LONELY AT THE TOP
Tommy Biddle becomes America's only 10-goal player.

In the history of polo in the United States only 26 American players have been elevated to the 10-goal status since 1891, and of those, only a select few reached the ultimate rating in the arena game. After two years without its own 10-goal player, either indoors or outdoors, the U.S. finally has a player at the top. On January 1, 2012 Tommy Biddle became the fourth player in the history of the sport to reach a 10-goal indoor (arena) handicap.

A 23-year-old Winston F. C. Guest was the first to be awarded a 10-goal indoor handicap in 1929, a rating he held for seven years. In a time when the indoor game was quite active, Guest played on four Arena Open Championship teams, five Class A Championship teams, an Intercollegiate Championship Yale team, as well as the winning East-West indoor team in 1934.

10-goal US Players  
Foxhall P. Keene
Thomas Hitchcock Sr.
John E. Cowdin
Rodolphe Agassiz
Lawrence Waterbury
James M. Waterbury Jr
Harry Payne Whitney
Devereux Milburn
Louis E. Stoddard
J. Watson Webb
Thomas Hitchcock Jr.
Malcolm Stevenson
*Winston C.F. Guest
Elmer J. Boeseke Jr
Cecil Smith
Stewart Iglehart
Michael G. Phipps
*Dr. Clarence C. Combs
Guillermo Gracida Jr.
Tommy Wayman
Owen Rinehart
*Joe Henderson
Mike Azzaro
Adam Snow
*Tommy Biddle
*arena rating
1891
1894
1894
1894
1900
1902
1917
1917
1922
1922
1922
1925
1929
1934
1934
1937
1939
1951
1982
1982
1992
1989
1994
2002
2012
 

It wasn't until 1951 that the Indoor Polo Association deemed a player worthy of the 10-goal rating. It was in that year that C. C. "Buddy" Combs was elevated to the highest handicap in the game. A member of seven winning Senior Championship teams from 1934 to 1953, the New Jersey-based veterinarian was also credited with an Intercollegiate Championship at Cornell (1937); an East-West title in 1951; the 1939 Junior Championship; and 1951 and 1953 National Arena Championships.

"Smokin" Joe Henderson, a native South African, was the next arena player to catch the eye of arena polo aficionados. Rated at 10-goals in 1989, a full 38 years after Combs was named, his hard-riding, physical presence was a boon to the arena game.

Henderson rolled onto the scene when big-time, high-goal polo was being offered on a regular basis at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, and where the presence of 25-goal teams were the norm. Playing most of his arena polo in the pro league, Henderson managed only a single U.S. Arena Championship in 1990 and a U.S. Arena Handicap title in 1986.

Following a powerful performance in the Townsend International Challenge Cup, in which the United States steamrolled a talented English team 15-9, Tommy Biddle was honored with a 10-goal arena handicap, becoming only the fourth player in polo history to receive the lofty rating in the arena game and the first since Henderson.

Tommy Biddle looks more like a professional football player than one of polo's elite at 6' 3" and 230 pounds, but a persistent work ethic and constant practice carried the South Carolina resident to the top of the heap.

With a reputation as one of polo's most powerful hitters, it might seem strange that this heavy-hitting horseman would have the touch for the arena game, an exercise that calls for quick stopping and turning and an ability to play the ball off of the sideboards, but it was Biddle's ability to gently direct the ball through opponents on the field, combined with his intimidating physical presence, that moved him up the handicap ladder.

Tommy was already employed as a professional polo player at the Gulfstream Polo Club while attending Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida when he was introduced to the arena game.

"I was a freshman at FAU," said Biddle, "and we were attempting to organize a polo program at the college. A. P. Alexander, J. D. Ducanes and I traveled to Culver, Indiana where we played an arena game (all collegiate and interscholastic polo is played in the arena) against the military academy team, and I was hooked."

Although FAU's efforts to establish a polo program fell through, the experience opened the door for Biddle in the arena game.

Biddle saw his field handicap jump from 1 to 5 goals in three short years, and he was named Polo magazine's Polo Excellence Awards Young Player of the Year in 1988 with an arena handicap of 6 goals. At the age of 20, Biddle's arena handicap had reached 7 goals, and by the time he was 24 he carried an 8-goal rating on the field and in the arena. As a member of the Coca-Cola polo team that captured the U.S. Open Polo Championship in 2002, Biddle gave little thought to the arena game until recently.

