Memo Gracida

El Caballero

The Living Legend Of Polo’s Revered Master Memo Gracida

Polo. The sport of kings. For centuries the well-worn handle of a wooden mallet has been placed in the palm of British aristocracy, Latin nobility, American bluebloods and Asian tycoons. The fields are sprawling and impeccably manicured, and amongst the crowd you’ll no doubt find the well-heeled, well-read and well-traveled. Dior and Chanel mingle with Bentley and Veuve Clicquot to create an air of luxury and sophistication juxtaposed with the raw athleticism, high-stakes action and physicality playing out on the field. While polo may be a favorite of the elite, it is so much more than the elegance and status that surrounds it. It’s a game, yes, but it’s a living, breathing manifestation of history and extreme athleticism by both horse and rider. Beneath the fine exterior lies grit, talent and generations of players whose families have defined the sport.

It’s difficult to talk polo for more than a moment without the Gracida name being uttered. Memo Gracida, the now patriarch of Mexico’s first family of polo, is a walking embodiment of the sport’s true identity. Refined and polished but entirely real and unmistakably passionate, Memo has been instrumental in carrying polo into modern times. He’s been there, out front helping to guide the game he loves from simply being known for old world wealth to instead coming into its own as the so-called Formula 1 of the equine world.

Handsome and charismatic, Memo is every bit what you’d expect of a world-renowned polo phenom. It’s what’s beneath the surface, however, that has elevated him to iconic proportions. Memo Gracida is humble, he’s thoughtful and while he deeply loves the sport, he’s a horseman to his core. That immense skill and deep regard for the horse was engrained into him from mere toddlerhood when he began to be schooled, groomed and seasoned by the very best. “I was born and raised in Mexico City where my father was a polo player and trainer. We grew up around horses and had a very humble background. My father was a hard-working man, and he taught us how to ride and train. He was a master,” says Memo adoringly of the man who gave him his start. “Back then we rode whatever horse we could put our hands or our saddle on. We didn't have the means to spend on good horses, so instead we found young horses and horses off the racetrack, then made them into polo ponies.” It was that start that taught Memo how to make a horse and do so with a respect for his mount. “I learned and spent a lot of time with every horseman I could; it was endless hours of conversation about horse- manship, techniques and horses.” Those conversations, observations and tutelage came together to help craft one of the greatest players the game has seen in its long history.

“Throughout the years I've been around thousands of horses; training them, riding them, and I just love it. I believe that I was born to do this, and I still can’t get enough of it.”
—Memo Gracida Most Consecutive Years as a 10-Goaler

Memo Gracida has dominated in every polo setting and holds the astounding record of being the one player to maintain 10-goal status — the highest handicap possible — for an unimaginable 21 years. He’s won 16 world championships and is revered for not only his legendary status at the top of the game but for his work in schooling the next generation of polo superstars.

PHOTOS BY ELIZABETH HAY PHOTOGRAPHY

Nuances of the Game

Polo is truly a global sport, with epicenters in several continents and a circuit that takes its high-goal players — the best in the game — from the breezy shores of Southern California’s “American Riviera” to the sun- kissed fields of Palm Beach, Florida, the crisp and tradition-laden meadows of Great Britain and the energy-charged mecca of Argentina. Memo Gracida has seen them all, dominated in every setting and holds the astounding record of being the one player to maintain 10-goal status — the highest handicap possible — for an unimaginable 21 years. He’s won 16 world championships and is revered for not only his legendary status at the top of the game but for his work in schooling the next generation of polo superstars.

While the glitz surrounding the game of polo is undoubtedly part of the allure, the game itself is truly one of the finest examples of sheer athleticism, top-rate horse flesh and agility at high speed. A player’s skill level is measured in goals, beginning low for amateurs and topping out at the 10-goal level reserved only for the world’s best. High goal polo signifies the collective handicap of 17 to 22 goals per team of four players. The field of play is a mighty 300-yards long — the size of nine football fields laid side-by-side. Two teams of four generally play six chukkers, or periods, of 7.5 minutes each. A midgame break is taken to allow for the signature stomping of the divots, where the crowd is invited onto the field to stylishly replace divots created by the horse’s hooves, often while being served champagne and showing off their high fashion attire. Each member of a team holds a different position, with the number one and two players acting as the forward or “attacking” positions. Number three is the pivot position, the most skilled player or team captain. Think of number three as the quarterback who hits the ball up the field to numbers one and two, the scorers. Number four is the defensive player who also moves the ball up the field to the scorers.

