They’ve Got Game

Argentine beef: Nacho Figueras is ready to ride.Photo: JOHN HUBA

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.

The fields, of course, aren’t the only thing worth looking at: “To me, the players are all artists on horses,” says fashion designer Gabriele Sanders, who comes to every Bridgehampton game. “And the sport is dominated by attractive men,” she adds. “Anybody will enjoy eye candy.”

Susan Oliver Whitney, a member of the Greenwich Polo Club, may be the ultimate polo fan. The sport, she says, has enthralled generations of her family, starting with ancestor Harry Payne Whitney. Every summer weekend, she travels to Greenwich or to Bridgehampton to root for White Birch – that is, if she’s not watching a game in Newport. In the winter, you can find her at the Polo Masters on snow in Megève, France.

“It’s very sexy,” she says. “It gets under your skin. The horses and the men kind of synthesize themselves together – a strong horse and a sexy player, that’s quite a combo.”

“It used to be Brazilian girls,” says model-of-the moment Molly Sims. “Now it’s Argentine polo guys.”

When Ashley Schiff, a 1-goal patron and one of the few women in the sport, first brought Nacho to the Hamptons four summers ago, he instantly became the ultimate party “get.” He was famous for the way he elegantly draped the sleeves of his sweater around his neck, not to mention his perfectly grown-out wavy locks and cowboy stubble. “We’d be playing a game and there would be women coming around at halftime, girls in heels, their Manolos sinking into the ground,” says Schiff. “And I was like, ’Excuse me, we’re playing here.’ “Since then, the cult of Nacho has only blossomed. “He is the Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise of the polo world,” says Hamptons society editor R. Couri Hay. “He draws you into the sport like other players don’t. He’s become the face of the sport in the Hamptons. Not Neil or Peter. How often do you want to see them with their shirts off?”

The next summer he played with Schiff on her Park Strategies team, sponsored by her friend, former senator Al D’Amato, who took over one of the tailgate tents at the game. “Nacho met the governor and Libby,” Schiff says. She remembers bringing Nacho to work one day. “I was in the back,” she says. “He had to walk through the entire office, and suddenly, no one – men or women – was talking. There was silence.”

After meeting Nacho at a dinner party, Bruce Weber shot him for a Ralph Lauren ad with Penélope Cruz. (He’s the guy in the tux twirling Cruz in the rain in the Glamourous perfume campaign.) Warrington Gillet, who has been filming at the games for EQ, an equestrian-themed TV pilot, was equally impressed. “I’ve heard five girls say they’re in love with Nacho,” he notes, “and five guys say the same thing.”

The fact that Nacho doesn’t seem to go anywhere without his 2½-year-old son, Hilario – his Mini-Me with a complementary shag haircut – only seems to give his fans new strategies for getting close to him. “Um, see that baby over there?” says a woman gesturing toward the tiny bundle her husband is carrying as she approaches a sweaty and mud-splattered Nacho. “She really wants her picture taken with you.” Delfina Blaquier, Nacho’s blonde model girlfriend (and Hilario’s mom), who is always conveniently nearby at times like these, laughs at the excuse.

“I am used to it,” Delfina says with a sigh.

Last Saturday, a group of girls standing by the entrance of the polo grounds confessed they missed their exit on the L.I.E. the week before because they were too busy swooning over Nacho’s performance that afternoon. “We made a verb out of it – we said we were ‘Nachoed,’ ” says a blonde in a ruffled tank top. “And now instead of Manorville – because that’s where we were – we call it Nachoville.”

Some people describe polo as hockey on horseback. Each team has four players, one of whom is the patron. The player with the highest rating acts as the quarterback to set the strategy. Over the course of six chukkers – as the game’s seven-minute periods are called – players attempt to score by hitting a plastic ball, the size of a baseball, through the goalposts. Riders can bump another horse but only when riding parallel to the bumpee; fouls are called constantly for crossing the “line of the ball” – essentially the middle line of a freeway. Players must “drive” with the ball to their right at all times to prevent collisions.

“Great polo players can see several moves ahead,” says Schiff. “They know where the ball is going to end up and they can be there. They can size up weaknesses and strengths of the other team very quickly.”

