By Elizabeth Rahe
Editor’s note: Nic Roldan has been racking up honors, earning the MVP prize March 24 playing with the Casablanca team in the Top Pony 12-Goal Series Tournament at Grand Champions at Palm Beach Polo Club. He scored a game-high seven goals, and his horse, Ducati, was named Best Playing Pony. In February, playing with the Audi team in the George Haas Cup at International Polo Club Palm Beach, Roldan scored eight goals and the MVP trophy. Also in February, Town & Country magazine named him one of their Top 50 Bachelors. Not a bad run for the Wellington polo player, who we interviewed for this cover story in December.
Nic Roldan knows well the cliché of polo as “the sport of kings” – the high-dollar horses, the high-life sponsors, the high-society spectators. Indeed, the Wellington polo player seems to live it.
One of America’s top professionals, the 30-year-old has traveled the world competing in elite tournaments since the age of 15, when he helped win the U.S. Open Polo Championship. He has played in charity matches with royalty, United Kingdom’s Prince William and Prince Harry, and accepted a Best Player trophy from Prince Charles. He comes from a tight-knit polo family – his father and grandfather played the game professionally. On occasion, he lends his athletic physique and photogenic face to fashion shoots, as he did this fall for City & Shore.
Rather a perfect cliché. And all part of the game. But according to Roldan, it misses the mark.
“People think of polo as a lifestyle,” he says. “Fact of the matter is it’s one of the most dangerous sports in the world. We put our lives on the line every day, the moment we step on the field. It’s a mental sport. It’s a very physical sport. It’s intense.”
With eight mounted players swinging long-handled mallets galloping after a small white ball at 35 to 40 mph, danger comes with the territory – which happens to be about nine football fields in size. Playing high-level polo, Roldan says, requires a total commitment and a continual “fine-tuning of the horses and the players.”
His own fine-tuning includes working out with a trainer four or five times a week and putting in an equal number of riding workouts. A team of four helps train and care for his horses, which he says are “80 percent of the game.” Polo players change mounts after each of the six periods, called chukkers. For an important match, Roldan will bring along 8-10 horses, also called polo ponies. He owns about two dozen horses in Wellington, and five or six in Argentina. Many are retired Thoroughbreds he buys off the racetrack for as much as $20,000 and trains them for polo.
“The way we get the horses ready for a big tournament is the way an athlete would get ready for a marathon,” he says. “There’s a special routine that the horses do every day, morning and afternoon. It’s a lot of work, a lot of expense, but it’s what we love to do.”
Roldan was born in Buenos Aires to an Argentine polo family. His father, Raul, played for the Sultan of Brunei. His mother, Dee, an interior decorator, is of German heritage. The family moved to the horse-loving community of Wellington when Nic was 2 months old. He was riding and swinging a mallet by age 4, playing polo by 8, and competing professionally by 14.
A gifted athlete from an early age, Roldan played many other sports, including ice hockey in the Junior Olympics. Becoming the youngest player to win the U.S. Open catapulted him into the polo profession. In the game’s handicapping system, which rates players from -2 to 10 goals, Roldan reached 9 goals several years ago and is currently rated at 8. He aspires to reach the lofty 10-goal mark. (Matches are categorized by adding up the goal ratings of the players; the highest matches are 20 goals and up.)
“There are only five 10-goalers in the world and no American 10-goalers,” he says. “It’s obviously a huge accomplishment to be able to reach that level.”
He plays on the Audi team for Marc and Melissa Ganzi, owners of Grand Champions Polo Club in Wellington. Marc Ganzi says Roldan is one of the few American players who have the talent and skill to make it to 10 goals.
“He has a combination of skills you rarely see in a polo player, as he possesses power, finesse and incredible shot-making,” Ganzi says. “He has a fierce desire to win whenever he steps on the field, but at the same time he also knows how to keep the team relaxed with his easy-going way and great sense of humor.”
Roldan is a founding member of Aspen Polo Club, which the Ganzis are developing in Aspen, Colo., to host summer matches. He is also involved with Polo Gear, a Wellington-based supplier of equipment and apparel for the sport, including the Nic Roldan Elite Free Shoulder Saddle. Created with a team of saddle makers, equine chiropractors and veterinarians, the saddle is designed to facilitate player positioning while improving the movement and comfort of the horse, he says.
He sees himself as an American ambassador for his sport. In October he traveled to Tianjin, China, to represent the United States in the Super Nations Cup. England edged the United States, 14-13, in overtime to play Hong Kong in the finals, where Hong Kong prevailed.
“Unfortunately, my team was not successful in winning the championship,” Roldan wrote in his blog, “but we were all very happy to be a part of this time when polo is growing so much globally – especially in this region.”
Roldan says the key to building interest in polo is educating the public and making the game more accessible. “It’s not the easiest sport to understand, so if we educate people the right way, they realize it’s a great sport, it’s a fast sport. The horses are beautiful. There’s no reason why it can’t grow more.”
He talks about launching a polo academy in Wellington and then expanding. “I’d like to open up academies all over the United States where young kids, if they have an interest in riding or playing polo, can do it without having to buy horses.”
Roldan remains close to his parents, who live two minutes away in Wellington, and his sister, Lupe, and her family, who live in Dubai and London. “Family for me is everything. They come first always. They are my best friends, my love and what got me to where I am today.”
Although not in a relationship at the moment, he says he hopes to have his own family eventually, perhaps pass the polo tradition on to a fourth generation. “But for now I will enjoy spending time with my sister’s new little son, Santos. He’s the love of my life.”
His philanthropic efforts focus on children. He was the first polo ambassador for JustWorld International, a Wellington-based charity of the equestrian community that focuses on aid for impoverished children in Cambodia, Honduras and Guatemala. He also has participated in Rally for Kids with Cancer events, which support cancer research, treatment and care for kids.
The holidays will be spent, as always, with family, and then Roldan will focus on the Wellington high-goal polo season Jan. 5 – April 20 at International Polo Club Palm Beach.
He celebrates his 31st birthday Dec. 4, and he is determined to make the most of the next decade, which he calls his prime years, in his quest for a 10-goal rating. “The last 10 years have been amazing, but I’ve been building up my string of horses and building up my reputation. It’s a long process to become one of the top polo players. I think the next 10 years are the most important for me.”
Ten years to reach a perfect 10 – sounds like a cliché Roldan could live with.