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The Cowboy Who Showed 'Em
Robert Gantwell
May 09, 1977
Cecil Smith, now 73, was a Texas ranch hand when he discovered polo, the millionaires' sport. He invaded that alien world and, with brilliant horsemanship, became the game's best player
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May 09, 1977

The Cowboy Who Showed 'em

Cecil Smith, now 73, was a Texas ranch hand when he discovered polo, the millionaires' sport. He invaded that alien world and, with brilliant horsemanship, became the game's best player

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Cecil Smith is the most secluded international celebrity in sports. In his own field he is known to everyone, in the way that Bobby Jones is known to everyone in golf. But Smith's game is polo, which means that his worldwide reputation is specialized. He is regarded with awe by an amazing number of millionaire sportsmen, high-ranking military men, English aristocrats, diplomats, ranchmen and trainers, many of them playing companions from his competitive days. Among ordinary polo fans he is known primarily as the best polo player of all time. Only Leslie Cheape in pre-World War I Great Britain and Tommy Hitchcock in between-the-wars America belonged in the same realm of genius that Smith inhabited, and even then it is generally conceded that Smith was a superior horseman. It is this last item—his preoccupation with horses—that helps to account for the obscurity that goes along with such celebrity.

Smith, now 73, lives on a small ranch in the hill country of Texas, some 35 miles north of San Antonio, still busy training a few ranch horses to become polo ponies, something he has done for 50-odd years. People who know of him only as a polo player recall that the game seemed to be transformed when he played it, and that crowds of 20,000 to 40,000 were not uncommon when he was at his best. If, despite that early fame, almost nothing else is generally known about the rest of Cecil Smith's life, it is because his horses have protected his privacy.

Lately there have been signs of a revival of popular interest in polo. The first big-money professional polo match in U.S. history was held last fall. It was the Gould Cup, played at Oak Brook, Ill. for a $25,000 purse. The match went over so well that Carlton Beal, a Texas oilman, put up $100,000 toward a $150,000 purse for an enlarged Gould Cup this year, open to any 25-goal team anywhere on earth. The reasoning is that purses of that size will make possible the sort of high-goal polo that was played when it was exclusively the sport of wealthy amateurs.

That professional match last fall was also the first 30-goal match in the U.S. in more than 20 years. Polo players are graded 0 to 10 by "goals," a theoretical value. A 10-goal player is considered perfect, or nearly so. A 30-goal match means that the goal ratings of the four players on each team add up to 30 or more. Such high-goal polo is a fascinating thing to see. Take the most dramatic moment in a game, when a lone rider streaks away with the ball, the startling acceleration of his horse synchronizing with the swing of his mallet as he drives the ball ahead of him. The phrase "on the ball" comes from such occasions. It is a spectacle akin to a bases-loaded home run, a 95-yard kickoff return, an outlaw outrunning a posse. In low-goal polo, a player reaches that moment of greatness, takes a mighty swing at the ball—and, more often than not, misses. In high-goal polo he does not miss. The difference is remarkable. In low-goal polo they slice the ball out of bounds with the field clear before them. Or they ride over the ball and then stop, like somebody getting halfway into an intersection after running a red light while traffic piles up around him. The main difficulty for the spectator is seeing what is going on in the melees of flailing mallets and bewildered horses, whereas in high-goal polo the action is clear, fast and as exciting as any sport has to offer.

Outward signs of polo are missing from Smith's ranch. The mailbox says simply CECIL SMITH, but there is no horse or professional identification anywhere in sight. Nor is there any around his house, a small, red, reconstructed 100-year-old ranch house with a windmill and barn, set well back from the highway. It overlooks gray, speckled fields, groves of oaks and domelike little hills that end in hazy ridges in the distance. The low-ceilinged living room is likewise bare of polo trophies, except for a portrait painted in 1962 in honor of his 25 consecutive years as a 10-goal player.

Smith has an exact memory of the horses he trained, the games he played and many of the millionaire amateurs who, until he began to play, completely dominated the game. In 1934, when he was beginning to be front-page news, he married a girl from Wading River, Long Island. It startled the polo world, for Smith was then known only as a polo-playing ranch hand, and his bride was the daughter of an old Long Island family. Mary Smith is a charming woman with an even more exact memory of her husband's career. Smith's exact memory includes everything but dates. "Mary," he will call out today, "what year was it I first played with Old Westbury?" Or, "Mary! When did I go to California that time?"

Over the years Mary Smith kept large red leather scrap-books of articles and photographs. These invaluable items of polo history are not out in the open, either. When they are brought out, Smith leafs through them and talks about whatever they call to mind. "This is the Old Westbury team," he says. "That's Mike Phipps, myself, Stew Iglehart and C.V. Whitney. We never lost a game. We beat Greentree 16-7 in the Open. Greentree was Pete Bostwick, Tommy Hitchcock, Roberto Cavanagh and Jock Whitney. When we formed the Old Westbury team, Greentree had won the Open twice in a row. Mary! When was it Old Westbury won the Open?"

"Thirty-seven and thirty-eight," Mary says. "They wouldn't let you play together again in 1939. They were afraid you'd win it the third time. You did win it again but not until the late '40s, when you won it two years in a row with the Hurricanes."

"It was 1937 and 1938," Smith says.

He pauses at a news photograph that called to mind a question about injuries. "The most serious concussion I ever had was caused by a polo ball hitting me in the back of the head. It didn't knock me out. I rode off the field, but when I got off my horse I was just kind of reeling around. It was on Long Island. It was in...Mary! What year was it, when I had that concussion?"

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