“It’s about mental toughness,” says Adam Snow, a 9-goal American player. “Polo’s a frenetic, dangerous game, and the ability to be calm in the middle of the storm differentiates you from everybody else.” Players also need to be Dr. Dolittles who can sense when their horses are tired and need to be replaced. Managing the grooms who travel with you and pamper your mounts is also a key game skill. “You’re not only a playing athlete,” says Peter Brant, who was at one time the highest-rated amateur player, with a 7-goal rating, “you’re coordinating a team of people who take care of what you’re going to perform on.”

Occasionally, polo players gravitate toward the sport on their own. But most professionals – that is to say most Argentines, as most professional polo players are from Argentina – come from polo families that handed them mallets as soon as they started to walk. Russell McCall, the patron of the New Bridge team, was a little older when his obsession with the game took hold: He was 52. Now, at 57, after making his fortune in wine and gourmet-food distribution in the South, he’s trying his hand at his first 20-goal tournament. To practice, he’s carved a polo field in the middle of his vineyard on the North Fork and has hired Matias Magrini, an 8-goal player, to lead his team. “I lived all my life on a farm in Argentina,” says Magrini, standing in the middle of the practice field, bordered by Pinot Noir vines on one side and Merlot on the other. “Here is like paradise for me.” It is also paradise for McCall, who “feels a thrill” just being around guys like Magrini. “It’s a later-in-life enjoyment,” he notes.

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.

That is not to say there were no wild times in recent memory – the raging 21st birthday party Hirsch threw for Nacho in Wellington, near Palm Beach, still gets talked about, as well as the fact that Nacho and Rita Schrager, Ian’s ex-wife, were seen together all over the Hamptons and even at Manhattan fund-raisers. His on-again/off-again relationship with Delfina, whom he didn’t marry even when Hilario was on the way, got some ink in the Argentine tabloids.

Just like rock stars, polo players have bad-boy reputations, deserved or not. They always travel with a posse (true), they are always late (mostly true), and they seem to have a healthy sense of their own appeal (too true). “They come up to girls and say, ‘I’m coming to your house tonight,’ ” says a female rider. “They’re naughty.” And there are plenty of willing partners to be naughty with: There’s the polo equivalent of the mile-high club, called the 7-Up Club, whose members are ladies interested in bedding only 7-goalers and up.

While some girls go for ratings, others are attracted to what they assume must be in the players’ bank accounts. They may be the only guys from Argentina making money right now, but most polo players are not exactly on par with Alex Rodriguez. The exceptions are the sport’s superstars: 10-goalers Heguy, Cambiaso, and Aguerre, who do rake in millions. The going rate for a 6-goal player is in the range of $40,000 to $50,000 for a single tournament if they bring their own horses; a 10-goal player can command upward of $120,000. Aguerre, who has played for White Birch since 1987, also runs a successful horse-breeding business back home. A rabid Mets fan, he named all of the offspring of one of his mares after his favorite players, past and present. There’s a Piazza, a Bonilla, a Ventura, and a Robin. “People ask me why I have gray hair,” he says. “I am not sure if it is my age or the Mets.”

After another run-through of his morning ritual at the stables, Nacho, dressed in jeans, black suede Pumas, and a white zip-up jacket with his team logo across the back, slides into his white Chevy, and Hilario jumps on his lap. “He drives,” Nacho deadpans. As Nacho steps lightly on the gas, Hilario turns the wheel to the right. “Más, más!” says Nacho, turning it more. “Bueno.” Hilario, bursting with pride, makes it past the stables and down the driveway, then Nacho transfers him to the backseat. “La policía,” he whispers.

In every city the polo players briefly occupy, they nail down a home-away-from-home routine, complete with a mandatory breakfast place. For this tournament, it’s Hampton Coffee Company in Watermill. When the Chevy pulls up, a group of players and grooms is already there. As a round of bagels and eggs arrives, Nacho regales them with a story about his trip to a doctor in Greenwich the day before. In June, after a heated fight over a girl, one groom stabbed another groom eight times and left him for dead. Though the groom didn’t work for Nacho and the incident took place in South Carolina, Nacho has taken it upon himself to look after the guy and pay his doctor bills. Everyone cringes as he folds a napkin and demonstrates where the surgeon had left a piece of gauze inside the guy’s right arm. After that, breakfast ends rather abruptly and they head out to watch yet another game.

