The Patron

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

Selling old money dreams, he bathed in new money excess. In 1996 alone, the Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation had sales of about $5 billion. Lifshitz had gone uptown, and he wasn't coming back.

Goodman was drawn to polo for its tradition and camaraderie, he said. He wanted to compete on horseback, in something more vigorous than dressage. In 1989, on the green fields of the Houston Polo Club, Goodman began taking lessons, and when he began playing in club matches, he found himself living as he never had. Within the span of a game, he felt sadness and joy, fear and power. "It's like a war," he said. "Something bad can happen to you, and then something good happens." Life was more interesting when it was threatened; polo was the perfect antidote to boredom.

"I guess it's helped build my ... um, I don't know if I should say that. It's certainly given me a lot of confidence," he said.

The game is different things in different places. In Argentina, polo is a revered game of skill; in England, a class sport; and in the U.S., lately, a matter of money. At about the time Goodman was saddling up, there was a story in the New York Times on the "democratization of polo," how a "new breed of wealthy people" were taking up the game. Goodman began meeting these people in Palm Beach, where he traveled to watch the country's biggest tournaments. He took his place in the stands, but noticed that many of the richest guys were actually on the field, playing. Fat guys. Old guys.

Most of them were no more wealthy than Goodman, who realized he had a shot at succeeding in polo, perhaps on the scale of his father's business success. Polo was a game that played to his strengths. As Goodman reasoned, he could never win Wimbledon by picking up a tennis racket at the age of 25, but with a sport like yachting or polo, a sport in which you could surround yourself with the "right people," he said, "you could do something."

He decided to use his money to become somebody. In 1991, Goodman formed a polo team around himself, naming it Isla Carroll, after his wife.

The team didn't really come into its own until after the death of Harold Goodman in 1995. A management company was hired then to run Goodman Manufacturing, and John Goodman converted his father's horse farm to a polo ranch. For a season of polo, it was necessary to have 35 horses, and since Goodman was playing year-round, he bought 70. People say they are some of the best polo ponies in the world. The prize of the stable is the black mare Sue Ellen, a $400,000 gift from his wife.

Goodman is uncomfortable discussing lucre, but many patróns spend about $2 million a year on their teams. There are no revenues. Since a top player alone can earn $2 million in a year, and since Goodman suits up with the best in the world, his expense may be considerably higher.

You can't compare it to George Steinbrenner playing for the Yankees -- "It's more like if the other team had a Steinbrenner, too," he said without humor. Goodman, who sits on the committee that rates the players, will soon be rated a two on a scale of ten. He counts as strengths his horses and his "hand-eye coordination." His weakness is that he just doesn't have time to practice more. Mike Azarro, a former team member, said, "He needs to get fit. I don't want him to think I'm saying he's fat, but you've seen him. Say it in a nice way."

The people who work for Goodman say that as a patrón, he's one of the best. One notorious old sportsman simply trots to a corner of the field, where he sits on his horse, watching. Others offer the pros a bonus to place the ball where they can score. But Goodman is less imperious. He agrees to play a defensive position that usually keeps him away from the ball, and he's "very down to earth," said Carlos Gracida, one of Goodman's players. "He's one of you, you know?"

It's true that when he's late, Goodman sometimes calls to ask that the game wait for him. But no one minds waiting, said Darren Livingston, the club manager, because business is "much more important than polo."

It was difficult to find anyone to speak openly about patróns. Gracida would name none of the wicked ones. There are only ten big patróns in the U.S., he explained, "and if you talk bad about them, you close the door."

At the Museum of Polo & Hall of Fame in Florida, where Goodman sits on the board, the executive director said, "We don't really have any information on the role of the patrón in polo."

At the U.S. Polo Association, where Goodman also sits on the board, the executive director said Goodman's place in the polo world is "just about anywhere he wants."

Goodman's team has been ranked number one in the world since 1997. But when speaking of the ranking, one aficionado referred to "the off-record reality" of polo. Everyone knows what that is: Any four well-mounted Argentines will whip a team that rides with a patron.

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