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Smith began as a No. 1 and No. 2 when he started playing polo in the fall of 1924 in Texas, but by the time he came East in 1927 and saw Hitchcock and Devereux Milburn, the greatest American back, play at Westbury, L.I. he began to concentrate on No. 3 position too. In 1930, with a seven-goal rating, Smith played with Long Island's Roslyn team that won the Monty Waterbury Cup and, as a result of his fine performance, was named a substitute on the American quartet that whipped the British in the International Tournament that year. By 1932 he had acquired his reputation as a fearless rider who gave and took no quarter. In the semifinals of the national open at Meadow Brook, playing with John Hay Whitney's Green-tree team against Eastcott, Smith was described by the late Harry Cross, the New York Herald Tribune's polo expert, as "riding with all the abandon of a cowpuncher at a rodeo." He was all over the field, controlling beautiful long drives with his best shots, the offside forward and back, and spearheading the attack. Toward the end of the game his pony pitched him forward and Smith was painfully hurt, but he came back after resting and led Green-tree to a one-point victory with what was afterward found to be a fractured elbow.
SUCCESSOR TO HITCHCOCK
It was the following year, having earned a nine-goal rating, that Smith played what he himself considers his finest polo—in the East-West matches. The East was made up of the polished internationalists, Hitchcock, Raymond and Winston Guest and Michael Phipps; it was a 32-goal team playing against a poorer-mounted 31-goal West quartet that had scarcely worked out together before the match began at Lake Forest, Ill. The two Texans, Smith and H. W. (Rube) Williams, led the West, and the other two were a pair of Californians, Elmer Boeseke and Aidan Roark. Everyone thought the East would win, but the West won two out of three to take the title. In the first wild contest, which the West took 15-11, Smith scored on five out of six penalty shots, an astonishing record. He was described as "a centaur in a berserk fury." In the fifth period, he smashed into Raymond Guest's horse and was knocked unconscious for 20 minutes. An ambulance clanged by to take him to the hospital, but he got up and climbed back into the saddle and finished the game, doing almost as well as before he was hurt. Now he admits, "I didn't remember very much about it afterward."
The late Will Rogers, a very low-goal player (he once requested a minus-one-goal rating) but a high polo enthusiast, was especially happy about the West's victory. Hailing Smith as the natural successor to Hitchcock, whom the Texan had outscored, Rogers wrote, "The East never thought the West could muster up four guys with white pants, much less some mallets.... Well, the hillbillies beat the dudes and took the polo championship right out of the drawing room and into the bunk-house.... The East always thought you had to have a birth certificate to play it. Poor old society! Nothing exclusive left.... Now polo has gone to the buckwheat belt."
Rogers wrote with as much truth as gloating and wit. The next year Smith got his first 10-goal rating, and while he dropped back to eight and nine the following three years, he had earned the permanent respect of the polo world; it was to the credit of the blue-blooded Easterners that they henceforth accepted the red-blooded Texans for what they were worth. Smith has held his 10-goal mark since 1938.
International matches are not what they used to be, although with tensions diminished it's now hoped that an Argentine team will come to the United States either next year or the year after. In the '40s, Smith played with three U.S. teams that whipped the Mexicans, but, next to the East-West contests of 1933, he cherishes as his best polo an unofficial international match he played against the Argentines in 1949 at the Beverly Hills Polo Club.
The Argentines, a smooth, 36-goal quartet, beat the 33-goal Americans two games to one, but the Americans gave the visitors their first loss in four years and might have won the match had not George Oliver, a topflight nine-goal player, been hurt and forced out of the deciding contest. When it was all over, Enrique Alberdi, Argentina's brilliant captain, declared: "Your Cecil Smith is the greatest polo player in the world today. He is always where ball is. When you miss ball, there is Smith. If you hit short, Smith is there to intercept. Smith thinks a quarter-second before the others."
In effect, Alberdi was paying Smith the same tribute Smith renders Hitchcock. Thinking quick in polo is a prime requisite for a 10-goal player, and quick thinking means knowing where to be. Such polo wisdom, in turn, is not a player's sole doing. Smith and most players feel that the game is still 25% man and 75% horse, and one reason Hitchcock was so consistently great is that "Tommy would never play a bad pony," Smith says. He should know, for he has spent his life with horses, and he came into polo via the range and the stable and not the Long Island paddock and living room. Even now, 31 years after he started playing, Smith is still more the cowboy in chaps than the man in the expensive polo breeches, a poor man playing what has remained a rich man's game despite efforts to "popularize" polo at $1 and even 50� a head on Saturday and Sunday afternoons beyond the country club pale.
Born and raised on a Llano County ranch in Texas, Smith began punching cattle with his father, Sidney Smith, when he was scarcely 12, and his cattle-working kept him on the move so much that he never finished high school. One day, a crotchety, polo-loving man named George Miller, who owned a livery stable and playing field in Austin, came through Llano with a string of pony prospects. These were the days before jeeps were used to herd cattle on the western ranges, and the best early training a polo pony could get was to ride down young beef on the hoof. The training came naturally—in sudden stops and turns and galloping pursuits after rambunctious calves.
Miller invited young Smith to drop by and play some polo. Smith did, along with a few other cowhands, and as one of " George Miller's boys" was thereby launched on his unique career as a dealer-player that has kept him always on the move. Miller, who died in 1946, got to be one of the first big dealers in polo ponies, and Smith became his chief disciple. Today he earns his living by developing and selling them and by operating at the same time much as a touring golf pro.