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Robert Shaplen
September 05, 1955
A Texan who wears fancy filigree boots is the world's greatest polo player and this week Cecil Smith—rated a 10-goal player for 15 years—rides again at the head of the Oak Brook team in the national open polo championships
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September 05, 1955

Bunkhouse King Of The Polo Field

A Texan who wears fancy filigree boots is the world's greatest polo player and this week Cecil Smith—rated a 10-goal player for 15 years—rides again at the head of the Oak Brook team in the national open polo championships

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His activities as an itinerant polo pro will usually see him at one of the eastern or midwestern clubs in summer and early fall—this is his third successive season at Oak Brook—and during January, February and March he is most apt to be at the 29-year-old Gulf Stream Polo Club in Delray Beach, Florida. Last year, in the best of condition as a result of his steady play, Smith captained a 32-goal Texas team to a 9-8 victory against a 33-goal Florida team. All Smith did was score all of his team's nine goals.

Wherever Smith goes, he customarily has his expenses paid for himself and sometimes his family: his wife, formerly a Long Island girl, Mary Miller Smith, whom he married in 1934, and their two sons, Sidney, 14, and Charles, 11, who have already learned how to swing a mallet from a horse. Between stints at clubs the Smiths reside near San Antonio, and Smith spends his time on the old Miller ranch, where he keeps his horses. In the spring and early summer, Smith plays some polo in Texas but devotes most of his time to building up a new string of ponies to take north.

Smith's astute pony trading, an integral part of his abiding interest in a game that has had its troubles in the less profligate postwar era, does not bother the USPA which draws no line of distinction between professional and amateur. "Cecil is not only a great player but a grand guy," more than one member of the polo playing set now says, almost reverently. The reverence is part gratitude, heightened by the realization that were it not for Smith and other onetime cowpunching, horse-conscious Texans, polo might not have survived at all in the last decade.

The fact that it has survived as a lower-goal game in clubs scattered all over the country with players using fewer and less expensive mounts is the result of Smith and other dealers like Rube Williams, once an eight-goal player and now a race-horse trainer in New Jersey, having brought the Texas polo pony into its own. When they began working on the old Miller ranch and using Texas ponies against pickup Army teams in the days before the cavalry was dismounted, the rich players in the East were still buying Argentine or British horses, often paying five and ten thousand dollars for a prize pony (the record was $22,500, put up in 1928 for the Argentine gelding Jupiter by John Sanford for his son Laddie).

"Most of the foreign horses were natural thoroughbreds," Smith says. "Twenty years ago we thought a half-breed was pretty good down in Texas, but now we don't offer a horse unless he's three-quarters true. The more thorough a horse is bred, the better his staying power."

Smith will take a pony at the age of 4 or 5 and train it for at least two years. A polo pony's best playing span is from 7 to 12, although there are horses that have played competitively at the hoary age of 18 and a few whose hearts have given out gloriously in the middle of a chukker. Because of mechanization on the range, it's a lot harder than it used to be to find good young ponies, but each year Smith manages to corral" ten or so at $400 to $600 apiece and start their training before he heads north or southeast with a string of 10 or 12 that are ready for play. He tries to sell four to six of these at prices from $1,500 to $3,000.

"Fellows like Rube Williams and myself used to leave Texas and sell our best horses out from under us in a month or so," Smith says. "Then we'd play the rest of the season on what we had left, or on what someone loaned us. Now, for the first time, I feel I'm in Hitchcock's class in the saddle. I bought 25 horses at the end of the war and I've kept eight of the best for myself each year, replacing them gradually. It makes all the difference in the world. You've got to do it to play 10-goal polo. A poor player on a good pony will ride a good player on a poor pony off the ball almost any time." Pausing a moment, Smith grinned. "I figure an old man like me deserves a special break."

Smith is essentially a shy person and, in true cowboy tradition, not a particularly loquacious one, but it is doubtful that a player exists today who would yet want to gamble on riding him off. (Riding off denotes the ability of a man to have his pony out-gallop and bump along an opponent's horse, to "take the man"—keep the opponent tied up and away from the ball.) As a continuous contest in hard and clever riding, polo today is not much different from what it is believed to have been some 2,000 years ago, when it was first played, some say, by Iranian tribes in Central Asia, or, others claim, at the Mogul courts, where the emperors used it to test the mettle of their men.

The Emperor Abkar (1547-1605), a great Mogul soldier and polo enthusiast (he even invented a slow-burning flame-ball for use after dark), had his praises as a player sung in almost the same words now used to extol Smith, and for the same reasons. In his court chronicle, Abkar's Prime Minister noted, "His Majesty is unrivaled for the skill he shows in the various ways of hitting the ball; he often manages to strike the ball when it is in the air and astonishes all." The Moguls called the game chaugan, meaning ball-and-stick, and it did not become polo until they brought it with their conquests to India and Tibet—the word in Tibet for it was pulu (meaning willow root), which the British made polo. James Gordon Bennett, the editor of the New York Herald, brought the game to America from England in 1876, and he might as readily have hired Abkar's bard as the San Antonio scribe who wrote typically of Smith, a short time ago, "Those who have seen him race down a polo field at full tilt after a crazily bouncing willow ball, connect with it in mid-air in a clean swipe with the slender barrel head of his whippy polo mallet and drive it singing in the wind half the length of the field agree there has never been any like him and perhaps never will be."

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