On the sidelines of a polo match – pretty much any match – players who are not suited up park their cars in one long row along the field. Their life is a combination of intense competition and vast stretches of tedium, usually spent simply tailgating. Their wives and girlfriends, outfitted in the latest peasant tops and Christian Dior tinted shades, look like they could have been Gisele Bündchen’s high-school clique. The players and their entourage have elevated “the hang” to an art form: Sometimes they’ll bring along golf clubs to practice putting (polo players are invariably impressive golfers) or keep the car stereo on while they watch. Even on a Sunday morning, when any sensible Hamptons denizen is sleeping off her hangover, the gang are out on some field with their mate, idly taking in the action. They’re there to scout the horses and their opponents’ level of play, of course, but they’re also there because it’s the only place they really know.

Even Nacho, who with his extracurricular modeling gigs has had a taste of a horse-free profession, does not like to be far from the field. His plan is to fit in the modeling when he can and when it interests him (and when he can stand the ribbing of his friends). “I don’t do a swimsuit catalogue,” he says. “You know what I’m saying?” And the work, for which he has an agent at Elite, is not entirely unrelated to his game: It has become a way for him to afford better horses. While he plays with White Birch, he’s mostly riding horses Peter Brant provides, but this year he wants to score some prizes of his own and improve on his 6-goal status. “I want to be better mounted,” he says. “I want ten like Tanguito.”

At the fourth Saturday game, the sun is blazing. Arriving guests beeline for the chilled Voss water bottles. In an eleventh-hour move, Brant has replaced himself and another White Birch player with two ringers for their match against Equuleus. Brant says he’s injured, but some don’t buy it. “This is called ‘White Birch wants to win,’ ” says one polo aficionado. Immediately, it looks as if that will be so.

“It’s Nacho!” says the announcer as he takes the ball long and gallops toward the goal.

“Nacho, Nacho-man!”

Far from the distracted hum of the tents, a group of diehards intent on actually watching the game has colonized the bleacher seats across the field. This time, when Aguerre lets out a gratuitously bloodthirsty wail – even with his team up by five – there are some knowing chuckles. But when one of the ringers gets a particularly brutal slam from an opponent, even veteran polo watchers flinch.

Just two days before, Matias Magrini broke his nose in three places. (The day after, word would spread of Adam Snow’s nearly fractured jaw – a bloody incident involving a mallet to the face at a match in Santa Barbara.) Almost every player has endured a gruesome injury. Hirsch had had his teeth knocked out and his ribs broken. Nacho once took a ball to his right eye, but got back on the horse even before the stitches came out – only to get hit again in the same place.

There’s something seductive, almost sexual, about the game that keeps them coming back. Tincho tries to explain: “When I’m running with the ball by myself, no one behind me, it feels like freedom. It feels like you own the world and you own the moment, and it feels like you want more. You want to go faster and faster and you want to go again and again and again.”

When the game ends, with White Birch ahead, both teams are chauffeured in Mercedes convertibles over to the trophy platform, a souped-up hay wagon covered in AstroTurf. Nacho, as always, has Hilario in tow. The members of the two teams line up shoulder to shoulder, each holding a flute of champagne in one hand and a silver trophy in the other. The audience has dwindled to a smattering of onlookers and relatives – by now, most of the spectators are already halfway home.

Suddenly, the scene has the small-town feel of a midwestern beauty pageant. Lucas Monteverde, who scored thirteen out of fourteen goals for Equuleus, is named MVP. Aguerre’s horse Califa gets the Best Playing Pony Award. Park Avenue dermatologist Howard Sobel has sponsored the honor, which means he gets to drape the mare with a forest-green blanket, then smile for a snapshot.

Califa!” says the announcer into his microphone.

“Califa,” the players exclaim, correcting him.

“Califa!” the announcer tries again. “From the Luna bloodline; Luna played with Gonzalo Pieres. Maybe in a couple of years, when Califa needs a little work, Dr. Sobel will give her a nip and tuck!” he says. No one really seems to be listening – his commentary is mere background noise.

“But right now,” he adds, “right now, she sure looks beautiful.”

They’ve Got Game