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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.

Outside Goodman Manufacturing, the parking lot was packed with Chevrolets and Fords, and Goodman's BMW was sprawled across two spaces at the front door. His office was adorned with paintings of horses; his large, leather-topped desk was barren of papers. Behind the desk, looking very Brooks Brothers, Goodman didn't know how to use his computer. His gaze was unsteady, his speech uncertain. His secretary had kept his afternoon entirely open so he could get a flu shot.

"I don't know what I do, but I stay busy," he said. Then he added, "But don't make it like I'm real busy, okay? Because I don't want to be like I'm a big shot."

It was Goodman's father who worked so hard he eliminated the need for any Goodman to ever work again. "The air-conditioning business is such a darn good business,'' Harold Goodman told the Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration News in 1994. "Things have turned out beyond my wildest expectations."

Harold Goodman grew up from his Beaumont origins to become a salesman of window units. Then he became the distributor for a major air-conditioning manufacturer, and finally a major manufacturer himself.

He had five children, and John was one of two sons. John Goodman had a big, blue-collar kind of body, and at T. H. Rogers Junior High, he was on the football team. Then his dad began raising thoroughbreds, and John was sent off to boarding school in Massachusetts. There was no football team at the Winchendon School; John took up lacrosse.

He can't remember ever having a goal as a child. Goodman always knew there was room for him in his father's business. From his Massachusetts boarding school, he went to his Delaware college. After graduating from Wesley, Goodman came back home to Texas with a brand-new marketing degree and an abiding love for lacrosse.

Dad right away made young Goodman vice-president of international sales. Goodman married a girl from the neighborhood (Tanglewood), moved into a $2.6 million house in a better neighborhood (River Oaks), and though the company was soon bringing in about $400 million a year, he went looking "for something to do."

A generation before the patrón, there was a Jewish boy named Ralph Lifshitz who grew up in a crowded apartment overlooking a highway in the Bronx. His father was a housepainter; Ralph wore hand-me-downs until he could buy clothes for himself.

His friends preferred motorcycle jackets, but Lifshitz dressed himself in tweed bermudas and button-down shirts. When his parents suggested he shop at cheaper boutiques, he said no, and that was that. Lifshitz didn't have much in this world, but he was pretty sure he had a sense of style. "I don't know," he told one magazine, "from the time I was 12 years old I looked cool."

He briefly considered becoming a history teacher, because he fancied the notion of dressing in tweed and smoking a pipe. But then Lifshitz rejected that plan, conflicting as it did with the only goal he listed in his 1957 high school yearbook: "Millionaire."

Sales seemed the more practical route. Lifshitz became the ultimate self-made man: He changed his name to Lauren, and wearing custom-made suits, he began tooling around in a used Morgan, selling gloves and ties. He said he thought of himself as Douglas Fairbanks. The clothes were a setting, he said, a dream of another world.

Lauren founded Polo Fashions in 1968. People were marching in the streets then, and Lauren made his first million by designing something different -- wide ties in material that looked like upholstery. Rebellion was never really his area, though, and when in the '70s the revolutionary spirit cooled, Lauren returned to the clothes of aspiration.

His genius has never been as an innovator but as a calculator of the national mood. In a new country based on ideas of equality, Lauren understood the longing for ancient nobility. Every fellow wants to be lord of the manor, or at least to look like one. All the fashion designer had to do was mesh the dream with the cloth.

"For Ralph Lauren," according to a 1975 Polo Magazine profile, "even as a youth, polo meant a great deal, but as a fantasy, not as a way of life. Polo and horses represented a class of people who knew how to live -- people who weren't ashamed of being wealthy, but who didn't flaunt it either."

The silhouette of a polo player was attached to all Lauren's clothing. His advertisements, rather than celebrating the fine craftsmanship of his clothes, displayed the beautifully satisfied people who wore them. Lauren poured money into magazine ads. People who had never seen an English country house became familiar with his magazine version of it. Lauren had rarely attended polo matches, but he taught readers what to wear on such occasions and with what kind of dog to loll in the grass.

