By Kendall Bierer
It’s 9:30 on a Tuesday morning at South Forty Polo Club in Wellington, Florida. The horses have been worked and are back in the barn, munching hay and hanging their heads over their stall doors as they “supervise” polo star Nic Roldan. He sits in a circle of chairs in the aisle with his staff, sipping a cup of mate (strong Argentine herbal tea) as they plan the week, discussing each horse one by one. New York, one of his favorite horses, grabs an empty chair in her teeth and shakes it at him when her name comes up. Nic played her Sunday in the U.S. Open Polo Championship, a three-week test of skill and will. Yesterday was a rest day, tomorrow is a practice game and Thursday it’s back to the tournament.
Whatever day the calendar says it is, it’s always “game on” for Nic and his crew. Today they are intently formulating “the exact preparation,” as he says, to get the horses ready for the next game. As the rigorous four-month Florida polo season winds to a close, the well-being and conditioning of his string is even more essential than ever. Nic, a consummate horseman who also enjoys a bareback hack, considers polo ponies 80 percent of the equation in the sport, especially at the international level.
“It all comes down to the horses — the sport is the horses,” he said, drawing a parallel to other high-performance disciplines. “If you were to put the top jumper or the top jockey on an average horse, they’re not going to win. It’s impossible. In all equestrian sports, we depend on the horses a lot.” Polo has an additional twist because the player’s ability with the mallet also comes into play once the horse gets him to the ball.
The leading American polo player with an impressive 8-goal rating, Nic has won tournaments on all five continents. He’s committed to popularizing the sport with a wider base of spectators and young up-and-coming players. He competed in his first tournament when he was only 6 and comes from a multi-generational polo family. His great-grandfather, Audilio Bonadeo Ayrolo, won the Argentine Open — the most prestigious polo tournament in the world — twice. His grandfather and father also played at top levels. When his father, Raul Roldan, was based in Brunei playing for the Sultan of Brunei’s polo team, his young son’s talents on the field became evident.
Growing Up Fast
The youngest polo player in history to win the U.S. Open Polo Championship — the top tournament in this country — at the age of 15, Nic didn’t let it go to his head. “To be honest, I was so young I didn’t even know what was going on,” he said. “I got called up to play, and that was it. I was just playing polo, having fun — and we won!”
Nic found that he “had to grow up fast — really fast. Polo takes discipline, and it was also a fun experience because you’re traveling all over the world and doing what you love. But at the same time, you’re put into certain situations where you have to think like a grown-up. Luckily I had great parents who guided me in the right direction.”
For Nic, it’s all about family. “My dad has been there since day one. He’s the one who got me started and the one who has paved the way for me. He’s also my mentor. Anything that I have is because of him and my mom,” he said. “Family, for me, has always been the first thing. We’re all very, very close. When I’m home (in Wellington), there isn’t a day that I don’t see my parents at least a couple of times, and if I’m overseas they’re the first people I call in the morning and the last ones I speak to at night before I go to bed.”
He and his father, both part owners of Polo Gear, work together developing Nic’s brand of saddles and boots. Nic, who has artistic talents as well, also enjoys working on projects with his mother, Dee Roldan, an acclaimed interior designer and architectural professional. With two of his close friends, Darren Marotta and polo pro Brandon Phillips, they created Bedford Park, a company that designs and builds equestrian facilities.
A Dedicated Philanthropist
In January Nic became the first polo ambassador for Brooke USA, the American fundraising arm of the world’s largest international equine welfare charity, the Brooke. Brooke USA is dedicated to improving the lives of equines around the world, providing veterinary care, education and resources for working horses, donkeys and mules. Brooke USA supports the efforts of the Brooke and has worked in some of the most impoverished areas around the world for the last 80 years, helping more than 1.8 million equines and more than 10 million people who rely on these animals last year alone.
