Polo's winningest player dies in tragic accident

The calls started coming in. Former 10-goal player Carlos Gracida had sustained a serious fall in a Tuesday afternoon 14-goal match and it did not look good. It was in the first chukker when, after hitting the ball, an opponent's mallet inadvertently made contact with Gracida's horse, causing it to stumble. The horse caught itself, but as it did its head went up, hitting Gracida's head and knocking him unconscious. Gracida then fell head first into the ground. The horse also fell, but witnesses say it never touched Gracida on the ground despite previous reports to the contrary.

Gracida was airlifted to Delray Medical Center in Delray Beach, where after stabilizing him, doctors performed surgery to relieve bleeding and swelling on the brain. He was pronounced dead soon after.

Former Argentine Open teammate Adolfo Cambiaso, Juan Martin Nero and others rushed to the hospital to join Gracida's sons Carlitos and Mariano and his brother Memo.

Word of his death left the polo community in a state of shock and sadness. His unmatched accomplishments over the years earned him the respect of the best players in the world, not to mention the admiration of everyone from grooms to Queen Elizabeth II and everyone in between.

Though he largely lived in the United States for the past several decades, he became a citizen just two months before his death.

He reached the pinnacle of the sport in 1985, earning a 10-goal handicap, a rating he held for 15 years. Gracida was named Player of the Year five times by this magazine. He won the U.S. Open nine times, the Argentine Open five times and the British Open a record 10 times. On three separate occasions he won the U.S., British and Argentine Opens in the same year, including 1994 when he seemed to be unstoppable. That year he also won Argentina's Triple Crown—the Tortugas, Hurlingham and Argentine Opens—with Ellerstina. In 1988, after contributing 10 goals, he won the Olimpia de Plata award for Most Valuable Player of the Argentine Open final, the only time a foreigner has won the award.

Gracida also won the Seymour Knox Award for MVP in the U.S. Open final five times and his ponies were honored as Best Playing Ponies in the Open final in three separate years.

His horses were standouts in England as well. Chesney and his favorite, Nony Nony, won Best Playing Pony of the British Open numerous times.

Gracida worked with famed horse trainer Monty Roberts and in 2012 was recognized by Queen Elizabeth II for his efforts to eliminate violence in the training of horses.

Monty Roberts said, "It was a devastating message that came through to me on February 26. The loss of Carlos Gracida was certainly unexpected and weighs heavy on me under the circumstances of our relationship and all that he meant to the horses we love.

"Carlos Gracida was a dedicated athlete, able to rise to No. 1 in the world. At the same time, he had a quiet dignity about him the world of polo has rarely seen. Carlos could and did associate with royalty and at the same time possessed the humility that allowed him to strike deep friendships with the ordinary working people of the game he loved so much. Carlos will be missed by each and every person who met him, but he left us all with the hope and confidence of better times to come.

"The game of polo is immensely better off for having known Carlos Gracida and the horses that play this game will be thankful for his presence for generations to come. Carlos and his brother Memo, along with Adolfo Cambiaso, were the first to take the message of non-violent training to Argentina and throughout the game the brothers excelled in. The loss of Carlos ignites within me the desire to press forward in the work that was noted by Queen Elizabeth II at Guards Polo Club June 24, 2012. I am certain that Carlos would encourage me to press even harder on my goal to leave polo in a better place because of the techniques he, Memo and Adolfo took to Argentina beginning about five years ago.

"It's only fair to say that Joel Baker was the first to introduce me to Carlos, Memo and Adolfo. He brought them to my farm and started a relationship that caused the trio to bring 'breakers' from Argentina to learn the value of the methods I use in the early training of horses for any discipline. Joel played on a winning U.S. team and came to have an extremely close relationship with the Gracida brothers. I feel certain Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth would want us to take even more seriously the meaning of the certificate Her Majesty presented to Carlos. It is my opinion that, if not now, in the near future the world of polo will know the value of Carlos, Memo, Adolfo and Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II."

Gracida's success in the sport of polo was never more evident than at his 2012 Polo Hall of Fame induction. Just a portion of his hundreds of trophies were on display, including those for winning the Mexican Open, Australia's Melbourne Cup, Deauville's Gold Cup, the World Cup, the USPA Silver Cup, the USPA Monty Waterbury Cup and the North American, Chairman's, Inter-circuit, Barrantes and Rolex Cups, to name a few.

Reporting on his death, several British reports referred to Gracida as the Queen's favorite player. He also taught polo to Prince Charles and his sons, William and Harry, as well as King Constantine II of Greece and Prince Talal of Jordan.

In a promotional video for a company he was starting several years ago, Gracida said, "I was very fortunate to meet the royal family in 1982, first playing against Prince Charles [in] the finals of the British Open and then the following week we had the tournament called the Coronation Cup, which Queen Elizabeth presented the trophy and I was very fortunate to be the captain of the team that was called 'the rest of the world.'"

Born into the Gracida polo dynasty in Mexico on September 5, 1960, Carlos began playing at an early age. He started stick-and-balling while being led around and by age 10 was playing in tournament polo. He came to the United States when he was 18, playing at Steve Gose's Retama Polo Center. A few years later, rated 5- goals, he played in and won his first highgoal tournaments: the USPA Rolex Gold Cup and the International Open, which he counted as some of his most thrilling victories.

In an interview with Jorge Andrades in Argentina in 2004, Gracida spoke about his relationship with that year's Argentine Open teammate Adolfo Cambiaso:

"We have a very good relationship and that is not always easy to achieve in a team. When we won four consecutive Opens with La Espadaña. I thought that we would be friends forever, but now I realize that it is not like that. The other day I came across one of my former companions and our conversation lasted less than 10 seconds. Professionalism causes the deterioration of relationships. We were four top players and I have great respect for all of them but we were never true friends."

Still, his former teammates maintained a deep respect for him. After Gracida's death, Ernesto Trotz, a member of La Espadaña, said, "I learned almost instantly, because I have a nephew playing there who told me about it the moment Carlos' accident happened. When he described the whole thing, I was frozen.

It was a hard blow [to hear] it happen to a great teammate [who shared] such unforgettable moments. He was an outstanding player and a great person. I still can not believe someone like him suffered an accident while riding.

He was a guy that always played at the top but was a unique horseman. He was a master riding a horse. I will never forget how much of a gentleman he was."

In an emotional celebration of his life held at International Polo Club Palm Beach, his brother Memo told the packed crowd, "The sport of polo has lost its brightest star, always a gallant competitor. ... He won more trophies than anyone else in the world. He was always very humble in defeat and in victories as well. ... until the last day of his life he was always trying to win and do well for his teammates and for himself."

Carlos was always happy to talk polo or horses no matter who approached him. Memo also commented about how Carlos never spoke poorly about anyone, often referring to those he met as being great guys. Memo summed it up best: it was Carlos who was a great guy.

Carlos was predeceased by his father Guillermo Gracida. Aside from his two sons and brother, Carlos is survived by his mother Maria, his fiance Monica Sierra and his soon-to-be-born daughter, along with a host of cousins, nieces and nephews.

By Gwen Rizzo


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