It’s peak polo season: let’s revisit our interview with polo’s Renaissance man, shot at Cowdray House last summer.
TEXT Olivia Singer PHOTOGRAPHY Hill & Aubrey FASHION Elizabeth Fraser-Bell
Taken from the AW16 issue of The Horse Rider’s Journal
Polo is quite a specific phenomenon: there is no pastime in the world that has achieved such aspirational allure as the ancient game. It is quite literally the sport of kings, played by everyone from Emperor Shapur to Alexander the Great (not to mention the British royals), and it is somewhat synonymous with colonial affluence, its desirability predicated on almost unimaginable wealth. Yet it is currently undergoing a new renaissance, with some of its players keen to demystify its fabulous reputation and champion their actual sportsmanship instead. One of the people determinedly advocating this new understanding of polo is Nic Roldan, the American athlete who has become something of a figurehead for the sport’s contemporary evolution, a man who has embraced popular culture so thoroughly that he has even taught the Kardashians how to play the field.
When I am talking to Roldan I am aware that throughout his career he has been portrayed as the sort of dreamy horseback bachelor written about by Jilly Cooper; he’s indisputably gorgeous, works as a model in his downtime and is dating Bruce Springsteen’s daughter, showjumping champion Jessica Springsteen. When he’s not horseback, or modelling, he’s working as a dedicated philanthropist: “New York’s Mr Darcy,” quips the New York Observer; “A Polo Stud” writes Page Six. But he’s loath to indulge this side of things during our conversation, preferring to focus on the game, or the animals he plays on; I keep asking him to tell me fabulous things – fabulous stories about fabulous parties – and he isn’t quite convinced. Roldan – at least, the Roldan of recent years – seems to have a thoroughly different focus for his attentions: broadening the world’s understanding of the sport that has defined his life thus far. Fortuitously, his field career alone certainly makes for a good story.
In fact, one could scarcely fantasise a journey with such attractive storybook potential as his. Roldan was born in Argentina – the world’s capital of the game – but moved to Florida aged only a few months old, and it wasn’t long after that he found himself on horseback (his father, Raul Roldan, was a renowned player himself, and Nic explains that “polo families tend to throw you on a horse before you can walk”). By the time he was 15, he had left school to play the field, and subsequently won the US Open. “I was the youngest kid in the history of US polo to do that,” he says proudly. Since then, he’s gone on to become the country’s face of the sport; he’s the perfect combination of first-rate athleticism and all-American charm, and he’s determined to use his status to leverage a more democratic understanding of polo, to encourage people to get on a horse – or, at least, to understand the rules.
Roldan wants to diversify polo’s appeal outside of the niche world that it currently inhabits. “Having a polo lesson should be like having a golf lesson,” he says, explaining that there are myriad different polo academies around the world who will loan a horse for an afternoon’s training – in fact, it is one of these very academies, called Pony Express Farm, which facilitated his own path into the game. “I didn’t come from money, so I was very lucky,” he says. “The owner of that team, Bob Daniels, was like my second father, and he gave me horses and helped me with my career. Horses are a big thing, they aren’t cheap – especially at the level we do it.” This aspect of his story – the fact that Roldan doesn’t come from the sort of upbringing that could provide a string of polo ponies at his disposal – has certainly been a part of his allure; he, and the teams he has played a part of, have often been considered the underdogs. In fact, during the recent Jaeger-LeCoultre Gold Cup at Cowdray Park in West Sussex (a particularly remarkable British country estate, where Roldan spent much of his summer), La Indiana (Roldan’s team), were ranked as outsiders before making their way to the finals and thus, as Horse & Hound noted, “calming concerns that high-goal polo was becoming an arms race, with only the deepest pockets able to reach the latter stages of a tournament.”
“Everyone thinks that we fly on private jets and live on private yachts. And that’s just not true. I mean, sure, some of the team owners have their planes, and they have their boats if they want to use them – but playing polo has nothing to do with that. We live month to month, and work our asses off.”
Roldan’s career has been built on these sorts of achievements. Ever since his induction into the sport via one of its most renowned competitions, he has achieved a remarkable reputation on the field with comparatively finite resources, and been regularly named America’s foremost player by the press. But what about the celebrations that must follow such success? And surely those fabulous celebrations are part of the game’s appeal? “Everyone thinks that we fly on private jets and live on private yachts,” he responds to one of my (many) probing questions about his fabulous lifestyle. “And that’s just not true. I mean, sure, some of the team owners have their planes, and they have their boats if they want to use them – but playing polo has nothing to do with that. We live month to month, and work our asses off.” Yes, I say, but there must be fabulous parties nonetheless – I’ve read about them, and he’s the sort of figure that party pages are made for. In fact, I’ve seen him appear on them. “I mean, I like to enjoy myself,” he eventually concedes. “I’m not going to say I’m like a hermit and I sit inside. But that’s part of the job too. You need to be sociable off the field; you have to be able to entertain with the sponsors.”
Ah yes, the sponsors. Those who fund the horses, and the training and maintenance that such incredible animals require. The price of these ponies is vast – a thoroughbred can go for hundreds of thousands of pounds – and thus, without the support of these impressive financiers, partaking in professional polo is nigh on impossible. Roldan himself owns 25 horses (brilliantly nicknamed after celebrities: there’s the prissy and delicate Naomi Campbell, the old and grumpy Jack Nicholson), but it’s nothing compared to the hundreds that his Argentinian rivals might stable. Courting such sponsors is thus part of the job and, as he explains, “I’ve been doing it since I was 15, so it’s something that’s become second nature to me.” He’s lucky, though: the owners of his teams are long-term friends and feel like an extension of his own family. “I live with them when I’m there,” he says, “I teach the kids how to ride. They’re close friends, I feel like their second son; it’s great.”
Having such influential people in one’s phonebook and celebrating alongside them certainly has benefits besides the horses they might stable; over the course of his career, Roldan has been particularly smart and established other interests. On the sporting side, he has designed a uniquely therapeutic saddle with PoloGear, and he has also founded an interior design company with his mother (“we’ve done about four or five houses already!”) and started working in real-estate development with a couple of his friends. “Playing polo, you deal with some of the most affluent people in the world,” he explains, “and you’ve got to use that: take advantage of all of these situations and your connections. If you’re smart and can connect the dots… well, hopefully it’ll all work out in the end. I won’t be playing polo forever.”
This is where Roldan seems most relaxed: when he’s discussing the fact that he’s aware of his lifespan as a player, that polo is simply part of the world rather than all of it. It’s perhaps the part of his persona that is most relatable to those who aren’t already au fait with the sport – and, after all, he grew up as a polo kid, travelling the world with his father, “leaving school early, turning up late,” and, he explains, it isn’t necessarily the lifestyle he’d want for his own children (children which, it seems, are certainly in his future). You get the sense that, when he’s talking about polo, he’s got the sort of savvy that one would expect of a man who has spent his entire adult life being championed as the face of the sport. But the second he starts talking about the world outside of polo, you realise that he’s just a normal man who has happened to find himself playing a remarkable game. Perhaps this is what positions him so perfectly as the man to bring polo a new generation: the fact that he is remarkable in his achievements yet hails from the more ordinary echelons of polo society. Well, that and the fact that he looks great in a Gucci tracksuit. In spite of his rebuttals, it certainly can’t hurt. •