“I love what the Brooke does. We’re all passionate about equines, so I felt like it was the right fit,” said Nic. “And then I thought, ‘Well great, we should throw a huge event.’ They liked the idea, so I shared my vision with them, and we both said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
That turned into the party of the 2016 show season in Wellington. The fundraiser in March for Brooke USA drew over 500 attendees for a polo game, followed by dining and dancing under the stars. The inaugural Nic Roldan’s Annual Sunset Polo & White Party raised more than $120,000. His vision was behind every detail. Nic decided to borrow mini donkeys and mini horses from his friends, and Polo Gear outfitted the furry ambassadors with custom saddlebags to collect cash donations along the sidelines during the game. Proceeds from a live auction, “Bid for a Cause,” raised enough money for Brooke USA to build two permanent water troughs at its facility.
“Our goal was to create as much awareness as possible about Brooke USA’s efforts. It’s a good cause, and it’s close to our hearts because we love equines,” said Nic, adding that Katherine and Mark Bellissimo “went above and beyond” by hosting the event, providing their magnificent venue at The Wanderers Club and donating food and other amenities.
For Nic, the event was a labor of love, with his attention to aesthetic beauty in every detail. He wanted to recreate the splendor of the Great Gatsby era without the formality and chose “shades of white” as the requested attire. Nic lit the dance floor with twinkling white bulbs, lined the poolside area with white tents, draped the tables with white tablecloths and sprinkled white rose petals along the grounds.
His vision was to have “a big, fun end-of-the-season party where everyone would have a great time. I wanted it to be affordable for everyone and draw in kids of all ages, families and equestrians from all disciplines. The event came out perfect. Everybody who helped did an insane job, and we got tremendous support and enthusiasm. It couldn’t have gone better for the first event. I think it’s just going to get bigger and bigger every year.”
No “Grooms” in His Barn
Nic invited everyone who works at his barn to the Brooke USA event as his guests. His inclusive attitude is reflected in his vocabulary. He refers to his staff as “horse trainers,” explaining, “I don’t like to call them ‘grooms’ because I feel they deserve a lot more respect. They’re horse trainers, they’re vets, they’re all in one. They’re here every day, day in and day out, from 6 in the morning until 7:30 at night. They have the hardest job in the world and their dedication, their love for the horses, is so far and beyond that they don’t even get half the credit they deserve.
“When we win a game and lift up the trophy, everyone sees just the team,” continued Nic. “They don’t see what goes on behind the scenes. There are four guys who work for me: Nacho, Valé, Gaspar and Noe. We’re a great team. I’d be nowhere without the amazing people who have had my back along the way.”
He’s also grateful to polo patrons and pro players Marc and Melissa Ganzi, on whose teams (Audi, Flexjet and others) he has played for years. The Ganzis own two premier polo clubs, Grand Champions Polo Club and Aspen Valley Polo Club. Nic considers the Ganzis “the strongest supporters of the sport in the United States,” and he said he feels like a second son to them. “Marc and Melissa have really taken me under their wing and believed in me and given me the chance. It’s not easy to make a living at polo; it’s very tough. Having them behind me and supporting me helps me a lot to get to where I want to go.”
His ultimate dream, like all polo pros, is to achieve the top handicap of 10, a distinction held by just a handful of players in the world. But Nic also knows how to unwind, which helps keep him balanced. Off the field he’s a regular 33-year-old guy who likes to play golf, dine out, listen to all genres of music, relax around the pool with friends and spend time with grand prix show jumper Jessica Springsteen, whom he confirmed he’s dating. “We’re very happy,” he said, adding that they’re enjoying learning about each other’s respective riding disciplines.
What does he like to do after a polo game? Often he goes home and watches a movie, usually a comedy like “Wedding Crashers,” “Step Brothers” or “Talladega Nights.” “They’re epics,” he said. “They never get old.”
Learn more about Nic, his polo career and his widespread philanthropic efforts at NicRoldan.com. For more information about BrookeUSA: brookeusa.com.