"Thousands of people for whom the word 'polo' was quite meaningless five years ago now utter it as a matter of fact," went the story in Polo Magazine. "It's Ralph Lauren who has made 'polo' a respected word in discriminating homes all over the country."

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.

Returning from his conquests, Goodman was never met with a parade. Neither his U.S. Open victory nor his ranking as world champion was even mentioned in the Chronicle. Roane, the polo club's marketing director, explained, "They only deal at a very basic, blue-collar level."

Goodman leaped at the chance to provide an alternative. It came in the form of a letter from Ami Shinitzky, publisher of Polo Magazine, the leading polo journal that actually confined itself to polo. The magazine had a circulation of only 7,000 and yearly earnings of less than $40,000. But Shinitzky was offering to sell it -- and its trademark for an "equestrian sports and lifestyle magazine" -- for $500,000.

"Clearly, the real value of the magazine is ... in the magazine's yet untapped potential," Shinitzky wrote. "Moreover, Ralph Lauren's spectacular achievement with the name Polo has helped cement the unmistakable association of the name Polo with lifestyle."

Goodman was intrigued. He bought Polo Magazine shortly after it named him the 1997 Tommy Hitchcock Amateur Player of Year.

He wanted to do something for the sport that had been so good to him, but he also had the new-money urge to make even more money. Goodman decided to print two magazines under the trademark. Polo Players' Edition would essentially be the old staff producing the old magazine. POLO Magazine would be something entirely new. As the cover line read, it was "Adventure," it was "Elegance," and lastly, it was "Sport."

He set up the office in Dallas because he had a buddy there in the publishing business. The staff he hired knew nothing about polo; Goodman knew nothing about magazine publishing. But the editor, Steve Connatser, was a design consultant, and they all knew something about looking good.

It would be printed on the very finest paper. POLO would be a coffee-table magazine, the kind you don't put your drink on. In the first year of his ownership, Goodman spent $4.5 million. Unlike his polo team, wherein he leaves management to the pros, Goodman could not leave the magazine alone. He was on the phone with Connatser at least twice a day. He proofed stories and changed them, assigned stories on a whim and killed them the same way. But the first issue, October 1997, came together. The publisher's note said that magazine publishing is like polo: "You either hit it or you don't."

In some respects, publishing was better than polo, because the publisher never looked bad. An article by Eric O'Keefe began: "Consider Memo Gracida .... For Gracida to lead John Goodman's Isla Carroll team to four coveted crowns is a tour de force. Clearly, Gracida is first among equals." As Goodman was, too, there in the sports roundup, charging valiantly into the action at the Westchester Cup, and then smiling elsewhere with his Queen Cup, right beside her bonneted, buttoned-up Royal Majesty herself.

Beyond these few pages, the magazine was devoted to the worship of wealth. The cover story focused on Monte Carlo and one of its average residents, Claudia Schiffer. According to negotiations that became public record, Claudia required $15,000 to appear in POLO, and she wanted the right to approve anything printed. The shoot was held; the proofs were sent. The agent returned a list of corrections. Claudia wanted bigger photos ("i.e., full page") and "Her name should be in bigger letters. Add 'Actress' in the subtitle. It should read 'Supermodel/Actress/CEO.' "

Most of the changes weren't made, but Claudia came out looking okay anyhow. The pullout quote was "Claudia's stunning looks are matched by a staggering income," and nothing improves image like income.

There was a look at the polo parties -- pictures of the insider crowd, mugging and hugging. The magazine traveled to Miami to speak on the death of Gianni Versace, and to Scotland to tell you about cashmere. There was a fashion story that even quoted Ralph Lauren ("Once a man tries one of these suits on he'll know he's wearing something different"). There were ads for Carlos Yachts, for Breguet watches, for Chanel, Gucci, Brioni, Ermenegildo Zegna -- but there was not even one ad from Ralph Lauren.

