It's 9 A.M. on a steamy Friday in the Hamptons, but in the stables of the Bridgehampton Polo Club it might as well be outside Buenos Aires. Nacho Figueras, the sultry, shaggy-haired 25-year-old Argentine who plays for the legendary White Birch team, is sitting on a hay bale with his three grooms drinking mate, the traditional Argentine morning drink made from green tealike leaves stuffed into a hardened gourd (the mate) and sipped through a metal straw. They pass it around like a bong.
Behind them, the horses are standing in their stalls having breakfast. Freshly showered and glistening, they look oddly naked with their manes shaved into stubbly Mohawks to keep the hair from getting tangled in the player's reins. Some are facing their stall's back corner like naughty children. Sidra is having a rest, her legs curled underneath her like a cat. "She is a bad eater, eh?" says Nacho, sifting the mare's uneaten grain through his fingers.
As Argentine folk music swells to fill the barn, Nacho walks from one stall to the next checking on his best ponies, Tanguito, Flo-Jo, and Kiwi, who are still recovering from a body-slamming game two days ago that was battled out in overtime. Unlike many players, Nacho isn't an ardent horse whisperer. He is not even sure they recognize him, but since in polo your horse is 80 percent of your game, he takes nothing for granted. When he gets to Kiwi, she sticks her black-brown head through the stall bars and gives him a deep stare. Nacho stares back. He walks in close, slowly puts his nose up against hers, and exhales noisily. "This is what they do to each other," he says, "so I always do that to them."
It is a tableau that's replayed every morning he's in the Hamptons and then replayed again with slight adjustments in every city he finds himself in, whether it's Palm Beach or Sotogrande or Deauville. Polo players are an appealing hybrid of gypsies -- hauling their rituals and their animals with them -- and rock stars on perpetual tour. And in the celebrity-weary Hamptons, they may be the last possible novelty. Which is why, for six consecutive Saturdays, the crowds pour onto the usually quiet Hayground Road and take the winding path behind the stables to the polo club's two emerald fields, each the size of nine football fields.
The five teams in the Mercedes-Benz Polo Challenge, which is actually two separate three-week-long tournaments, play almost every day, but only Saturday games merit guest-list-only cocktail parties. By 4 p.m., the white hospitality tent, with its meringue-like peaks, is filling with onlookers who've braved the soft rain to mingle while the White Birch team faces off with La Lechuza Caracas. On either side are a string of small rectangular tailgate tents, the equivalent of box seats, that fans like Jane Holzer and Kelly Klein (who dates White Birch manager Nick Manifold) rent out for the season. In just eight years, the tournament -- with its heady mixture of Argentines, multimillionaires, supermodels, horse lovers and hangers-on -- has become the apex of Hamptons social aspirations. Elizabeth Hurley, P. Diddy, and Prince Albert of Monaco have made the scene. This year, Natalie Portman presided at the opener, a benefit for New Yorkers for Children. "Anna Wintour asked me to do it," said Portman, who giggled as she handed out a silver trophy to each player in her chartreuse Izod.
"I always look forward to the opening of the season," says Star Jones, who comes to every weekend game and settles into the VIP tent. "For two hours, you get the opportunity to suspend your own life and feel like you're a part of the sport of kings. Plus," she says, pointing to the brim of her black-and-white straw Peter Beaton, "it allows me to wear my hat."
Outside the VIP tent, things are less serene. In fact, the pull of polo in the Hamptons is now so powerful that some complain that too many moths are being drawn to the flame. "It used to be a destination for people living a certain lifestyle," says a twentysomething guest in a halter top. "Now it's a destination for people who want to live a certain lifestyle." Still, the desperation to get inside the party has not waned. Before the first game, one hopeful attendee even telephoned the company that makes the wristbands for the event and ordered up a duplicate set. He was foiled when the company called London Misher, the club's P.R. agency, to confirm the address.
Today the field seems as if it's glowing green. But the spectators, whose casual dress could be described as "bear-market garden party," seem more interested in reclining on the living-room-like arrangement of modular sofas under the tent than in taking in the scenery -- or the game.
When the rain starts to come down harder, someone hands an umbrella to the mustachioed announcer who's giving the play-by-play from his perch atop a field-side lifeguard stand. Mariano Aguerre, White Birch's team leader, has the ball at midfield and lets out his trademark yell -- of the blood-curdling variety -- urging his mates to "go forward!"
Inside the tent, spectators stake out their positions in the line for Moët & Chandon splits of champagne.
Aguerre taps the ball with his mallet, then gallops ahead, looking back over his shoulder to see if Lechuza is closing in. He taps it again.
A groan rises from the tent: The frozen-coffee-drink counter has run out of Grand Marnier!Aguerre sees Nacho, raises his arm behind him, and with a pendulum swing his mallet cracks another shot under his horse's neck, sending the ball 100 yards toward the goal.
A polished brunette in white prairie skirt stage-whispers to a friend, "Is that Chris Cuomo over by the raffle table?"
Nacho races his opponent to get Aguerre's shot -- and scores! -- but only a scattered few in the tents take notice.
"In Bridgehampton," Victor Vargas, the owner, or patron, of the Lechuza team, likes to say, "20 percent watch the game; the rest are enjoying the polo atmosphere."
There's a certain purity to the game of polo. It derives from the fact that it's more a way of spending money than of making it. The cost of running a team begins at perhaps at a few hundred thousand; to play in the major leagues -- what's known as "high-goal polo" -- can run into the millions. There are only about 25 U.S. patrons at a given time who are willing to fund such an enterprise. In a sense, polo is too expensive to be corrupted. Which is one reason the Hamptons have come to love it so much.
And Bridgehampton polo is exclusive (read: expensive) even for the sport: To keep teams within each tournament evenly matched, each player has a rating, or handicap, from 1 to 10. Each tournament also has a handicap -- the Mercedes-Benz Polo Challenge is a 20-goal tournament, which means the total of the four players' ratings on a team equals 20. There are only two higher-ranked tournaments -- 26-goal -- in the country: the U.S. Open in Wellington, Florida, and the Gold Cup, which newsprint baron Peter Brant has lured to the Greenwich Polo Club, one of the clubs he owns, in September.
It was Brant, the co-owner of Interview magazine and husband of model Stephanie Seymour, who started White Birch in the eighties and in the early nineties launched the Bridgehampton Polo Club along with his childhood friend Neil Hirsch, a financier. They were, they say, simply trying to find a place near their weekend homes to play the game. Companies like Sony Cierge, RFR/Davis, and, of course, Mercedes-Benz are among the tournaments's sponsors, but corporate support does little to offset the fact that there is no such thing as a profit margin in American polo. The $400,000 in sponsor and team-entry fees per tournament goes entirely toward equipment rentals and the upkeep of the meticulously manicured grounds.