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POLO IS CONSIDERED the sport of the rich. But for polo players such as Vincent Roy ?Vince? Bitong, a day job is important to maintain their passion. ?I don?t know if you call it a sport or a lifestyle,? says Bitong. ?I could give up polo but still be with the horses.?

Bitong is vice chair and COO (as in child of owner) of NAB Ventures Inc., the holding company of the businesses of his mother, Nora. He describes the size of the business as medium-scale with landholdings in Clark Zone and Batangas and a smaller venture in Tagaytay, Mountain Ridge. The development of socialized housing in Sto. Tomas is being tested now.

Between meetings with consultants and visiting sites, Bitong spends his time in the equestrian sport. As a five-year-old, he enjoyed riding ponies in Baguio. At 12, he took riding lessons with Olympiad equestrienne Denise Yabut-Cojuangco at the Sta. Ana Race Track. The formal training gave him the skills required in controlling a horse, a basic skill in polo.

In his adolescence, he was sent to the prestigious Valley Forge Military Academy. It seemed logical as he grew up surrounded by soldiers since his mother worked for Juan Ponce Enrile, then Defense Minister. On his second year, he was posted as master sergeant of stables. ?I ran some 50 horses as a 15-year-old.?

Dispassionate about military life, Bitong then majored in Investment and Financial Management in Boston College.

Off school, he engaged himself in show jumping and dressage. ?I had too much adrenaline. The girls would beat me. There?s more pressure in jumping because of the discipline. You need the right horse. You can?t get away with a fast horse and strong arm just as in polo to stop the harder horses. There?s more discipline with harder horses. You?re jumping in the air. In polo, horses do their natural thing?running as a herd,? he says.

His friends, Jones Lanza and Jimboy Dulay, both horse lovers, invited him to take up polo. He started the way most did. ?If you know someone, he will teach you privately?at no charge. Soon, you would have to buy your own horse. Then you trade up your horses and play more and more,? he says.

Expensive sport

The sport is expensive. Polo ponies were required because of the game?s intense pace. It is played with four players on each team on a long and wide grass field. A game lasts six chukkers or periods of seven and a half minutes each. A player would need to change his pony every chukker. Bitong adds it?s the year-round maintenance that makes it very costly. He keeps his horses in a 20-hectare property in Banilad, Nasugbu.

It?s every player?s dream to travel and play with top-ranking players. In 1997, the Asian Crisis put a halt to his plan to pursue his dream. But the following year, he spent a month in Saratoga, New York, where he was playing six chukkers a day at the rate of $100 per chukker.

Bitong is now on his 17th season. When he first started, the polo community looked up to Gregorio ?Greggy? Araneta III, Enrique ?Iking? Araneta and Benigno ?Bengy? Toda III, who were high-goalers and trained overseas, including Argentina, the mecca of polo.

?You improve by watching how the pros play and ride their horses. Then you save money to buy the right horses to play with the big boys. It all boils down to horses,? says Bitong.

He credits Iigo Zobel, Mark Field and Ricardo Yabut for deepening his understanding of the game. ?Iigo is the best attacker in the game. He?ll score and you won?t be able to catch him because he?s got the fastest horses. That?s in the game of speed. There are other games where handling is more important. Mark controls the tempo of the game. Ricky was the natural scrapper. He would defend the attacks and stop the other guys? attack,? says Bitong.

Zobel was normally in the No. 1 position of offense, Field or Yabut would be in the No. 3 post, as the tactical leader, feeding the balls to the No. 2 or No. 1. Bitong would usually be assigned in No. 4, the defense player, preventing opponents from scoring. ?They?d give me little jobs like, ?Go guard him!? or ?Hit ?em harder,?? says Bitong.

Good experience

Bitong considers the recent Enrique Zobel Memorial Cup at the Manila Polo Club his best game. Although his team lost at the low goal match, that game was a good experience. He explains, ?There was better preparation. I have better horses now. I?m improving. I?m pushing 40 this April and I?m taking care of myself better. It?s all for fun. I don?t get paid.?

Asked how polo keeps him in shape, he replies, ?The horses I ride are tough. There?s a lot of control with the legs. Sometimes you have a sudden break in speed and these animals are flying at 35 miles per hour. There?s a lot of body movement. You can?t play on a full stomach, you have to eat way ahead of time. But we all put on weight off-season. We eat more and stay in bed longer.?

The night before the game, Bitong eats a muscle-building dinner of steak. He wakes up early to go to the stables at 7 a.m. ?I ride the horses which have too much energy.? Five hours before the game, he eats a heavy breakfast of meat and rice to give him the energy in the afternoon, and a light lunch of soup. Preparations for the polo season start in September. The polo season starts in January. Calatagan has the longest season which ends in May. Bitong cites the Calatagan field as the best. ?It?s maintained properly and has good facilities. When I say good field, there are less chances of injury.? He cites the case of being thrown off his horse when it stumbled because of the uneven surface. He instinctively covered his head and landed 30 feet away from the horse. ?Go with the flow, break everything else but your head.?

His son Tomas, age 10, looks as if he?s the heir apparent. As of this writing, Bitong is traveling in search of better horses for his stables. He is fascinated by their psychology. ?If they don?t want to play the game, they won?t. If you are cruel, they won?t let anyone climb on top of them. They remember. Some horses have break problem or they can?t finish a chukker anymore. At this stage in my life, I just want to enjoy horses.?