Beating cancer, winning at polo

Polo player Brandon Phillips was born for horses. 

He grew up on a horse farm outside Toronto. His father and brother were amateur polo players at the Toronto Polo Club. His mother rode to the hounds. Two uncles and two cousins are professional equestrians, with the uncles having been part of the Canadian Olympic team.

But Phillips — who played rugby and basketball, as well, and peppers his conversations with analogies to soccer and baseball — heard the siren call of another sport that captivates many a Canadian youth, hockey.

“Horses were something I did in the summer,” he says. “Then I got into it.”

And how. Beginning this month, Phillips will be in action at Greenwich Polo Club, playing the No. 2 position for the Postage Stamp Farm team. (It is, he says, akin to being an offensive midfielder in soccer, who’s always at the center of the action.) Polo players are handicapped on a scale of minus-2 to 10, with minus-2 indicating a novice and 10, a rare accomplishment. Phillips is a five-goaler based in Wellington, Fla., a city in Palm Beach County known as “the winter equestrian capital of the world.” After finishing up the spring season there last month, he headed north to a private farm in North Salem to ensure everything was ready for the 16 horses he’d be riding this summer. (Polo is such an intense sport that players change “ponies,” as they are called, with each of the six chukkers, or periods, keeping other horses in reserve.)

Phillips’ stable includes an equal mix of mares and geldings — no stallions, which are apt to be distracted by the mares.

“Very few stallions have their heads in the game,” he says. “Very few are tame enough. But the few who do are exceptional horses.”

For these animals and their riders, polo offers a peripatetic lifestyle that is at once exciting and demanding. Depending on his own schedule, Phillips will either travel ahead to troubleshoot or drive the horse trailer himself, stopping overnight on the two-day trip from Florida to Connecticut at a farm in North Carolina or Virginia where the horses are fed and rested. On overseas trips, the horses are loaded into a container that has three to four stalls and is placed in the belly of the plane. Each horse has his own stall, water and hay and can see and smell his buddies so he won’t get nervous. The container has stabilizing elements as well to keep four-legged passengers from feeling the motion of the plane.

“It’s a nice way to travel,” Phillips says, with the horses placed onto a plane in, say, Miami at midnight and safely ensconced by 9 a.m. on a farm outside London.

As for their rider, with all the preparations and training — on horseback five times a week and in the gym as many times — flying offers a moment to zone out.

Not that Phillips is the type to let the stress of travel and competition bother him.

“Pressure is waiting for the doctor to come in to tell you whether you’re going to live or die.”

On June 7, 1992, a 15-year-old Phillips felt an ache in his left leg that he attributed to a weekend of playing rugby, hockey and polo. Instead it was from a grapefruit-size tumor entangled with his left kidney that was pressing on his lymph nodes — Stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Phillips faced the possibility of losing his left kidney and leg and then was given three to six weeks to live.

“It was as bad as it could be, although my parents didn’t tell me the worst. I knew the thing was bad, though.”

He was prescribed a protocol of experimental chemotherapy, and, over the course of a month, the tumor shrunk. After four months of chemotherapy, he was in remission. By October, he was back in school. And by December, he was on the school basketball team.

Through the ordeal, Phillips was angry rather than frightened. “I had this whole summer of polo set up.” That anger, though, turned to determination.

“I thought, God put me through this for a reason. You don’t have a choice, so you’ve got to go through it. But never once did I think, I’m going to die. Instead I thought, ‘This is a pain in the ass. But I’m not going to die.’”

From that point on, Phillips’ life took off. Two years later at 17, he was scouted for professional polo. And in January 1995, he signed with Peter Brant, founder of Greenwich Polo and the White Birch Team.

“One day you’re playing backyard baseball and the next you’re playing with the Yankees.”

Today, Phillips is ambassador for the White Plains-based Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which will hold an event at Greenwich Polo on Aug. 28.

“I never thought there was any pressure in playing polo,” he says, because he knows, “there’s a lot more pressure in life than winning or losing a game.”

The Greenwich Polo Club season opens June 5, with the Monty Waterbury Cup, which continues June 12 and 19. Then it’s the Butler Handicap June 26 and July 10 and 17. The East Coast Open will be contested Aug. 28 and Sept. 4 and 11. Gates open at 1 p.m. Sundays, with the matches at 3 p.m. Admission is $40 per car. The dress code is summer chic. (Ladies, remember your hats.) Tickets are available online, as are private cabanas and boxes. The field address is 1 Hurlingham Drive. For more, visit greenwichpoloclub.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *