By Kelly Fenstermaker
A tight clutch of horses thunder down the velvet turf of a 300 yard long polo field, their riders shouting to one another in Spanish.  In the background, a range of mountains fade into the purple distance.  On the sidelines, a crowd watches intently from folding chairs, pulling drinks out of coolers and occasionally strolling over to the snack bar for hamburgers and fries.  The men are almost all wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots.  The women have large-brimmed hats to shield against the high altitude sun.  A few cowboys on chunky quarter horses slowly walk around the periphery of the field, taking in the scene.   

This is professional polo, no doubt about it, but except for the expertly groomed field, the site bears little resemblance to the flat country and Eastern atmosphere most people associate with the game, such as Palm Beach, Florida, largest site of polo in the world.

We are at CF Ranch, located in the Davis Mountains, deep in far West Texas.

Fort Worth businessman, Al McCallef, has brought polo to his ranch and plans to make it a regular summer event.  He has only played polo four years, but has put together a first class team, the Reata, headquartered in Palm Beach.

“You can’t play anywhere else in Texas in the summer,” says McCallef, “it’s just too hot.”  But here in a mile-high altitude, the weather is typically cool and dry.  

On this particular Saturday, McCallef was delighted with the turn out of about 300 people, many of whom had never seen polo before.  “Most polo games in Florida will not have this many people show up,” he says.  

For those better acquainted with team penning and roping than with chukkers and mallets, CF Ranch had thoughtfully provided programs with rules and history of the game. Polo lasts six chukkrs of seven minutes each, with a halftime rest during the third and fourth chukkers. A team has four players who come back with a fresh mount after each chukker.  This is one of the oldest team sports, originating in Asia over two thousand years ago.  In the past 20 years, it has undergone a remarkable expansion in the United States, with 225 USPA (United States Polo Association) member clubs and over 3,000 players.

Five teams are competing against each other at the ranch, playing on three consecutive weekends.  All boast skilled players, may of whom play in top tournaments.  A number of them are Argentinians, considered to be some of the world’s top polo players.  Carlos Gracida, a ten goal player, is riding in the tournament.  Ten goals is the highest a level a player can achieve, and there are only 12 such athletes in the world.  Ten are foreigners and two are Americans.

Guillermo“Sapo” Caset, an eight goal player, rides for Reata.  When asked what he likes most about the game, he gestures around the barn where the horses are stabled and says, “I love this.  The barn, the horses, the grooms, I like all that.  And of course, the sport.”   Caset began riding as a small boy on his family’s ranch in Argetina. “As soon as I could walk, my father gave me a mallet and I started swinging it,” he said.   
There is even a “celebrity” player in the assemblage, although not known for polo.   Actor Tommy Lee Jones has his own team, the San Saba, from San Saba, Texas. His wife, Dawn Jones, is playing on another team.  “Everyone loves playing with her,” comments one of the players. “She’s aggressive, and really gets out there.”  On the ground, however, Jones turns out to be youthful and feminine, with a slender build and a charmingly unassuming manner.

The ponies used in the games at CF Ranch, and in fact most ponies these days, are a cross between the Argentinian Criollo and the thoroughbred, a mix that creates sturdy, fast mounts capeable of galloping at speeds up to 35 miles per hour.  You can buy a good pony for about thirty or forty thousand dollars, although McCaliff has a couple of $80,000 horses.  He was not using them in the ranch games, but is saving them for the U.S. Open in January. 

Each afternoon, after the games are over, everyone walks out onto the field for champagne served from a truck bed.  It is August, the monsoon season in dry West Texas, and large thunders clouds have threatened to put a halt to the game all day.  Some thought had been given to canceling the games but “Big Al” as he is known by his teammates, had assured everyone that “The rain will go around us.”  And it did -- until trophies were being handed out.  Then the showers began.

Polo will come again to CF Ranch, August 20 and September 3 and 17.  Games last from three to five P.M.  The ranch is located on Hwy. 118, 13 miles north of Alpine.  For more information about CF Ranch and polo, check the website:  reatapolo.com.

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