The Patron

Money can't buy love. But it can buy polo.

Before attending a polo match, said Sheri Roane, "the first question everyone asks is, 'What should I wear?' I always say, 'Sporty casual.' "

As for herself, the marketing director of the Houston Polo Club was dressed in silk and gazing through black Perry Ellis sunglasses. She looked wholly unprepared for ketchup spills, which was the clue that "sporty casual" is what you wear when you're casual about the sporty and serious about the party.

That Sunday, trees and white clouds towered over the club like castle walls. The crowd, sure enough, was assembled like members of the royal court. Across the field, where in a baseball stadium would be ads for beer and cigarettes, were the logos of Moët & Chandon champagne, 10 Downing Street cigars, Cartier jewels, Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani clothes. The people in the box seats posed in such perfect obedience to these ads that it begged the question of which came first -- the pitch or the purchase?

Bottles of Moët were put on ice. Thick fingers wrapped themselves around thick cigars. The polo match began.

"Well," said the red-haired woman in jodhpurs to a dapper old gent, "I hear y'all's dinner party was just a huge success."

Clucked the hen with the Chanel bag: "She's not money-hungry, either."
"I just had them done," said a matron, teased and dyed, baring her teeth. "What do you think?"

Beyond them, without them, the match occurred like a foreign war. Eight horses, four on each side, rushed up and down the ten-acre field, chasing a ball like dogs. Every now and then, the announcer's voice would rise, and the people would know to turn their heads.

"And it's John," the announcer cried out. "John Goodman all alone!" Just in front of the stands, a gray mare had broken away from the pack, and the man in the saddle was rising, lifting his mallet, swinging powerfully, and ... "Oh! He doesn't get all of it!"

He did not hit any part of that ball. He might have thrown himself off the horse in missing so badly. But no one shouted, "Goodman, you bum!" No one said anything at all. The people returned to their drinks. Goodman galloped away.

A riot of thoroughbreds swarmed over the ball and drove it downfield. Off in the farthest corners, the players were indistinguishable, except for Goodman, who was the one with the wide profile. He clearly placed a greater burden on his horse, yet somehow, his horse kept taking him ahead. At those times, there was nothing between Goodman and the goal, except the ball.

"Goodman's all alone! Goodman's racing to the goal! Goodman with the shot ... Oh!" said the announcer again. "He doesn't get all of it!"

Goodman galloped away; the people returned to their drinks.

The polo season was announced in Shelby Hodge's social column. "Season is here," the headline in the Houston Chronicle read, "and Houston is ready for a few good parties."

There were two national tournaments scheduled for September, and it was to have been the polo club's best season ever. But then the sky darkened, and the rains came, and the tournaments were moved to the nearest dry place, which was Oklahoma. For 70 years, the club has been at war with the rain. One does not play polo in the mud, and always it has been hard to play in the subtropics.

The club spreads out at the intersection of highways 610 and I-10, but remains, behind the trees, largely unknown. Whatever Hodge writes about cars and dresses is the only coverage polo gets in Houston, and everyone at the club was initially excited about a story on the actual sport. Then they realized it meant answering questions, and when inevitably the questions turned to John Goodman, they found it difficult to speak candidly at all.

They call Goodman the patrón -- hard accent on the second syllable, Spanish appearing suddenly in the Texas twang. The patrón is the worst player on a polo team currently ranked number one in the world. He is also the team's most valuable player, because he owns it. Goodman also owns a 900-acre polo ranch in Brookshire. He donates money to build polo fields and pays to keep the Houston Polo Club afloat. He sits on the club's board of directors, on the board of the U.S. Polo Association and on the board of the Polo Hall of Fame. And, too, John Goodman owns POLO Magazine.

The polo world is fiercely loyal to him, and when the fashion designer Ralph Lauren recently filed suit against POLO Magazine for stealing the Polo name, everyone agreed it was outrageous. Their allegiance to the patrón was so strong, in fact, that to express their support, many even decided to alter their wardrobes. Prominent among them was Goodman's ranch foreman, Charlie Flanders, who looks rather J. Crew these days.

"We've all thrown away our Ralph Lauren clothes," he sniffed. "Given them to the needy. I won't wear Ralph Lauren anymore."

The case, which goes to trial this week, pits a man who sold an image of polo against a man who bought one. Polo is a deeply involved sport, with marvelous lessons in how to be rich, which the patron is still learning.

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