National ad director Rod Hunsaker had sent Ralph's company a letter about POLO Magazine, "which is not about the sport," he explained, "but rather about an adventurous approach to living life -- a celebration of history's rich lessons and today's unique opportunities .... We invite Polo Ralph Lauren to join us."

Polo Ralph Lauren was not interested, not in the least.

"His need to protect everything bearing on his company's image, and his own, is palpable, unsleeping, electric, scary," a Fortune writer once said of Lauren.

The U.S. Polo Association was among the first to be sued by Polo Ralph Lauren, 20 years ago, when it tried to sell clothes. The court ruled the association could sell its merchandise, but only if the clothes looked nothing like Lauren's. Last year, another Lauren lawsuit indirectly saved the Houston Polo Club's good name, too. Someone had opened a sexually oriented business near the Richmond strip and was calling it The Polo Club. Then a well-dressed team of New York lawyers arrived to change that.

Just before the first issue, the lawyers sent POLO Magazine a cease-and-desist letter. When POLO declined to desist, Polo Ralph Lauren filed a trademark infringement suit.

News of it traveled everywhere. Ralph took a beating protecting his image. His people had no comment to the press but in depositions, referred to POLO as a "novice fashion magazine." Goodman's side was more aggressive. In an editor's column Connatser presented polo fans as underdogs for perhaps the first time ever. "Back Off, Goliath," the headline read. Connatser went on to reveal the Lifshitz origins of Ralph Lauren. The dispute was framed best in the headline of a letter in Players' Edition: "Ralph Lauren: Peasant Upstart?"

Each side considered the other a pretender, but Goodman's lawyer, Tom Godbold, said he had Ralph's shoes in his closet, and Goodman himself said, "Everyone has a Ralph Lauren shirt. Don't you?"

And if Ralph was a pretender, what were they?
Polo Ralph Lauren had never found reason to confront Polo Magazine when the magazine wrote about polo and horses and how to get the best rig to carry your polo horses. But the use of the word "polo" in a lifestyle magazine, they argued, could mislead people into thinking Ralph Lauren was involved. In fact, that seemed the magazine's purpose. In Magistrate Mary Milloy's court, Lauren lawyer Leslie Fagen huffed:

"They are, intentionally or not -- and may I say, Your Honor, I believe intentionally -- ripping off my client's property."

Godbold, his curly locks suggesting the wig of a barrister, said that polo's affluent image has been "inexplicably interwoven into the fabric of the sport." But it wasn't Ralph's fabric, and it wasn't Ralph's design. Ralph does not have a trademark on lifestyle.

"What we're talking about here is that Mr. Goodman is the real deal," said Godbold. "POLO Magazine's focus is on the real polo lifestyle, not one dreamed up on Madison Avenue by people who don't play the sport and don't live the lifestyle."

Magistrate Milloy listened to all this. She read Shinitzky's letter, and she pored over the magazines, and she did not agree at all that John Goodman, or at least his product, was "the real deal." In advertising, content and layout, the magazine "appears to be targeting PRL's customer base," she ruled. The trial would determine whether POLO Magazine kept its name, but for now, POLO would have to run a disclaimer on every issue, declaring its independence from Ralph Lauren.

It was a way of saying that Lauren had come first.

The match was over. In the shadows on the field, the players stood congratulating one another. The sun had fallen behind the trees, and if you turned away from the field and looked through the woods, you could just see the shape of an old brick mansion.

People said you had to be born into the Bayou Club. It was the polo club's landlord, but few of its members have ever appeared in the box seats. No one from the polo club has ever ascended into the Bayou Club. Not even the patrón.

His team lost the Del Carroll Memorial Cup that day by a single goal. He was the only player on the field who didn't score.

Someone passed out the cigars and someone shook the bottle of champagne. People laughed. The patrón stood with his hands in his pockets, looking pleased when someone thought to pour champagne on him.

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