Mr Nic Roldan
America’s No.1 polo player on how a combo of working (and playing) hard keeps him at the top
Horses and divorces are two elements of the polo scene. To an outsider, it appears to be the ultimate posh pastime, with free-flowing champagne and royals including Prince Harry mounting up for a few chukkas now and then. And while Mr Nic Roldan, one of the world’s top players – and a regular charity-match team-mate of Prince Harry’s – admits that polo has long been elitist, he says he’s made it his mission to “bring the masses towards the sport”. Seriously.
If this sounds like a typically American approach, then so be it. Mr Roldan, 31, was born in Argentina but raised mostly in Florida. His father, an Argentine, was a polo player – with the Sultan of Brunei, where Mr Roldan spent the first few years of his life – and his grandfather played, too. Today, Mr Roldan is the top American in the game. And with his good looks and evident comfort within the spotlight, he is indeed one of the best ambassadors a growing sport could ask for.
But here’s the rub, as he explains from the 14th-floor Manhattan apartment that is his pied-a-terre whenever he jets into town: “A lot of people think of polo as a lifestyle and not an actual sport.” As glamorous as it is on the surface, Mr Roldan’s life isn’t entirely different from that of other professional athletes. He travels for matches about half the year. Whether he’s abroad or home in Florida, in the horse country around Wellington, Mr Roldan is training – sometimes with horses, sometimes without. He admits that the animals have it tougher. That said, the reign of the aristocratic amateurs is over, and success in this arena is no walk in the park. Mr Roldan keeps his legs, core and swinging arm (his right arm, per regulations – an extra challenge for a born lefty) in tip-top shape. Polo players compete astride 500kg animals that can get up to 45mph at full gallop. With fatal tumbles not uncommon, this modern cavalry still takes losses.
It would be disingenuous to suggest Mr Roldan hasn’t experienced the sport’s glamorous side. Starting at age two and turning pro by 15, he was the youngest player ever to win the US Open. Perks arrived. He was sent off to a tournament in Sotogrande, the private enclave in Andalusia; he was 16 at the time, and can’t help but grin as he recalls it. “I arrive and I have a car, an apartment on the ocean, no parental guidance. I think, ‘Wow, this is fun. I can keep doing this.’”
Mr Roldan’s playing schedule takes him all over the world: from South Africa to Australia, Dubai to Santa Barbara. As new cash pours into the sport, new venues are sprouting up. One is the utterly over-the-top Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club, a luxury complex outside Beijing where the attached residences run to upwards of £60m and the pitch is made of sand imported from Britain.
Whether he’s competing in such exotic novelties or on the traditional circuit – Argentina, England and Florida’s Palm Beach – it tends to involve more face time with VIP spectators than is required of the average athlete. In what other sport, after all, do team owners play alongside the athletes? Polo thrives on the social element. “The owners do it because they love the sport, and horses, but they also love what it brings – the dinners and cocktail parties. So as an athlete, you have to be very sociable,” explains Mr Roldan, who’s used to hosting post-match soirées in Aspen and Miami. “I love it. It’s always come naturally for me.”
Maybe no surprise, then, that he now has ventures in real estate (equestrian farms, to be precise) and – with his mother, a decorator – interior design. But Mr Roldan is in no rush to quit polo, for the ultimate achievement beckons: 10-goaler status. Similar to golf, polo players are handicapped according to their skill level, on a scale of -2 for a beginner to 10 goals, the highest possible level. (A matrix of factors, not simply goals scored, determine one’s handicap, which is scored by a travelling committee of match observers.) Mr Roldan is currently an eight-goal player. A mere two Americans before him have ever held the highest handicap. Only five players in the world currently do, and all of them are from Argentina. At times, it seems as though Mr Roldan is competing against an entire country. “Everywhere you look in Argentina, it’s farms and horses,” he says. “They grow up playing polo – these families have four brothers and 10 cousins that all play. That’s why they’ve always been the best.”
Argentina’s biggest hitters inlclude Mr Adolfo Cambiaso, the sport’s reigning legend, and the formidable Pieres and Heguy dynasties. I suggest to Mr Roldan that his quest – that of an interloper, despite his Argentine roots – has the makings of a truly epic sports movie. “Yeah,” he says, “with me competing against all of them! I would definitely be in that movie.”
The role of crowd pleaser seems to suits him. As part of those aforementioned efforts to popularise the sport, Mr Roldan is a tireless participant in exhibition matches – on snow, on the beach, for charity – that serve to bring polo to a wider audience. You’ll find him at conferences and clinics, doing photo-ops. He even has his own line of saddles, boots and knee guards with the PoloGear brand. “Who knows if polo will get to the magnitude of tennis or golf – but I think it has the potential to grow,” he says.
Such aspirations could sound like so much boilerplate, were Mr Roldan not so obviously a gregarious sort of guy. “I hate being by myself,” he says. He speaks to his parents every day, and he has a sister who happens to be married to a polo player. And he’s got his own tight-knit group of friends, including the one whose apartment he stays in whenever he’s in New York. Naturally, some of his friends are ladies. Maybe more than some. “Most of my girlfriends are from New York or LA,” he says. Do they ride? “Not really,” he says, flashing that same grin that appeared when he told the story of that first trip to Spain. “But I teach them.”
How to party like a polo star
When it comes to socialising, Mr Roldan is an Argentine at heart: “Have dinner at 11pm, finish at 1.30am and then go out until 5 or 6am,” he says. “I’ve been to friends’ weddings in the US where I was in bed by 11 at night. You’ve got to be kidding me!” Here are Mr Roldan’s vital ingredients for a good night.
Crowd: “Not too big – just close friends.”
Food: “Asado [barbecue].”
Drink: “Malbec, Moscow mules, dark ‘N’ stormies.”
Where: “On a beach somewhere. Or one of these three clubs:
Tequila, Buenos Aires A favoured hang-out of the international polo set.
Avenida Rafael Obligado 6211, y La Pampa, Costanera Norte
Soho Beach House, Miami sohobeachhouse.com
Coach House, Florida An institution for the horsey types in Mr Roldan’s hometown of Wellington. coachhousefla.com