By John Francis Jackson

When Adolfo Cambiaso, together with his team, La Dolfina, won the Argentine Open in 2013, it came as no surprise when one of the horses that he rode, Chocolate, was awarded the Susan Townley Cup, the recognition as the Best Playing Pony of the tournament. After all, Cambiaso is reputed to have over 1,000 horses in his vast herd. He has invested a considerable amount into his embryo transfer program, as well as venturing into cloning horses.

In fact, it was his clone, Show Me, that had attracted all the attention during the Open, since this was the first clone ever to have played in a major polo tournament. But, in the end, the honours went to Chocolate. Throughout the final, the announcer cried out “Sho-co-LAH-te”, the Spanish pronunciation of the word. The biggest surprise was that Chocolate wasn’t even one of Cambiaso’s herd. Moreover, he wasn’t even Argentine.

Argentina is known for producing the finest polo ponies in the world. Cambiaso is acknowledged as the best polo player, not only today but perhaps of all time. But this time, a “loaner”, played by Cambiaso, beat the best of the best.

Shortly after the final, a congratulatory note was posted on the internet by the El Dorado Polo Club in Indio, California, claiming that Chocolate was an “off-the-track” horse from southern California. This was a sensation. It is rare that anything but an Argentine polo pony plays at this high level of competition at the Argentine Open. It is even more astounding to hear that a racetrack reject claimed the rare honour as best playing polo pony. As the saying goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

In fact, Chocolate is NOT an off-the-track horse. He was born and bred in California and has a lineage that includes polo playing forefathers.

Racehorses, when they fail to win or place at the track, are of little use to their owners and are often sold for a low price. This makes for an affordable source of “horsepower” for many polo players, particularly in the United States and South Africa. Racehorses are almost always thoroughbreds and this breed is favoured among high goal polo players.

Not all horses from the track are candidates for polo, though. Confirmation is important. Racehorses tend to be tall and long-bodied. For polo, the horse should seldom measure higher than 15 hands 3 (63” or 160cm). The horse should have a short and whippy back, short cannon bones and a flexible neck. This is important because of the constant stopping and turning necessary in polo.

A racehorse has already been trained to go forward, to be ridden and to be led. It is not neck-reined, a factor which is essential for polo play. In addition, the mental state of the horse is important. Thoroughbreds tend to be nervous or “hot-blooded.” Polo ponies need to be calm, both during play and around other horses. All these factors are reasons why so few racehorses actually are made into good polo ponies.

Chocolate, a bay gelding, was born in June 2003 in the Santa Ynez Valley of southern California, by Morningstar out of Empress. Both of his parents were thoroughbreds. His sire, Morningstar, belongs to Joel Baker. His dam, Empress, was owned by Ken Berry, and Berry was Chocolate’s first owner. There appears to be some difference of opinion about the origins of the mother. Joel Baker claims that Empress was not an off-the-track racehorse, while Ken Berry tells a different story. According to Berry, “ I purchased Empress from a polo player named Brad Ramsby who told me today (December 16, 2013) that he purchased the mare from Danny Juarez, a West Coast polo player and trainer, who did, in fact, purchase Empress off of the race track and trained her. I played Empress for almost 10 years. What a polo pony!”

Morningstar’s lineage is more complete. He is one of Joel Baker’s homebred thoroughbreds. Baker says, “ Morning Star’s father, Pascanell, was a 6 month old colt when I bought him. He was a bit small, but very well bred. Russell Drake, the farm manager of River Edge TB Farm (near Buellton, California), bought him at a Thoroughbred sale and told me not to break him, but just use him for breeding. I went ahead and trained him for polo.”

“Morning Star’s grandmother, Wisteria, came from Eddy Moore (a former nine goal handicap player from Argentina) and was sold to Michael Butler for Stuart Mackenzie (9 goaler from New Zealand) to play in the 70′s. I was able to buy her from Michael and she was one of my best horses in the late 70′s and earlier 80′s. She was one of the horses we took to Argentina to play in the Cup of the Americas.
Morning Star has had over 40 fouls that have all been very easy to train for polo. He is now 18 and still very fertile.”

Ken Berry considers Empress the best mare he ever played in polo. The Argentine polo player Santiago Trotz played Morning Star and told Ken he should breed Empress to the stallion. Berry says, “ We bred Empress with Joel Baker’s stallion, Morning Star, and Chocolate is the first of three foals by the same mare and stallion. My groom, Honorio Ramirez, broke Chocolate, as well as the other two, and trained them for polo. I was lucky to be able to play Chocolate for about three years before Santiago Trotz encouraged me to sell him into high-goal polo.“

This Berry did several years ago when he sold Chocolate to Bob Jornayvaz. Jornayvaz is the playing patron of team Valiente in the USA. Valiente was a finalist in the 2013 US Open. Adolfo Cambiaso plays for Valiente. Santiago Trotz also brokered the deal that sent Chocolate to Jornayvaz.

Through Jornayvaz and Valiente, Adolfo Cambiaso got to meet Chocolate. He requested to use the gelding to play in the Argentine Open. Obviously, Cambiaso saw something he liked. In his capable hands, playing Chocolate in the final, he elevated the American bred polo pony to the highest status it could ever claim.

Chocolate will go down in the history books as an outsider who rose to the occassion. It is refreshing to know that Argentina does not hold a monopoly on great polo ponies. But Chocolate is far from a racetrack reject. Good polo ponies take time and patience. Good breeding can help that a lot.