts develop the sport in their country and organize official play.
FIP was approached by a large developer that wanted to build a huge complex in Tianjin, China, to include a hotel, apartments, villas, shops and offices centered around polo. At that time, competitive polo had not really been played in China.
I was quite involved in aiding this effort as President of FIP and Annette and I made several trips to Tianjin to assist. We helped the new Metropolitan Polo Club purchase horses, administer rules and playing criteria, provide training clinics for members and arrange for foreign teams to come and play in tournaments.”
Dr. Richard Caleel, the sixth President of the Federation of International Polo.
How important has polo been for you?
“I can’t overemphasize how important and life-changing polo became to our family. Polo has been a big part of my life. Thomas and RG stopped playing polo some years ago as other adult responsibilities took precedence and I ended my polo playing career in 2014, admitting I wanted to avoid serious injury. However, I still participate in FIP, and in 2017 we hosted an Ambassador’s Cup here at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club. The year prior we hosted an Indian team that included the Maharaja of Jaipur.
So that’s my answer to, “forget it Richard. You could never learn polo.”
Photos courtesy of ©Federation of International Polo.