01/26/2017 12:30PM

Polo players meet, admire California Chrome

Barbara D. Livingston
Nic Roldan, captain of the U.S. polo team, got to meet California Chrome earlier this week at Gulfstream Park.

“The great ones are so willing. They will do anything we ask at all times, and that’s why we love them. It’s an amazing partnership – when you get on a horse and you know you are on it and king of the moment.”

No, that wasn’t regular rider Victor Espinoza talking about California Chrome. That was U.S. polo team captain Nic Roldan talking about his off-the-track Thoroughbreds, including his rising star Cubana. Roldan’s appreciation for the Thoroughbred was further evident as he had a meet-and-greet with California Chrome on Monday at Gulfstream Park, where the two-time Horse of the Year is set to start Saturday in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup.

“My favorite was when they handed Nic the lead, and he’s standing there like he’d never seen a horse before,” said longtime friend Kris Kampsen, a fellow polo player.

In a sport in which Roldan says success is based “75 to 80 percent” on the horse, the athleticism of Thoroughbreds makes them prized, and Kampsen is an integral part of the operation, as he searches for young talent off the racetrack. As well as a kind eye and good disposition, he is on the hunt for certain physical features suited to polo – such as short cannon bones and pasterns and well-angled hocks – on a smaller, wider horse who will be maneuverable.

“Polo requires a lot of speed and stopping and quick turns,” Roldan said. “It requires a powerful horse – not just a big horse. Smaller, stockier horses, for us, are better.”

Kampsen noted that all of the movements a horse makes on the polo field are natural movements that horses will execute at liberty; the art of the sport is schooling the horse to perform those movements on command. An early ride is meant to evaluate this aptitude.

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“I get on them Day 1 and see which have the natural ability to do the flying changes,” Kampsen said. “Once they do that, I’ll ask them to run, like a breeze, and try to see if they’ll stop. The ones that stop stay. The ones that make me a little nervous, [we rehome]. They’re not gonna do the movements 100 percent correct, but I see if they have the natural ability from Day 1.”

After this initial evaluation, the horses are turned out and allowed additional time to let down following their racetrack careers. They then come back into training and begin schooling for the polo field, eventually progressing to getting used to equipment such as the mallet, and then playing in scrimmages and games.

That was the process Cubana went through after Kampsen and Martin Phagouape purchased her as a 3-year-old with help from Gay Bredin of Mt. Brilliant Farm, a prominent breeding and sales operation that also hosts polo matches and fields a team. Racing as Total Regs, the City Zip filly had been unplaced in all three of her starts, her final outing coming in July 2013. Kampsen competed her early before selling her to Roldan about two years ago after the two instantly displayed a partnership.

“I said, ‘I think you should sit on this one,’ ” Kampsen recalled. “He jumped on her, made a couple of plays, and I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t think she was ready to do that yet.’ ”

Newly 7, Cubana is set to embark on her first full high-goal, or high-level, season of polo in Florida, the epicenter of the sport in North America at this time of year. She kicked off that season in style, earning the Best Playing Pony award at the Joe Barry Game on Jan. 8.

“She’s a beautiful mare,” Roldan said. “Everything she does is so correct. She’s light in the mouth, with great lateral balance and a really good head. She was one you could tell no matter how hard you pushed, she would have the same mentality. That was important.”

Roldan and Kampsen’s own cool heads were challenged by meeting California Chrome this week.

“We were dumbfounded by the whole experience. We were speechless,” Roldan said. “That’s coming from us. We grew up around horses, we live and die for horses.”

But once the initial awe wore off, the two horsemen were evaluating the champion – and liked what they saw.

“[I was impressed] by how cool he was, calm and relaxed,” Kampsen said.

“Absolute natural,” Roldan agreed.

“That temperament is what we look for in polo,” Kampsen mused.

“Can we snag him after his last race?” Roldan wondered.