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They've Got Game

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After a round of mate, McCall, Magrini, and the two other members of the Newbridge team, Francisco Bilbao and Federico Von Wernich, take a set of horses out of the makeshift stables covered by a blue-and-white circus tent, to play a practice chukker. McCall is the only one whose helmet has a built-in metal face mask. "Russell!" yells Magrini after McCall crosses the line of the ball. "Why you pass over?!"

"Well, I was . . .," McCall tries.

"You do like this!" says Magrini, demonstrating a sideways maneuver. "Then you don't touch the ball, but he doesn't touch it either." When the chukker is over, Magrini comes trotting in and switches to a second horse by jumping from one to the other without touching the ground. McCall watches him, momentarily transfixed, then gets down from his ride and plants his foot in the stirrup of the second one, pulling himself over the top.

"Next year," he says.

Agustin Merlos, 25, a 7-goal player known as Tincho, is part of a polo dynasty. His father made the rare jump from a groom to a player with a 9-goal handicap and two wins at the prestigious Argentine Open to his credit. Tincho's older brothers Sebastian, 29, and Pite, 33, are both 10-goalers (there are only twelve 10-goalers in the world). The brothers are all playing in Bridgehampton now. Tincho is playing with Sebastian on the Mercedes team -- Michael Caruso, the local dealer, is the patron -- and Pite is playing for Lechuza Caracas.

When players arrive in a town, it's as if they were secret agents handed a new identity. "We just come and we start living," Tincho says. "Where are the horses? And we go." They are given keys to a new house, a cell phone, and a car to drive (for his Bridgehampton life, Tincho gets to tool around in a black Mercedes SUV). Usually, they find a new set of groupies to entertain them as well. "There are more fans here because they've never seen polo before. They look at the guys and get horny," Tincho says. "Just kidding." Sort of.

On a Saturday night at the Star Room, this year's nightspot of choice, Tincho gets briefly detained by a gaggle of girls just a few feet from the entrance before he has a chance to survey the scene. "I've been going out like crazy since I was 16, I promise you," he says. "When I turned 22, my brothers said, 'You've been going out, now think about your future. Polo player or night man?' "

This past year, he's been to California, England, and Florida for the winter season, where he played for Tommy Lee Jones's San Saba team. One day, he recalls, Jones was in the tack room when he walked by: "He goes, 'Agustin!' -- he likes to talk to me in Spanish -- 'have you ever seen the movie Men in Black?' I said, 'Yes. I love that movie.' 'Have you noticed we wear these glasses?' 'Yes, you wear them when you activate the neuralizer.' 'Okay,' he said, 'I give you these glasses. These are the glasses I used to film Men in Black II.' I told him, 'What, are you going to neuralize me now?' "

For a polo player, being charming is something of a job requirement. You're essentially an athlete-for-hire, and although patrons must choose players by their handicaps, being sociable doesn't hurt your résumé. While players get access to borrowed luxury, patrons get to pal around with guys who are inevitably a lot cooler than they are.

Tincho's boss in Bridgehampton, Mike Caruso, regularly hosts team dinners, and attendance is unofficially required. (As are the occasional polo lessons for his friends.) On a recent Sunday evening, Peter Brant hosted a beach-party barbecue in Sagaponack where the players mixed with his pals, including Robert De Niro.

Still, Tincho is trying to strike a balance between living the polo lifestyle and concentrating on his game. "Look at my arms," he says, pushing up his sleeve. If you saw me walking down the street, you'd say 'wiry.' Basketball players must be tall. For rugby, you need to be big. For polo, thin, not too tall. Light, not fat. Big hands. A lot of strength, but not muscle." At dinner, he drinks half of his Corona. When his chef's salad arrives, he stares at his plate, picks up a hunk of turkey, then a hunk of cheese, and smells them both. He transfers the bulk of the ingredients onto a separate plate and ends up with a green salad. "I have not had an egg in four years," he says proudly.

But the quest to improve one's handicap entails more than just a carb-free diet. It's a much-bemoaned Catch-22: you need the salary of a 10-goal player to afford the best horses (the best players own their own), but you need to ride the best horses in order to improve your game and earn a 10-goal rating. The Merlos family breeds polo ponies, and supplies Tincho with most of his at a healthy discount, but the desire for new and better mounts is insatiable. Normally, players change horses after each chukker, and for a 20-goal tournament they keep ten horses to rotate through. "You win in the stables," Tincho says. "If you're good and you don't have a good horse, it doesn't matter," he says. "You'll never get to the ball."

Victor Vargus, patron of the Lechuza Caracas team, owns 200 polo ponies as well as the yacht Aspiration, which is currently anchored in the Sag Harbor marina. At the moment, Vargus, whose full head of black hair makes him look considerably younger than his 50 years, is sipping mineral water in the boat's beige sitting room. He's dressed in a white shirt and white shorts with a light-blue sweater draped over his shoulders. A purple orchid is in a pot on the coffee table -- it feels as if Alexis Carrington might walk through the sliding doors at any moment.

Vargus makes his money from a bank, two oil wells, and a handful of insurance companies in Central America -- and polo is how he spends it. "A pony for high-goal polo means $50,000," he says. "The best one could be in the range of $100,000. And the horses change in life," he continues, sitting forward on the beige couch, "like people. Maybe you sold a horse five years ago, then you see the horse again years later and the horse is better. You try to get it back for double or triple what you sold it for!" he says, shaking his head. In addition to his horses, Vargas keeps 33 people on the payroll to run his team, including Pite Merlos, whom he calls his worldwide polo director.

Polo is the only professional game in which any well-funded amateur can crash the party. Even if you are a relatively unathletic zhlub, it is possible to put together the best team money can buy -- and then play on it. Imagine the Yankees with George Steinbrenner in right field.

As he sits on his waterfront Watermill veranda chain-smoking, Neil Hirsch fingers his silver Zippo, engraved with the roster of a team he put together for the World Cup in 1996: Hirsch, plus Mariano Aguerre, Bautista Heguy, and Adolfo Cambiaso, three of the best players in the world. "Heguy and Cambiaso can go the whole length of the field hitting the ball in the air with the mallet and never letting it touch the ground," he says, sounding almost like a groupie himself. "It's like a guy getting to play golf with Tiger Woods."

Hirsch usually plays on Brant's White Birch, but he took a mallet to the forearm in a June match and is mournfully sitting out the season. He acknowledges that for its middle-aged patrons, polo can be more than a little risky. "You've got to be a little crazy to play the sport. My friends tell me I have more balls than brains," he says. "They say golf is addictive, but to me polo is much more addictive than golf. There's a saying: 'The only way to get out of polo is to die or go broke.' "

Ladies of the Hamptons who still hope to wine and dine the crew in town for the tournament are, unfortunately, a little late. They're likely to be stymied by the determined presence of girlfriends or wives and mallet-wielding toddlers. Almost all of the players now bring their families along on their jobs. Tatiana Pieres, 22, married Mariano Aguerre a year and a half ago. She's the daughter of polo legend Gonzalo Pieres, with whom Aguerre used to play. "I've never stayed in one place longer than four months," says Pieres. At the moment, she is seven months pregnant. When the baby is born in October, she, too, will come along for the ride.


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