In the sport of princes, Carlos Gracida was king. Yesterday the polo world was mourning the Mexican superstar, said to be the Queen’s favourite player, following his death after a freak accident during a match in Florida.
When royalty around the world wanted to polish their performance on the polo field, it was to Gracida that they turned. They had the pedigree, but he had the talent, teaching Princes Charles, William and Harry, King Constantine of Greece, and even Sylvester Stallone.
The 53-year-old father of two died from his injuries after an accident at the Everglades Polo Club, in Wellington.
M r Gracida was knocked unconscious after another player’s mallet hit his horse on the head , prompting it to rear and clash skulls with its rider before falling on top of him.
The polo player was airlifted from the field to a hospital in nearby Delray Beach, but later died after suffering swelling and bleeding in his brain.
Lila Pearson, the daughter-in-law of Viscount Cowdray, whose home on the South Downs, Cowdray Park, is known as the home of British polo, was among those watching the match.
Ms Pearson, who accompanied Mr Gracida to hospital, said: “The only blessing in this tragedy is that all the people he loved most — apart from his 95-year-old mother— were at his bedside and Adolfo Cambiaso and Juan Martin Nero, the two greatest players in the world, came to the hospital to wait with us all, an example of the great esteem he was held in by his peers.
“He died doing what he loved and was one of the most positive people I have ever known.”
Mr Gracida was playing with his team, Santa Clara, when the accident happened on Tuesday afternoon, during the Freebooters Classic tournament organised by the International Polo Club of Palm Beach.
Investigators for the United States Polo Association, the sport’s governing body, are interviewing players and umpires to determine whether the accident could have been prevented.
In 2007 the death rate of polo was compared to that of Nascar racing, after Skeeter Johnson died in an accident in Wellington.
Mr Gracida’s death cuts short the most garlanded career in the game. Born into a respected polo-playing dynasty in Mexico, Mr Gracida won more tournaments than any other player, claiming the British Open Gold Cup ten times, the US Open nine times and the Argentinian Open five times. He was the only player to ever win the Grand Slam — claiming victory in the US Open, the British Open and the Argentine Open in the same year.
No other player had ever managed the feat. Mr Gracida did it three times.
His teenage sons, Carlitos and Mariano, are also professional polo players, as is his brother, Guillermo, known as Memo, also a friend and team-mate of the Prince of Wales. Memo Gracida fondly recalled their knockabouts at Windsor Castle. “Whenever His Highness wanted to practise, he would call me to come over to his place,” he once said. “He has a stick-and-ball field next to Windsor Castle. It was great when we practised. We would use the steps of the castle as the goal posts.”
Carlos Gracida also coached Princes William and Harry and used to speak with pride of how the former introduced him to his then girlfriend, Kate Middleton, as “the best polo player ever”.
“My experience with the Royal Family was really something very special because they are true princes,” he once said. “I remember an anecdote from a training session in which Prince William arrived four or five minutes late for a class and said sorry more than anyone I’ve ever met in my life. They are fantastic people.”
Peter Rizzo, chief executive of the US Polo Association and a close friend of Mr Gracida for 25 years, said last night: “This is an extreme personal and professional loss. He was one of the greatest players that ever played in any generation, at any time. He was iconic. The loss to his friends, his family and the polo world is a great tragedy.”
The charismatic player, who was renowned for his speed on the field and his affability off it, held both stable hands and royalty in equal regard, Mr Rizzo said.
“From the grooms to the Queen, Carlos treated everyone with great respect.
“He was a very humble guy but obviously to be intimate with the royals as he was . . . he felt honoured to have that bond over horses and polo.”