In the interim he captained a U.S. team that was narrowly defeated by Mexico (16-15) in the esteemed Camacho Cup. Leading throughout much of the game, the one-goal loss marked the closest match with the Mexican national team in 34 years.

"It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I decided to focus on my arena game," he explained. "I figured that I might have missed the opportunity to reach the 10-goal mark on the field, but felt that if I concentrated on it, I could still reach the summit in arena play."

Competing in field competition at New York's Bridgehampton Polo Club and Peter Brant's Greenwich Polo Club in Connecticut in the summer, Tommy found his way to Bobby Ceparano's Country Farms Polo Club in Medford, New York, and following his team's victory in the USPA National Arena Handicap in 2010, found his arena handicap elevated to 9 goals.

It wasn't until Biddle had the international forum of the Townsend International Challenge Cup at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California that the USPA's National Handicap Committee took full notice of his talents.

With both teams playing on unfamiliar horses that had been pooled together for them by Russ Sheldon, George Dill and Erik Wright, there was no hometown advantage, and Biddle had few requirements.

Teammate John Gobin's assessment of Biddle was summarized in three words: he's an animal. "It's always better to have Biddle on your team than against you, especially when you're walled in and there's no place to hide," added Gobin.

But Biddle's obvious physical presence wasn't the only factor he brought to the arena. His constant offensive pressure on the English defenders and his disciplined team play kept the challengers on their heels throughout the match.

Biddle led the U.S. team to a resounding 15-9 win over the English team, picking up MVP honors along the way.

"He certainly stood out above all of the others in the competition," said arena polo veteran and alternate Billy Sheldon. "Tommy didn't arrive in time to get a practice in before the match and just asked that his teammates [Shane Rice and John Gobin] be mounted properly. All he asked for was something that goes," said Sheldon. "He said that he didn't care if his horses could stop, he just wanted them to go."

With Rice and Biddle tearing into the English lineup and Gobin supervising their play from a Back position (never mind the No. 1 jersey he wore), the United States reminded its English counterparts that the game of arena polo originated in New York in 1876, and that the Townsend Cup was destined to remain on American soil.

The U.S. team used speed, quickness and power in overpowering England, and the intimidating presence of Biddle played no small role in it. "Tommy's the quickest big man to ever play the sport," said Gobin. "He can ride down the field switching his mallet from the offside to the nearside as if it were a whip. He's incredibly athletic and very hard to stop."

A U.S. team of Tommy Biddle, John Gobin and Brad Blake is currently slated to travel to the All England Polo Club in Hickstead to compete for the Bryan Morrison Trophy in March 2012.

"It's going to be tough this year," said Biddle. "We're right in the middle of our season in March, and if my team makes it to the final of the Iglehart Cup, I'm not going to be able to go."

The last time the United States sent a team to England to compete for the Bryan Morrison Cup they were defeated by a 15-9 score, the same margin of victory enjoyed by the U.S. team in last year's Townsend International Challenge Cup.

"We were still adjusting to the English rules," offered Shane Rice, a member of that U.S. team. "Under English rules, play continues after scoring a goal. A couple of times we found ourselves trotting back to the middle of the arena for a throw-in as [the English team] raced past us with the ball for a score. If we play them again, I'm comfortable that we can beat them."

Rice won't be returning this year, however, as playing commitments will keep him in Sarasota, Florida, and Charlie Muldoon and Billy Sheldon, teammates from the 2009 U.S. team, will also be sidelined with the hopes that a new team with Biddle and his teammates can redeem U.S. arena polo honor.

"We'll have the advantage of having all three players in Wellington [Florida] to practice," said Biddle, "and I'm planning on structuring a number of international exhibition games for the team to help prepare for the trip.

Biddle has already started working with Palm Beach Polo and Hunt Club with Friday night arena polo matches in the club's recently constructed facility.

"I love the game," said Biddle, "and I think it's a great way to sell the game to the general public. I've already contacted a number of high-goal players who will be competing here during the winter season and feel comfortable that we'll be able to produce some entertaining and competitive high-goal play."

 

 
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