By Lauren R. Giannini
Nick Manifold considers himself very lucky. His life is filled with horses, polo, excitement and romance — an exhilarating combination to fire up the plot in any book or movie. Granted, his chosen lifestyle demands dedication and hard work, but yes, he’s living his dreams and making polo his career.
Born and raised in Australia, Nick arrived in the U.S. in 1991, but he already had connections within the polo world. His mentor for three years of intensive training in Argentina was none other than former White Birch player Hector Barrantes, rated at 8 goals during the zenith of his playing career. Although he succumbed to cancer in 1990, Hector bequeathed a great deal of knowledge and practical horsemanship to his young protégée.
Nick’s first job took him to Florida to groom for polo-great Carlos Gracida. From there, he went to work for the White Birch team as groom and green horse rider. Three years later, White Birch owner and patron, Peter Brant, gave Nick his first taste of playing in — and winning — a high-goal tournament when Nick played in the 1995 World Cup, White Birch’s sixth world title. In the Sun Sentinel’s story (April 17, 1995), Nick was quoted as feeling “like a rookie pitching the final game of the World Series” as he played alongside Peter, Mariano Aguerre and Adolfo Cambiaso, only 19 and already rated 10 goals.
“Playing for White Birch in the World Cup was a huge highlight,” said Nick, who credited that opportunity to his late mentor Hector and the White Birch patron. In just three years, Nick’s handicap went from 0 to 4 and, after the World Cup, to 5 goals, where it remains today. All players aspire to carry the highest rating they can earn, the maximum being the extremely elusive 10.
“It’s very difficult to improve your handicap,” said Nick. “You have to be a great athlete and a great horseman, and you have to have the horses and the playing time. Back then, it was difficult to get into polo — I think that today it’s actually harder. Fortunately, there are programs like Team USPA, which give young players opportunities, but getting mounted to compete in tournaments today is very difficult. I’m not in the league of the greats, but I’m pretty happy with what’s happened in my career. I’ve played 30-, 26- and 20-goal polo, but my real passion is the horses and making horses to be played by great players.”
For about 20 years, Nick has been in partnership with Mariano Aguerre and Naco Taverna in Los Machitos, their Argentine-based breeding and training facility for high-goal polo ponies. Mariano, professional White Birch 9-goal player (former 10-goaler), is a nine-time winner of the Argentine Open on three different teams.
“I’ve known Mariano as long as I’ve been in the U.S., and I’m pretty lucky to be involved with him and our horse breed,” said Nick. “We have bred a lot of champion ponies, and there are probably about 100 Machitos-breds in Florida right now.”
Winning depends largely on work, skill, horsepower and luck. The great playing ponies enjoy the game — they know their jobs and why they’re out there. They’re aware of the ball and direction of play. They respond quickly to players’ aids as if their minds are synchronized — starting, stopping, changing direction. A great playing pony is a happy accomplice to bumping and riding off the opposition.
According to the short story by Rudyard Kipling, “The Maltese Cat,” a good pony plays with its head and with its feet. The timeless classic provides excitement, entertainment and insight into polo and the vital role played by the horses. Ponies bred at Los Machitos are known for their athletic ability and prowess on the field of play.
The trio of partners set high standards for their breeding program and made history by cloning the first polo pony in order to perpetuate Califa’s excellent bloodlines and athleticism. Owned by White Birch founder Peter, played by Mariano, the bay gelding whose dam, Luna, ranks as one of Argentina’s most famous polo mares, earned many Best Playing Pony (BPP) honors, including 2006 Horse of the Year. Califa is a 2016 inductee into the Museum of Polo’s Hall of Fame.
Friends and Supporters
Among Nick’s friends and supporters is Christian Currey, the founder of FarmVet and a former U.S. World Cup show jumping team member. Christian stated candidly that he’s proud not only to call Nick a FarmVet Elite Sponsored Rider, but also a lifelong friend. “Nick’s more than a good polo player — he’s been key in developing high-goal on both the management and player side and is very well respected in the industry,” said Christian.
For his part, Nick appreciates the FarmVet sponsorship and said, “FarmVet makes products for horses very accessible, pretty much everything you can think about that you might need. They’re easy to get. You can call or order on the website and the next day have your order. Christian is amazing and Trisha (Heard Shell) takes care of everything.”
One thing in very short supply, however, is time — there’s never enough, but he has his priorities, vital elements that compose the life he dreamed about back in Australia. “I play as often as I can, but I’m pretty busy with managing and taking care of everything for White Birch,” said Nick. “I would like to help develop polo in the U.S. and the world and continue breeding polo ponies and establish Los Machitos as a great breed.”