TICKET TO RIDE: Players like Nic Roldan are betting on off-the-track Thoroughbreds

Just a few years ago, it was not uncommon to hear how Argentine polo horses were better than American-bred polo horses. But that seems to be changing. There is no doubt some amazing horses have come out of Argentina, but American-bred horses can shine just a bright.

Consider Bob Jornayvaz’s horse Chocolate. After Adolfo Cambiaso played the California-bred gelding in the U.S. Open, he asked Jornayvaz if he could bring him to play the Argentine Open. The horse went on to win the 2013 Lady Susan Townley Cup for best horse in the Argentine Open final. He was the first American-bred horse to win the award.

Other Argentines have also taken to American Throughbreds. Santiago Wulff won two Best Playing Pony awards in January at Grand Champions Polo Club, the first on Parca and the second on Negrita. Both horses are off-the-track Thoroughbreds.

“Eighty percent of my horses are American Thoroughbreds,” Wulff said. “They run a lot and they can take a lot of polo. They are very strong. I have a few Argentine horses but most of them are American thoroughbreds.”

Hall of Famer Gonzalo Pieres once credited the American Thoroughbreds in John Oxley’s string with helping to get him to 10 goals.

Nic Roldan, one of the highest-rated American players, also recognizes the quality in American Thoroughbreds. “I was buying a lot of horses in Argentina at one point in my career. Now, honestly, I prefer to buy horses here in the United States. If you can find a good Thoroughbred, there is nothing better,” he says. “I’ve grown to really love the Thoroughbred—the breed, their temperament and their power.” Today, about 40 percent of his horses are Thoroughbreds and he is looking for more.

Roldan grew up in Bob Daniels’ Pony Express organization and went out on his own at 15 years old. Daniels provided Roldan a string of Argentina mares and an easy payment plan. “Bob was very kind to me to get me a string of horses … We did a deal where I would pay him … whenever I could, and that’s sort of what kick-started my career,” said Roldan.

As those horses got older or were injured, Roldan started replacing them with new horses and started building his string. “Still to this day, all I do is try to improve my string. I spend most of my money on horses. … I’m still not at the point that I want to be. I am always trying to find new horses and better my string. You can never have too many good ones and polo has become so competitive. There are so many good organizations; the level of polo and horses has become so high. For the most part, at the high-goal level, everyone is well-mounted,” said Roldan.

Mounting yourself is difficult according to Roldan. “It’s very tough and has gotten tougher as the years have gone on. There are very few teams that have horses for the players anymore. … The price of horses has gone up and it’s harder to find the good horses,” he said.

At one point, when Roldan was playing a lot in Argentina, he had a breeding operation there. When he started playing year-round with Marc and Melissa Ganzi and spending less time in Argentina, he opted to stop breeding. Roldan said, “It didn’t make sense. To have a breeding operation, it takes a lot of time and effort and you have to have a farm. You have to have trustworthy people. For me, it doesn’t work. It is just a waste of money. I’d rather buy horses I can see, I can feel, I can ride and I know what I am getting.”

Instead of breeding horses, Roldan likes his chances when he purchases horses that have the right build and already have an introduction to polo. “The only way the horse won’t make it in high-goal or I can fail with the horse is if I mess it up. If everything is done right, that horse can go on to become a polo pony or even an outstanding polo pony,” said Roldan.

A friend of Roldan’s, 5-goaler Kris Kampsen, has a young horse operation, getting horses off the track and introducing them to polo. Kampsen’s organization starts them stick-andballing and playing slow practices before Roldan buys them. Roldan has purchased three horses from him and all three are playing in high-goal polo.

“It’s been pretty successful. He’s got a really good eye,” Roldan said of Kampsen. “I buy them in the 4- to 5- year-old range and they have a year into them in slow polo. I don’t play low- or medium-goal polo so I don’t have time to make them. I’m always competing at the top levels so I prefer to get them when they are already established with slow practices. All I have to do is fine tune them and let them mature into a highgoal polo pony.”

Roldan admits its not easy finding horses and he has made some mistakes. “There were horses I thought had enough power and they didn’t and I’ve had bad luck with injuries,” explained Roldan. “The idea is to try to make a minimum amount of mistakes. You can’t get a decent horse that plays high-goal polo for less than $50,000 and a good one for less than $100,000. When you are spending that amount of money, there is no room for error. … The worst time to buy is when you need them or when you are getting pressured. If you feel like you are rushed and you cut corners, that’s when you make mistakes.”

Thoroughbreds come in all shapes and sizes but Roldan looks for powerful types that are bigger boned and 15.1 to 15.2 hands tall. “I need a horse that is not too fine, more on the stocky side with big shoulders, short cannon bones, good hock angle and nice head carriage,” explained Roldan. “They don’t have to be overly correct, but they have to have a good mouth, good laterally and they have to be powerful. … I like to run. It’s a very physical style of polo for the most part. While I need a horse with power, I also need horses with enough handle for me to make plays, do the stop and go.”

In high-goal polo, most of the bigger organizations have several hundred horses. In order to compete, an individual player minimally needs 15-16 horses. “Most players in the big organizations start with 20 horses,” says Roldan. “They’ll start with 10 [in the 20-goal] and they save 10 or more to start fresh for the 26-goal. At our level, that is the only way to compete. Some players are seriously well organized and have huge support from their organizations. They have depth of quality horses. “There is no science to this game. It is as clear as day. The teams that win have the best organization, the best horses.”

In his quest to improve his string, Roldan looks for horses everywhere. People approach him if they have a nice horse they think will suit him and Roldan asks if he sees a horse he likes. He has purchased horses from Adolfo Cambiaso, Mariano Aguerre and Nick Manifold and Nacho Figueras. “I buy them literally from anyone. I don’t have anyone specific I buy them from. It’s pretty much wherever I can find a good horse that suits me, which is not that easy to begin with, let alone everyone is trying to find that special horse,” says Roldan.

While racing is all about the bloodlines, Roldan says he doesn’t pay attention to them at all. Instead, he looks for the right build, athleticism and mind. And he gives them the time to mature before pushing them too hard. “I don’t like to push horses before they are 6 or 7. If you give them that extra six months to a year, you are guaranteed the horse is going to last longer. It is going to mature better.

Roldan is also hands-on when it comes to his horses. “I am at the barn every morning and every afternoon. I am involved with everything,” he explains. “I’ve got a great group of guys that work for me. My main guy, Osvaldo used to work at the track and he’s an incredible rider. He really knows how to get the horses ready. But we are a team. I want to be involved in everything.

“If a horse isn’t going well, we all try to figure out what we can do to improve it whether it’s changing the bit or the feed, working with the vets. It is a lot of work to get these horses to the polo field, let alone keep them sound. They don’t speak so the guys working with them have to understand that and work with [others]. We work with chiropractors, we want to make sure they live the most comfortable and happy life and perform at their best.”

By Gwen Rizzo

 

 

 

 
 
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