By Darlene Ricker
What kind of polo superstar gives one of his best-trained horses to another player who can’t afford to buy a safe mount? Treats a beginner with the same respect he does a student from the British royal family? Stops after a match to chat with a stranger who cheered him on from the sidelines?
The kind of guy named Carlos Gracida.
Unfortunately there was only one of his kind, and his recent death has left a hole in the heart of the sport. The polo world – indeed, anyone who knew Carlos – recognized him as one of the greatest polo players, and finest human beings, of all time. The legendary player died February 26, 2014 after a tragic accident in which his horse fell on him during play at Everglades Polo Club in Wellington, Florida.
It’s difficult to quantify what the loss of an international icon like Carlos Gracida means. Among the elite handful of 10-goal players in the world, he won more national and international titles than most people can count. Those who knew Carlos personally, however, have no lack of words to describe the man who brought so much to the world in his 53 years.
“I can tell you he was a great polo player, but everyone knows that. I can tell you he was a great guy, but everyone knows that, too,” said John Fulton, a bloodstock agent and racehorse owner in Argentina who was a close friend of Carlos for the past 10 years. Members of International Polo Club (IPC) in Palm Beach, the two often worked out together at the club and went to dinner afterward with their families. “We had a lot of fun times together,” John recalled. “He was such a social guy, always very open and entertaining.”
Underlying his personality was the fabric Carlos was made of. “Prejudice never entered into his way of thinking – whether you were a groom or a patron. If you were a good person, it was all the same to him,” said John.
Born in Mexico City into a family that had played polo for generations, Carlos learned to play polo on foot, then on a bicycle. By the time he was 10, he was competing in tournaments, already showing his uncanny skill and a deep connection with horses. His finesse was appreciated by polo fans and players from every walk of life. Remembered as “the best polo player ever” by his student, Prince William, Carlos was Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite player.
“Lots of players are great with a mallet, but you can’t compare them to Carlos,” said John. “Watching him play was like watching a work of art being created right in front of your eyes.” At Carlos’s memorial ceremony at IPC, his brother Memo Gracida (also a top player), observed that when people talk of skillful players, Carlos transcended that.
“Carlos was magic,” said Peter Rizzo, CEO of the United States Polo Association. “I’d watch him play and think, ‘I don’t know how he does it.’” Peter, who knew Carlos more than 30 years, counts him among the top three polo players of all time. “He could play anywhere, with anyone,” he said. “He was extremely approachable, always had a smile on his face. He always had time for you, whoever you were.”
For Sunny Hale, the most famous female polo player in the world and the first woman to ride on a winning team in the U.S. Open Polo Championship, the word that epitomizes Carlos is inspiration. “I believe inspiration is one of the greatest gifts anyone can give and receive,” Sunny said. “Inspiration for me comes from great people in history, no matter what they achieved…it’s the exceptional ones that take a stance to be what they are and to give themselves to what drives them no matter what their talent. This is what changes the way we think and the way we live our lives.
“What inspired me was something I could feel from my earliest childhood memories.” Sunny added,“ – this burning desire and dream that I shared with no one. I wanted to play polo with the best polo players in the world, with no special circumstances, but because they asked me to be there. Carlos Gracida gave me one of my first invitations to live my dream in 26-goal polo and something to aspire to in the way he played. I’m truly thankful for these gifts he gave to me without even knowing it.”
Samantha Charles, polo player and publisher of Sidelines Magazine, received a gift from Carlos that took her breath away. “One day I was playing practice chukkers at Ruben Gracida’s [Carlos’ cousin], and Carlos saw me getting bucked off of a really pretty little black mare,” she recalled. “He rode over and asked me why I was riding such a horse. I didn’t want to say it was because it was all I could afford, so I gave him some lame excuse about the horse being in training.
“A couple days later his secretary called me and asked when I could pick up Monica. I was shocked to find out that he had given me one of his top ponies who could no longer play high-goal. She looked exactly like the one that had bucked me off, except this mare was awesome to play. Carlos asked nothing in return – that’s how kind he was.”
If there can be any consolation in the loss of such a man, it comes in Sunny’s words at a memorial service: “I can only say one thing, and that is that he passed from this world doing what he truly loved.”
Godspeed to one of a kind.
About the writer: Darlene Ricker, CEO and Editorial Director of Equestrian Authors, LLC (equestrianauthors.com), covered polo for many years as a staff writer for the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. She met Carlos Gracida on one of her early assignments and remembers him as “the person who turned me on to polo and taught me what having passion – and compassion – for horses and humanity is all about.”