SI Vault
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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The man in the high-heeled, filigree boots, with a cowboy's wind-stitched face and the considered Texan speech, had no van for his ponies. But the old Negro and the Mexican boy guided them solicitously among the vans and then, one by one, the Texan took the ponies and led them into the shade, where the flies and the mosquitoes were less bothersome, and tethered them tenderly in the clump of elms. Alone and apart, this might have been a grove back in his own Llano County.

His name was Cecil Calvert Smith and, at first glance, up here among the sparkling-helmeted and bright-liveried citizens of the Oak Brook Club, 20 miles west of Chicago in the Illinois flatland, one would scarcely guess that he was the world's greatest polo player. It was only when he galloped onto the field and took his first few warm-up strokes and sent the white willow ball soaring wickedly toward the goal posts that the difference in boots and bearing was suddenly dissipated and all that mattered was that everyone else on the field seemed to be chasing not only the elusive, cascading ball but him and his pony too.

When one considered the further fact that the Texan bending low over his pony's shanks and swinging his mallet with the smooth precision of the lariat he learned how to swing first, a long time ago, was now 51 years old, older than anyone out there on the field with him, something else made the moment and the vision memorable; something that brought to mind other famous battlers against time—George Herman Ruth hitting three ultimate home runs in Pittsburgh a few days before he quit, Thorpe or Nagurski anciently bucking a line or even Ezzard Charles losing bloodily and gallantly to Rocky Marciano.

When the chukker ended, the Texan walked his pony off the field, seeming to saunter in the saddle as the pony sauntered beneath him. A mare neighed in the elms and he brought her out to replace the gelding he had been riding. Someone asked how it felt to play 10 practice periods on such a hot midwestern afternoon. He pondered that a moment as he shifted the saddle. "Suits me," he said. "I get a chance to work my eight horses." Then he reappraised the question and smiled. "Sometimes when the weather's warm and thick this way, I can tell I'm getting older," he said. "I get winded sooner than my pony does."

The old Negro, Leon (Pappy) Jones, threw a linen blanket across the back of the steaming gelding. He was laughing softly as he looked up. "I don' notice it none," he said, shaking his head. "I been with him 30 years and when he gets in dem games, I don' notice it none at all."

This weekend at Oak Brook, in Hinsdale Ill., the national open championship, polo's World Series, gets under way. Seven teams—the most since the war—will be entered in the six-game elimination contest, with the finals scheduled for September 11. Fully recovered from a knee injury he suffered during a collision in a practice game at Milwaukee Aug. 18, which forced the withdrawal of the Oak Brook team from the annual national 20-goal championship matches, Smith will once again be riding at the head of the Oak Brook four.

One of seventeen 10-goal players in American polo history, Smith is the only man who has ever held the distinction at his age. For the benefit of the uninitiated, a 10-goal rating does not represent the number of goals a player is expected to make during a regular contest. It is simply the highest competitive rating the U.S. Polo Association, which determines the handicaps of some 750 registered players in the country, can assign. A high-goal player is generally considered to be anyone with a five-goal rating or better, and high-goal polo will be played when two teams come together with respective total handicaps of 20 goals or more—an average of five per man on each team.

Smith has been rated at 10 goals for 14 successive years, which puts him one ahead of the consecutive 10-goal record of the late Tommy Hitchcock Jr., who was killed in a plane crash during the last war, and Smith's over-all total of 15 years at 10 goals is only three behind Hitchcock's. Most polo experts credit the big Texan, who weighs 200 pounds and stands just under 6 feet, with being, next to Hitchcock, America's greatest star in 79 years of polo play in this country. Smith is the first to defer to his predecessor. "Tommy belongs at the top of the heap," he says. "He just seemed to have a little something extra. He always got a little more done out there than anyone else. It was mostly that he knew where to be all the time."

Smith, like Hitchcock, is one of the hardest riding of all polo players, and he is also one of the hardest hitting. Not without reason has he been called the Babe Ruth or Ted Williams of polo. His free and easy, lassolike swipe at a moving ball, his ability to catch it in mid-air and propel it in the opposite direction the way Ruth or Williams have caught a blazing horsehide and sent it screaming toward the bleachers, have made him as dangerous on the defensive as on the offensive, which is what a great player has to be. Even at his age—which he doesn't show—and despite a slight paunch, Smith will still outride and outsmash men who are 20 or 30 years his junior.

This great riding ability and the tremendous power of his strokes have made Smith a natural No. 3 man on most teams, although he has played a lot at No. 2 as well. No. 3 is the chief offensive-defensive position. No. 1 and No. 2 are comparable to forwards on a basketball team, and the back is a roving goal tender who, unlike a hockey goalie, makes downfield sorties on occasion. At any moment No. 3 must be ready to lead an assault toward the opposition goal and also turn in a flash and drop back to break up an opposition thrust or protect his own goal if his back is temporarily out of position. In a fast game, only a No. 2, as the chief offensive rover, is apt to do more riding than a No. 3, but the riding done by No. 3 is invariably more difficult. He should be the fastest thinker on the field, able to anticipate the strategy and tactics of all four members of the opposition as well as gauge the riding and shotmaking capacities of his own team members.

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