(Interviewed by Louis James, Editor, International Speculator)
L: Doug, we’ve talked about cars, gold, and real estate. Another well-known passion of yours is horses, and your love of the game of polo. In fact, I see that you're wearing a tie that has polo horses on it. But I know you’ve had a few accidents – why do you do it?
Doug: Well, I started playing polo in about 1994. Regrettably, I started at about the time when many players were hanging up their spurs and getting out of the game, because polo is one of the most dangerous sports in the world – but it’s also one of the most exciting.
Somehow it got a reputation of being a sport for effete rich guys. But this is not at all the case. It's as close as you can come to unarmed combat in the form of sport. We call it horse hockey, because it's really like playing hockey except you're on a horse instead of on skates.
L: Forgive my ignorance... You said it's like hockey on skates. Hockey is well-known as a brutal game. The fans love to see the players fight. They literally pull off their gloves and start fighting on the ice. In Canada the fans go wild. Are you saying stuff like that happens in polo? I've seen a polo game. You need binoculars to watch it so it's hard to tell what's happening out there, but I didn’t see anything like fighting.
Doug: No, fighting with other players on the field is not looked upon with favor. But, except for the lack of encouragement of fights, it's very much like hockey. People do get hit with those sticks – it knocks people's teeth out and breaks their arms. You can get hit by one of those balls – which move up to 120 miles per hour – and it's like getting hit with a line drive from a good baseball player. I personally had my foot broken, right through my boot, when I got hit by a ball. There's all kind of things that can go wrong in polo. I mean, if somebody turns in front of you when you're riding 40 miles an hour, two horses and riders, and maybe more, all go down in a parcel. That can be ugly if you’ve got a thousand pound beast rolling over you.
L: And… this is fun?
Doug: Yes! It’s a dangerous sport, but it’s also extremely exciting. And usually nothing untoward happens. I’ve played for years in a row with no injuries, as do most people. When I started playing polo, I thought I knew how to ride because I knew I could stay on a horse when it went faster then a walk. But I quickly found out that there was much more to it. And the nice thing about polo is that I would have been too bored learning to ride by taking lessons. I like to be entertained and excited while learning and polo did that for me. But unfortunately, in my case, learning to ride and learning to play at the same time meant that I picked up bad riding habits and bad playing habits. I had to go back and get rid of those bad habits and that slowed me down a lot. But I was only in it for the fun, nothing else.
I've played polo in several countries now and have kept a string in the U.S. for the last 15 years…
Doug: String, string of horses...
L: You need more than one horse to play a game of polo.
Doug: Yes. You typically play six chukkers in a game.
L: Sorry – six what?
Doug: A chukker is a period of seven minutes. You have six chukkers in a game, divided by a break of two minutes between each chukker.
L: And the horses can’t run that fast for so long?
Doug: Yes; you are basically going more or less full speed for seven minutes. So you change your horse every chukker, although you can double-chukker a good horse if you allow recovery time.
So, I've had a string of horses in the U.S. (in Aspen or Palm Beach) for years. I have a string of about sixteen horses in New Zealand, where I've played since the year 2000. And now I've got the same number in Argentina. So I've played in all three countries, although mostly in Argentina and New Zealand now. And that’s very expensive, I'm sorry to say. Anybody can play it; we've got cowboys in the U.S. and Gauchos in the South America who play it, and they don't have a lot of money. But, unless you are going to shoe your own horses, stable and groom them, and do all the work yourself, you've got to hire people to do it. You've got to buy new shoes for every horse every month, which is like buying a pair for yourself every month, multiplied by maybe eight horses at a minimum (you need at least one extra, because one is always getting sick or injured and can't play).
It's like running a small business that only loses money, with no upside potential whatsoever. On the plus side, polo drew me to Palm Beach, where I bought a nice property before the real estate boom. The appreciation in my property actually covered the couple hundred thousand dollars a year I was losing on polo.
I left Palm Beach because I disliked the social climate – and the weather – so I went to New Zealand where there was basically a bunch of tough farm boys that liked to play horse hockey when they weren't playing rugby. I enjoyed that, and the social structure was very different from Palm Beach. But the main reason was that polo was so cheap in New Zealand, I couldn't resist. That was partially because at the time kiwi dollar were at forty cents U.S. Since then, the kiwi dollar has peaked at close to double, and there’s been a real estate boom as well. So even with the expenses of playing in New Zealand, I've more than paid for it with another gain in real estate.
And now polo has drawn me to Argentina, where I'm spending most of my time right now. So, although polo is the most expensive sport you can play, except for auto racing or yacht racing- things of that nature, believe it or not, it's more or less paid for itself.
Except for inevitable accidents... You can't replace your body, and that’s a significant cost.
The other thing about polo is that it's the only sport in the world you can play with the professionals as an amateur. I mean, how are you going to get on the court with Michael Jordan or Shaq O'Neill? There's no way you are going to get to play basketball with those guys. Nor will you get to play football or baseball with the top pros. But in polo, you can hire the pros to go out there and play with you. And it's a lot of fun playing with the best people in the world.
L: What does it take to become a pro?
Doug: What Wayne Gretztky said about hockey is equally true about polo: “You don't skate toward where the ball is, you skate toward where the ball is going to be.” You've got to assess who's currently got the ball. And once you know who's got the ball currently, you can figure out what he is capable of doing, and what he is likely to do with the ball. And if you are good, you play it from there.
L: You’re saying that playing polo is not just riding around and hitting the ball, it's a psychological game. You're assessing the other players and predicting their behavior...
Doug: Absolutely. If you are looking at an amateur player, you’ve got to assess the odds that he's going to maintain control of the ball and put the ball where it ideally goes. You've got to decide whether to ride ahead of him to cut off the ball, or wait for him to miss the ball and then pick it up behind him. But if you're dealing with a top player, that's a different story entirely. So you've got to play the man as well as play the standard strategies of polo.
L: Perhaps like reading faces in a boardroom?
Doug: I would say it's more like a poker game. We can talk about poker sometime in the future too. From a business point of view, I think one interesting thing about polo is that all the sponsors that play polo (you've got the sponsors and the pros – the two groups of people that play polo) are individual rich guys. They have enough money to pay for themselves and their grooms and their horses and hire pros – and pay for their horses and their grooms too.
L: Pros never have money on their own?
Doug: They’re professional athletes. The sponsors in polo tend to be rich guys, business owners… It's generally a rich guys sport, frankly. And going to the parties with these guys and seeing what they are thinking about and talking about is always interesting. I know that in the past, when I started getting questions about gold at polo parties, it was almost inevitably an indicator that it was time to sell, because guys that didn't know anything about it were interested. Actually, polo helped me financially as a contrary indicator.
L: So what are they saying now in the locker room and at the parties?
Doug: Well, I stopped playing polo in Aspen a year ago. And I’m glad I’ve been out of Palm Beach for much longer. I don't really know what other guys are saying today, because I'm so busy, I just wasn’t able to play this summer. I'm not dans le vent at the moment, as the French would say.
L: Well, summer is arriving in Argentina, so, whether you play or watch, please tell us what your polo pals say at the parties, so we can do the opposite.
Doug: I will. My Spanish is improving all the time – and readers of The Casey Report will be the first to know.
L: Thanks Doug.
Doug: My pleasure.