The game is high action from start to finish with charging players and their mounts pushing against their opponents, bumping them off course and swinging mallets that connect with the ball but also occasionally with other players as they collectively storm toward the goal posts. Roached manes and tied tails help avoid entanglement with the mallet, and polo boots are paired with thick leather knee guards to avoid direct contact with an opposing player’s mallet. Helmets are required and often seen with accompanying face shields and eyewear to further guard from the wrath of the mallet.

With the glamour and addictive action of the sport comes unavoidable danger as well. Memo, his family and those like them know this intimately. Watch a match, and you’ll leave wondering how at such a high rate of speed and contact, players are able to stay in the saddle as successfully as they do. Sadly, the sport is known for the risk players face of coming over the front of their horses or down from contact. Memo’s brother Carlos Gracida was tragically killed in a polo accident in 2014. “He was an exceptional player,” remembers Memo fondly of his brother and doppelgänger. The two were close both on and off the field; a matched pair in both their uncanny resemblance and their skill level. “We complemented each other so well and so strong that we were, at one time, unbeatable. Without a doubt, he was the winningest player of all time. We were the only two players in the entire history of the game that won the Grand Slam of polo,” says Memo with pride in sharing such a rare accolade with his brother. The Grand Slam of polo signifies the winning of the coveted British Open, Argentine Open and U.S. Open in one year by a player. “We both won it the same year, and Carlos won it twice. For two boys from Mexico, it was incredible, and we obviously credit it to our father.” The two brothers were, in fact, a force to be reckoned with on the field but were known off the field as gentlemen and fine ambassadors for the sport. Her Majesty the Queen, a horsewoman herself, was known to have been an avid fan of both Gracida brothers and was present for many of their matches in Great Britain.

“Longevity in polo is so important, and we have to make that happen by the choices we make in how we care for them. That’s why I started using Platinum Performance when I heard about it years ago as I played on the West Coast. I see my horses shine and blossom; their energy is amazing, and it’s a real difference.”

A Family Passion

Memo and the Gracida family are truly citizens of the world like so many of their friends and fellow players in the sport of polo. Traveling seasonally between Mexico, Florida, Argentina and California, Memo has his finger on the pulse of the game. In recent years, he and wife Meghan have made California’s Santa Ynez Valley their permanent home, creating a sprawling presence for their La Herradura Polo empire. Much like Memo’s children, daughter Michi, who assists with her father’s polo operation, and son Julio, an accomplished player himself, wife Meghan is a fixture on the women’s polo scene as well. Their facility is meticulously kept and has an instantaneous sense of invigorating competition and uninhibited joy upon arrival. People come here to learn the game but also to escape busy corporate lives and find passion in sport. Their clients are family to Memo and Meghan, and with one look around the grounds, it’s easy to see why so many choose to spend their precious time at La Herradura.

“There are a lot of turning points in your life and in your career, and many moments that change your destiny. No matter what, I had good people around me. I had good horses, and I truly love this sport.”
—Memo Gracida

The Horses Make the Game

While Memo has the game of polo coursing through his veins, it’s the horses themselves that he loves deeply. Quietly watch him and you’ll see that the interaction between he and his horses happens on another level. He sees them, hears them and has immense pride in not only coaching exceptional players but in building players who respect the horse as much as they do the game. “Polo ponies are the ultimate equine athlete,” he said assuredly. “They have to be super fit, super tough and have sound minds and temperaments. They have to be able to stand all of the pressure that we and the game put on them, then turn on and perform for us in a moment.” His love of the polo pony is marrow deep, and he credits the horses who have carried him through his career with his many achievements. “The best teachers are the horses, and you can learn a lot from the horses if you really listen,” he insists. “Throughout the years I've been around thousands of horses; training them, riding them, and I just love it. I believe that I was born to do this, and I still can’t get enough of it.”

