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
James M. Waterbury Jr
Harry Payne Whitney
Louis E. Stoddard
J. Watson Webb
Thomas Hitchcock Jr.
*Winston C.F. Guest
Elmer J. Boeseke Jr
Michael G. Phipps
*Dr. Clarence C. Combs
Guillermo Gracida Jr.
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
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