America does have a polo team and we recently caught up with its leader John Gobin for an exclusive interview.
By Kirsten Obadal
About an hour’s drive southwest of D.C. lies Willow Run, home to what many consider an icon of American polo, John Gobin. Gobin manages The Great Meadow Polo Club in The Plains, VA., and is captain of the US Polo Team, competing internationally against the world’s finest teams. From April ’til November each year Gobin offers instruction here to those who seek the seductive thrills of the sport of kings. “It’s not just for people like the Kardashians,” Gobin says with a chuckle. “We have real down to earth people who come out here to learn and play … doctors, lawyers, government workers.”
While the jet set do love their polo, Gobin’s club makes it accessible to those not part of the Hamptons crowd or Hunt Country’s landed gentry. Those who just want to learn the sport. Lefties beware: A polo mallet must be held in the right hand and this is largely a safety measure that prevents the head on collision of horse and rider. Equestrians know that accidents do happen around horses. Polo is a dangerous sport at the professional level, and injuries can be serious. Amateurs are advised not to play too aggressively. Tall and ruggedly handsome, Gobin’s warm, expansive personality is as infectious as his enthusiasm for the sport. He started in the equestrian world as a 15 year-old groom for an interscholastic team in Massachusetts that suddenly needed another player. The rest is history. Gobin finished school and traveled down to Argentina for three years to train with arguably the world’s best players and coaches.
These days Gobin is sought out by professional and amateur players from all over. One client flies in regularly from Toronto on his private jet for lessons. As Team USA’s five goaler captain, Gobin led seven other players at Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic in May, representing the United States in international competition for the fourth time.
His first two appearances occurred in 1992 when he played in Chile and again as a member of the USA’s Westchester Cup team that defeated England, 8-7, in overtime, with Gobin scoring the winning goal. He was also a member of the United States team that battled Mexico for the Camacho Cup in 2009. “It’s a huge honor to represent your country in this kind of competition,” Gobin said. Last month, he led Team USA in San Luis, Argentina, in the sport’s all-important event, the 2011 Polo World Championships, known as The World Cup. Other players appointed to the team by the U.S. Polo Association included Nick Snow (4 goaler), Steve Krueger (3), Mason Wroe (3), Carlitos Galindo (3), Will Tankard (3), Chris Collins (2) and Cachi Garcia (2). Veteran five goaler Charles Muldoon, a D.C. attorney, served as team coach. “We did not do too well,” Gobin humbly admitted. “But we are a young team and the players are not as experienced as the other teams.” Humility aside, Gobin does score frequently against the best of the best from Argentina, Chile and Great Britain. In the past year he has played at Great Meadow against the likes of Salvatore Ferragamo, Jr., Nacho Figueroas (the face of Ralph Lauren Polo), and John Walsh, host of “America’s Most Wanted.”
The equestrian way of life is all in the family. Gobin hails from Wellington, FL., a sprawling equestrian community of farms, training facilities and a world-class polo arena near Palm Beach. His wife is a veterinarian affiliated with the Palm Beach Equine Center, who not only cares for horses but show jumps, as does their nine-year old daughter. At the Willow Run barn in The Plains, John is assisted by stable manager and instructor Alex Lopez, a native of Argentina. Together they manage 18 horses and several dozen regular students. Gobin winters in his hometown of Wellington, where Team USA practices and he teaches polo. He then returns to Great Meadow in early May for the summer season.
While the perception exists that it takes years of riding to play the game, Gobin explains that it requires only a few lessons for a rider to “get his seat,” or learn to be stable enough in the saddle to maneuver and strike the ball at a walk, trot or gallop. “After about seven or eight lessons I can have almost anyone ready to play in one of our games,” he said. The club offers Saturday night “twilight polo” games at Great Meadow during the summer season, and the weekend events typically attract crowds of 2,000 or more. Gobin rides up to the top of a ridge to look at the spectacular view of Fauquier County’s rolling hills, glistening in the afternoon sun.
He sits at ease on his horse and surveys the vista of brilliant golden trees and gently undulating hills. “Cowboys have a saying, that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man,” he said. “Polo and horses are a way of life. For me its 24/7 work, but it does not seem like work at all.”