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Facundo Pieres: The emperor of polo

updated 9:46 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
Facundo Pieres (right) has won every major championship in polo and is one of a handful of players in the world to hold the maximum 10-goal handicap. Facundo Pieres (right) has won every major championship in polo and is one of a handful of players in the world to hold the maximum 10-goal handicap.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Polo player Facundo Pieres is ranked second in the world
  • The 28-year-old has won every major championship in polo
  • During the English high-goal season Pieres plays for the Zacara team

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(CNN) -- On a private field in Windsor, England, before an audience of no more than a dozen or so spectators, one of the greatest players his sport has ever seen is plying his trade.

If polo is the sport of kings, then Facundo Pieres can justifiably be regarded as an emperor.

Bestriding three continents, he has won every major championship and is one of a handful of players in the world to hold the maximum "10 goal" handicap.

At just 28 years old, his CV includes numerous Argentine and U.S. Opens as well as English Gold Cups and Queen's Cups -- a roll call of the most prestigious prizes polo has to offer across its three strongholds.

He became the world's youngest player to hold a 10-goal handicap at just 19. He is ranked in the top two in the world (he disputes the No. 1 position with fellow Argentine Adolfo Cambiaso, widely regarded as the best player of all time).

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He has been compared to Lionel Messi, Argentina's mercurial footballing genius, thanks to his expressive and attacking style on the field.

And yet, in person, Pieres is softly spoken, almost shy.

"Since I was a kid I was around horses and watching my father play, so always knew I liked the game a lot, but I didn't know how good I was going to be. As soon as I realized that, I knew that I would do it for the rest of my life," he tells CNN.

Pieres started playing tournaments as a teenager and quickly progressed through the ranks.

With typical modesty, he attributes his swift rise to horsepower.

"Thanks to my father we were always in good horses," he says.

The relative importance of horse and rider in the polo equation is often a matter of heated debate, but Pieres has no doubt: "For me, the horse is around 80%.

"I've seen a lot of great players that couldn't get to the top because of horses and I've seen a lot of normal players that got higher and higher because of horses.

"It's just that. If you don't have good horses it's very tough to win."

To train a horse for polo takes years. They are typically started at three years old and do not reach their peak until around 10.

Pieres says he can tell straight away if a horse has what it takes to compete at the highest level.

"When you get on a good horse, you just know," he explains. "They are powerful, they stop quickly, they can turn in both directions and they are fast."

To sustain a professional career across the three major polo-playing countries, Pieres maintains a string of around 15 horses on each continent. Most of these he breeds himself on his family's estancia in Argentina using embryo transfer.

"My father has a huge facility and we do a lot of embryos every year," he explains. "We're lucky, because if we didn't have that my brothers and I wouldn't be where we are now, for sure."

Pieres himself is the product of three generations of selective breeding to produce the ultimate polo player.

His grandfather played as an amateur. His father Gonzalo was a world-class professional player who founded the fabled Ellerstina team with late Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer. His brothers Gonzalito (10 goals) and Nicolás (9 goals) also play on the global tour.

"It's a family tradition," jokes Pieres. "My friends played polo, my cousins, my brother, my uncle, my father -- everybody played polo so I didn't have many options!"

Polo traces its origins back to ancient Persia, where it was used as a training game for cavalry units as early as the 6th century B.C.

The British are credited with formalizing and popularizing the game in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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They took the game to Argentina, where it found fertile soil among the skillful gauchos and their brave, nimble horses.

Today, Argentina is regarded as the sport's spiritual homeland and has produced virtually all of the sport's 10-handicap players.

These days, polo is synonymous with the English social "season" -- a whirl of manicured lawns, Jilly Cooper and divot stomping.

But despite its genteel image, polo is a contact sport in which horse and rider travel at speeds up to 60 kph, the latter wielding a wooden mallet to strike at a solid sphere no larger than a cricket ball.

Protective clothing such as helmets, knee and elbow pads (for the rider) and lower-leg bandages and boots (for the horse) are worn.

The horses that compete at this level must be fast, bold and agile. Although they are still referred to as polo ponies -- an alliterative hangover from the days when smaller animals were used -- today, many are retrained racehorses, or are derived from thoroughbred bloodlines.

Such is the level of exertion expected from these equine athletes -- they must be able to gallop flat out, then stop and turn on a sixpence as the direction of play changes -- most will only play one seven-and-a-half-minute "chukka" per match, after which they are whisked away by their grooms to be washed down and watered.

