The serious sports writers are, for whatever reason, not writing about polo just yet. I know of at least one serious sports writer, rumored to be on the pass list for Saturday's America's Cup of Polo, who lists "see Journey perform" as his or her primary motivation. But me, I'm curious which team will be on top when the six chuckers have been chucked, as they say.
[I don't know if they really say that, but there will be six seven-minute chuckers, each of which will involve about three miles of horse travel per horse, which is why the horses get switched out after every chucker, and if I've got any of that wrong, feel free to correct me.]
So, bearing in mind that I'm not, technically, trained to write about polo, I present seven ways to look at this coming showdown between the U.S. and the U.K.
1) Chemistry: U.S. team member and event chairman Tareq Salahi told me that his four-man team has never practiced as a group; that they had a 30-minute practice this week but only three team members could attend. U.S. former pro Charlie Muldoon said he has played with two of his teammates and scouted the third, who is a "very classical player" who "likes to hit a big ball" and "likes to run." Muldoon insisted chemistry won't be an issue. British team member Debbie French Nash, who lives in the U.S. and thus was at today's media event, has played with one of her teammates in the past, and has seen the other two in action, but said the Americans have an advantage because they know each other's styles, while the Brits have not yet practiced as a group. On the other hand, three of the four Brits are related, at least by marriage. (For a complete rundown of the Brits, click here.)
2) Homefield: Does it matter? Well, sure it does. The Americans will be more familiar with the field, which is new and thus a bit bumpy and irregular. The Americans will have their own horses, while the Brits will be on unfamiliar mounts. The crowd is expected to be about 60-40 in favor of the Yanks, but that will be enough to help the home side, Muldoon said.
"When the play breaks, you know they're there, heck yeah," he told me. "That gives you a mental advantage."
"We have to hear the crowd's roar," Salahi explained. "It makes our egos even bigger."
3) Experience: Quoting the site, "Howard Hipwood has played for the U.K. Polo team for more than 20 years and has achieved a stellar 9 goals for more than 10 successive years." Quoting Muldoon, "Howard, in his time, was one of the most powerful players in the world. Howard has a fear factor of a 10."
4) Tactics: The U.S. is expected to play long ball, going up and down the field in large chunks, relying on speed and length. The Brits are expected to play a choppier game, with shorter passes and more tactical movements. However, on a newer, less perfectly groomed field, that choppier game could be disrupted. Muldoon, the Americans' quarterback, expects to be double-teamed, but his teammates are trained to compensate. Incidentally, he's a "runner," with fast horses and a maximum hitting distance of about 150 yards, more than half the length of the field this weekend.
"You have a big ball," Salahi told him.
"I hit a big ball, there's no question," Muldoon agreed.
Advantage: U.S., if for no other reason than those quotes.
5) Trash Talking: "No, what's talking trash?" asked Brit team member Debbie Nash, when I asked whether she partakes. Eventually it was decided that the British version is "talking rubbish," and she had mixed feelings.
"Most people try to be gentlemen," she said. "Maybe some of the Argentines, they tend to speak in Spanish and you don't know what they're saying. Some of it is not quite the thing to be said in front of ladies....The odd word slips out, but not rude words. Like, 'damn'."
She tried to get into the spirit. "We could say 'the guy from The Washington Post thinks you're trash'," she suggested. Then later she came up with this: "Your mother said you're a trashy polo player." I think the new rule for trash talking should be you're required to use the word "trash" in some way, a la Debbie's example.
The U.S. guys weren't buying her sweetheart act, incidentally.
"Let me tell you something, you get Debbie mad, she's the biggest trash talker in polo," Charlie Muldoon told me. He said that, as in any sport if you can dominate your opponents mentally the physical part will come. He said players will whisper to each other before penalty shots, ask how the shooter is feeling, whether his arms are ok, and so on, a helmet-wearing LeBron James to a pony-riding Gilbert Arenas, etc.
I wondered whether opponents could really hear such comments in the heat of polo.
"No, you hear it," Muldoon insisted. "If you're next to 'em and you say 'You dumb [not fit for publication]!' they hear it."
Advantage: U.S., by a lot
6) Practice: Nash spent the winter playing polo in Argentina, Columbia and Uruguay. Muldoon has been working out for the past 30 days, logging at least two hours of penalty shots, riding and striking practice a day. As previously noted, his horses have been working out in Palm Beach since March. Salahi? Too busy planning the event.
"I actually seem to play better when I don't prepare or practice," he said. "I essentially don't practice; I literally go to the polo field, get on the horse and play a major game. It's probably a bit unique. i just don't have the time or the luxury to practice on a daily basis. I'd like to. Maybe down the road."
7) Intangibles: Debbie Nash is attempting to find someone to paint the Union Jack on her fingernails before Saturday. She is also getting her hair done. And she's been asking to go to a club tonight.
"Of course," she told me.
"Because she's a party girl, just like me," said her new friend, Michaele Salahi.
Prediction: U.K., with a narrow victory.
[Every time I post about polo, I search through my category list before remembering that I have yet to create a "Polo" category.]
[Since I always forget this part, the polo event is intended to raise money for Journey for the Cure, which means that even if you find the idea of polo hats, cheek kisses, Claude McKnight, Journey, F-18 flyovers, demonstrations of hunts & hounds, the Urban National HIP HOP choir and high-end Cartier watch presentations in Leesburg mildly amusing, you're required to be mildly amused in a kind-hearted manner.]