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Llano's Polo Prodigy

Cecil Smith's unlikely rise in 'The Sport of Kings'
Written by Michael Marks.

Cecil Smith was renowned for his pony-training prowess. Adept ponies are critical to a polo player’s success. (Photo courtesy of National Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame)

One of Texas’ greatest sportsmen never played a down at Cowboys Stadium. He never took the field with the Rangers or Astros. He didn’t win a championship with the Stars or Spurs, or electrify crowds in college sports or the Olympics. 

You’ve never watched him on television, followed him on Twitter, and probably haven’t read a book about him.

But if you’re searching for arguably the most extraordinary athlete to ever come from Texas, a man whose record may never be broken, then you’ll find Cecil Smith of Llano County—one of the finest polo players the game has ever known.

The late Smith’s record-breaking career, which coincided with a golden era of United States polo in the 1930s, is chronicled at the Llano County Historical Museum. Located in the historical district near the bank of the Llano River, 
the museum features a display of news clippings, polo uniforms, mallets, and photographs from Smith’s days as the world’s greatest polo star.

Smith was born in February 1904 on the C.T. Moss Ranch, where his father was the foreman. Like many Hill Country boys in the early 20th Century, Smith spent his childhood on horseback. By age four, he had already learned to ride, and shortly thereafter he started working with the men on the ranch, herding in the shadow of Enchanted Rock.

Smith was a natural around the ranch, and by his teenage years he had become adept at breaking and training horses. Word spread of his abilities as a trainer, and in 1924 a horse dealer from Austin named George Miller brought two horses to the Moss Ranch for Smith to train.

According to a 1977 profile of Smith in Sports Illustrated, Miller wanted the two horses to be trained as polo ponies (as all polo horses are called), and brought along the mallets and balls used for the game. Smith, who had scarcely heard of polo, much less played a match, took to walloping the balls into the hills that surrounded the ranch, then giving chase on horseback—like a fox hunting rabbits.

Smith was hooked. He continued to train horses, eventually relocating to Austin to work on Miller’s ranch, but he had found his passion in polo. Though his talent with a mallet was undeniable, it was his eye for horses that fostered his transcendent play. “He just knew how to train them to do what they needed to do in the game,” said Sidney Smith, one of Cecil’s two sons, who resides in Boerne.

Polo players will tell you that the horse accounts for about 75 percent of a player’s success in a game. Without a well-trained mount, even the most skilled polo player will languish in the face of top competition. In this way, Smith thrived.

'The record certainly sets him apart from the rest.  Some people peak and get to that level for six or seven years, but to be there for so long is quite a feat. It’s going to be tough to top it.'

In 1930, after six years of “stick-and-balling” against ranch hands and military teams in Central Texas (interspersed with a few tournaments on the East Coast against polo’s well-funded establishment), Smith earned a seven-goal handicap from the United States Polo Association. A player’s handicap indicates his or her overall ability on the field, accounting for both the rider’s skill and the horse’s quality. Handicaps range from negative two to 10; a seven meant that Smith was among the best players in the country.

Even though Smith lacked the money to put together the elite “strings” of horses used by wealthier players (they would often bring as many as 30 horses to a tournament, whereas Smith brought only a single pony on his first trip to Long Island), he ascended rapidly to the highest levels of the sport.

After a few victories on the East Coast, Smith and fellow Texan Rube Williams, who had worked together on Miller’s ranch, were chosen as two members of the West team in the legendary 1933 East-West match, which featured teams made up of the best players from both sides of the country.

The match, played in Lake Forest, Illinois, as a part of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, pitted Smith against the game’s reigning master, Tommy Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s destiny as a polo player was forged before he was born. 
His father, a 10-goal player, founded Long Island’s Meadowbrook Polo Club and raised Tommy on a steady diet of ponies and mallets. By 1933, Hitchcock was renowned as one of the world’s best. His presence nudged the bookies to give heavy odds in favor of the East team.

But after three games, during which Smith suffered a concussion and Williams broke a leg, the underdog West team rode off with the victory, two games to one. “A lot of people didn’t think that the western players could play as well as the eastern players,” Sidney said, “but [the West] won that big series and that changed a lot of things.”

The East-West match was a watershed moment for Smith, who proved that, even without the best ponies (since he often had to sell his best horses to finance his travels and livelihood), there were few who could play the game as well as he did. The famous cowboy entertainer Roy Rogers, a fellow polo player and friend of Smith’s, said after the East-West match that “the hillbillies beat the dudes and took the polo championship right out of the drawing room and into the bunkhouse.”

After the high-profile match, the U.S. Polo Association gave Smith a 10-goal rating for the first time. Though he briefly lost the top rating, he regained it in 1938, remaining a 10-goal player for 25 consecutive years—a record that still stands.

The record “certainly sets him apart from the rest,” said George DuPont, executive director of the Polo Hall of Fame in Lake Worth, Florida. “Some people peak and get to that level for six or seven years, but to be there for so long is quite a feat. It’s going to be tough to top it.”

Along the way, Smith’s teams won the U.S. Open Championship seven times, the Pacific Open seven times, and the Monty Waterbury Cup, held in Westbury, Long Island, four times, according to Smith’s obituary in The New York Times.

Though he played into the 1980s, Smith eventually had to retire from the sport after hip surgery. He spent time watching his two sons, Charles (who is also a polo Hall of Famer) and Sidney, and training horses on his ranch in Boerne.

The Polo Hall of Fame inducted Smith into its inaugural class in 1990, nine years before he passed away at the age of 94. His biography in the Hall of Fame reads, in part, “Over the years, he played on more fields with more players than any one else in polo.”

And he started on a ranch in the Texas Hill Country.

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