Polo is famous for its striking Thoroughbreds, chosen for their endurance and ability to perform at high speeds for a full 7.5-minute chukker. The typical polo team arrives at a match with 40 horses, ready for at least one if not more mount changes per rider, per chukker. The horses are kept in an ideal body condition, lean and muscular. “Where I sit in the world, I’m as good as my horses,” says Memo emphatically. He is truly a maestro when it comes to his program, making horses with excellent skill, mild temperaments, a well-conditioned physique and in nourished health. “Horses are so kind and generous; they give us more than they ever receive, so it’s important to us to take the best care of them possible. I have always tried to find things that help them perform their best and stay their healthiest. Longevity in polo is so important, and we have to make that happen by the choices we make in how we care for them. That’s why I started using Platinum Performance® when I heard about it years ago as I played on the West Coast. I see my horses shine and blossom; their energy is amazing, and it’s a real difference.” Memo’s immense love of the horse is one of the many facets of the man that endears people to him so easily. His smooth accent, kind eyes and obvious infatuation with the horses and game that he loves are not only admirable but a rare find in any sport. Perhaps it’s his genuine interest in all of those he meets however, that leaves you walking away from a conversation with Memo Gracida feeling heard, valued and like you really got to know him.

Types of Shots in Polo

  • Nearside - Swinging on the left side
  • Nearside Backshot - Swinging on the left side with ball going in the opposite direction as the player is riding
  • Backshot - Swinging backhand with ball going in the opposite direction as the player is riding
  • Offside - Swinging on the right side rather than the left
  • Neckshot - Swinging at the ball underneath the horse’s neck from left or right
  • Pony Goal - Ball bounces off the horse into the goal
  • Tail Shot - Behind and across the horse’s rear

The Horses Make the Game

While Memo has the game of polo coursing through his veins, it’s the horses themselves that he loves deeply. Quietly watch him and you’ll see that the interaction between he and his horses happens on another level. He sees them, hears them and has immense pride in not only coaching exceptional players but in building players who respect the horse as much as they do the game. “Polo ponies are the ultimate equine athlete,” he said assuredly. “They have to be super fit, super tough and have sound minds and temperaments. They have to be able to stand all of the pressure that we and the game put on them, then turn on and perform for us in a moment.” His love of the polo pony is marrow deep, and he credits the horses who have carried him through his career with his many achievements. “The best teachers are the horses, and you can learn a lot from the horses if you really listen,” he insists. “Throughout the years I've been around thousands of horses; training them, riding them, and I just love it. I believe that I was born to do this, and I still can’t get enough of it.”

Polo is famous for its striking Thoroughbreds, chosen for their endurance and ability to perform at high speeds for a full 7.5-minute chukker. The typical polo team arrives at a match with 40 horses, ready for at least one if not more mount changes per rider, per chukker. The horses are kept in an ideal body condition, lean and muscular. “Where I sit in the world, I’m as good as my horses,” says Memo emphatically. He is truly a maestro when it comes to his program, making horses with excellent skill, mild temperaments, a well-conditioned physique and in nourished health. “Horses are so kind and generous; they give us more than they ever receive, so it’s important to us to take the best care of them possible. I have always tried to find things that help them perform their best and stay their healthiest. Longevity in polo is so important, and we have to make that happen by the choices we make in how we care for them. That’s why I started using Platinum Performance® when I heard about it years ago as I played on the West Coast. I see my horses shine and blossom; their energy is amazing, and it’s a real difference.” Memo’s immense love of the horse is one of the many facets of the man that endears people to him so easily. His smooth accent, kind eyes and obvious infatuation with the horses and game that he loves are not only admirable but a rare find in any sport. Perhaps it’s his genuine interest in all of those he meets however, that leaves you walking away from a conversation with Memo Gracida feeling heard, valued and like you really got to know him.

From Dirt Fields to Big Dreams

It’s a story worth telling and really, truly absorbing a simple kid from Mexico who revered his talented father, worked tirelessly on his own skill, deeply loved the horses that carried him to a life of global adventure and is now happy to teach the next generation who will carry the sport he loves forward. Those who know Memo Gracida will adoringly say that he’s the real deal; a living, breathing Dos Equis: “Most Interesting Man in the World.” Beneath the dignified exterior, however, is a passionate and gentle soul whose appreciation for the gifts in his life is palpable. “Never in a million years, as I look back, would I have envisioned all of this,” he says with reverence in his voice. “I don't know how we did it, but I can say that we really were passionate. We tried to get better every day. Mostly I’ve been blessed though, just very, very lucky for the people and the horses in my life that have brought me here. There are a lot of turning points in your life and in your career and many moments that change your destiny. No matter what, I had good people around me. I had good horses, and I truly love this sport. Now I get to work with people who want to learn the sport I love, and I’m doing that in the most beautiful place in the world. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Jessie Bengoa

by Jessie Bengoa,
Platinum Performance®