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When Memo Gracida says, "I want to be recognized as the best polo player in the world," there is no vainglory in it. "On some days, I know I am perfect," he says matter-of-factly. "But I want to be better." Gracida is standing in a clearing in the primordial swamplands of south Florida. This is his place. He is currying a pony, and when he pauses to readjust his cap, the brilliant winter sun sparkles on the sweat coating his brow. He looks a trifle sheepish at what he has just said, but he carries on. "To be a 10 [polo's top ranking], you have to be perfect, to be untouchable out there."
He turns back to the pony, a gray mare named Hush, who stands beautifully, in patient, watchful repose. "I have to make sure that everything is in top condition, just so, right down to my mallet heads. But the main thing is my horses."
The winter season in south Florida is in full swing, and for the first time Memo (short for Guillermo) is working out of his own spread, a grassy 20-acre meadow cleared from the swamp. He and his wife, Mimi, are planning to build a house here, but they're true polo people, and the barn comes first. The contractor had promised to have it ready by January. When they arrived, however, all they found was a big pile of sand. Their 3-year-old daughter, Michelle, was delighted. "Papa, look at the mountain!" she cried. Papa was less thrilled.
Casa Gracida doesn't look like much yet. A hard freeze has left the turf a murky shade of brown, the canals are slimy, the barn remains conceptual, a few cinder blocks. But Memo Gracida says proudly, "It's all ours."
This is a typical morning: Gracida will exercise each of his six ponies for tomorrow's game, schooling them in tight circles, weaving fancy upfield patterns, galloping full speed down the pasture just to rein in and pivot at the last moment. Then he will help his grooms water down the ponies, and if any of them requires doctoring or dental work, Gracida will attend to that, too.
Most amateur polo players in Florida, on a February morning like this, are still lazing around the condo or getting in a few holes of golf and letting their grooms attend to all that bother. Of course, they are not, like Memo Gracida, in the business of improving on perfection. They are not rated 10.
In polo, the measure of a man is his handicap: Every year official committees assign each player a number of goals, from minus-one to 10. Most players are rated below two goals; very few rise above five. To be rated 10 is to achieve theoretical perfection. There are only five 10s in the world this year: Argentina's Ernesto Trotz, Gonzalo Pieres, Alfonso Pieres and Alfredo Harriott, and Gracida, 28, a native of Mexico City.
The hallmark of the Gracida game is, above all, horsemanship. It's not so much that he controls the horse perfectly, though he does; or that he's singularly graceful as a rider, though he is. It is more that Gracida and his mount achieve a synergistic unity. In consequence, Gracida's playing style is supremely fluid and seemingly effortless; where many other top players make a great display of power when they hit the ball, his swing seems almost casual.
And pay no attention to the soft voice and boyish smile; he is a muscular, gritty man who has led teams to victory in everything there is in the sport to win—the U.S. Open four times, the World Cup twice, the British Open, Mexico's Camacho Cup. In 1982 he became the first non-Argentinian member of the winning team in the Argentine Open, whose trophy is the Holy Grail of polo, in nearly 30 years.
Gracida is smart and well-spoken, but not a wiseacre. He's strong as a bull and graceful as a swan. He's a loving husband and a good father. He doesn't smoke or drink, or cuss in front of ladies.