Like in golf, polo players are handicapped according to their prowess, on a scale of -2 for a beginner to 10 goals, the highest possible handicap.

The handicap is not an estimate of the number of goals a player might score in a given match, but rather a reflection of his or her value to their team.

Teams are built around one patron, usually playing off a handicap or 0 or 1 goals, and three professionals up to a combined total of 22 goals (in Argentina, certain "open" tournaments have no handicap limits).

During the English high-goal season, Pieres plays for patron Lyndon Lea's Zacara team. Named after the British tycoon's two children, Zachary and Chiara, last season Zacara swept all before them, winning the U.S. Open -- the most prestigious polo tournament outside Argentina -- and both the Queen's Cup and Gold Cup in the UK.

Although polo as a whole has often been slow to embrace professionalism, Zacara has invested in its structure and organization, employing a team of managers, coaches, grooms and physios to look after its human and equine athletes.

Indeed, former Goldman Sachs banker Lea spares no expense when it comes to indulging his hobby, and that means securing the services of one of the most coveted players in the game.

"I have never seen an athlete with such talent yet such humility," Lea has said of the star signing. "His hand-eye coordination is easily the best in the game today. Facundo has a passion to win, and he makes you realize that what appears impossible is possible."

Although the economics of polo remain opaque -- instead of contracts, most professionals are engaged on the basis of a gentleman's agreement -- bankrolling a high-goal polo team is undoubtedly the preserve of the few.

Yet despite its image for high-rolling largesse, polo remains, at the grassroots level, predominantly an amateur sport, with most tournaments offering no prize money.

Outside of the high-goal meccas of Guards and Palm Beach, the vast majority of players in the world are hobbyists, and polo retains something of the ethos of a bygone age when being an amateur was not a mark of inferiority.

Like all sports, however, professional players must tread a narrow path between purity and profits.

As the second-ranked player in the world and possessed of both charm and model looks, Pieres is a sponsor's dream. He is the face of whiskey brand Royal Salute (although he claims not to drink much alcohol, he admits to enjoying the odd glass).

"He's very easy to promote," acknowledges brand manager Pia Kussrow. "His age, his looks... he's humble and has a passion for the sport. He has the whole package!"

When you get on a good horse you just know. They are powerful, they stop quickly, they can turn in both directions and they are fast.
Facundo Pieres

Zacara are overwhelming favorites to defend their Queen's Cup title this season, despite a change of lineup in which nine-goal player Rodrigo Andrade is replaced by seven-goaler Gonzalo Deltour.

Dating back to 1960, it is one of the most prestigious tournaments on the world circuit and attracts the best players from around the globe.

Finals day is held at the hallowed Guards Polo Club and historically is attended by Queen Elizabeth herself. (Polo's association with royalty runs deep; Prince Charles famously played in his youth, while Princes William and Harry both play off a respectable one-goal handicap.)

Zacara swept into Wednesday's semifinals unbeaten, and will face Enigma Polo -- founded by French internet entrepreneur Jerome Wirth.

Cambiaso's Dubai Polo team take on Talandracas -- led by 10-goal world No. 3 Juan Martin Nero -- in the other last-four game.

Almost without exception, the Queen's Cup is won by a team with a 10-goal player.

Pieres plays in the No. 1 position, as an attacker.

"I like to attack all the time," he confides. "My first instinct is to attack and not to defend, I'm always looking to score goals and to make the other team suffer a bit."

He is looking forward to another potential showdown with his great rival Cambiaso -- who has reclaimed the top ranking this year -- if they both make Sunday's final.

"We've played against each other a lot in the last 10 years -- here, in America, in Argentina. He knows my game and I know his," Pieres says of the 39-year-old.

"You nearly always know that to win a tournament you have to beat him. He's one of the greatest players in the history of the game and it makes me more motivated."

Once the English high-goal season is over, the carnival will move to Spain before decamping to Argentina for the winter.

Since the sport follows the sun, there is no offseason to speak of -- a situation that Pieres doesn't seem to mind.

"When I'm on holiday -- which isn't much, maybe 15 or 20 days a year -- after one or two weeks I'm ready to play," he explains.

"I need to be competing. I'm always thinking about the next tournament and that's what's keeping me enjoying the game.

"I want to continue to play professionally into my 40s. For me, it's not a job, this is my way of life, and I love every moment I'm on a horse."

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