Restaurateur, surfer and holder of the polo “Passport to The World”.
On the afternoon of the first day of autumn 2014, I meet with Nick Mathers in New York City, outside the construction zone that is now his and business partner Lincoln Pilcher’s newly expanded restaurant, Ruby’s. A self- made entrepreneur and a regular on the international polo circuit for over a decade, Nick is an Aussie-expat – dividing his time between his businesses in Dubai and the East and West coasts of America – the latter clear from the tan he sports from his time outdoors in the surf, or on the polo field in the LA sun.
Nick is the quintessential Polo Project pin-up boy – his lifestyle and values are built firmly around world travel, good people and good food, fitness, his family, and most of all, having fun doing whatever he sets his mind to. Nick keeps pushing the limits of what one can achieve, while making sure to make a regular smooth stop every time he heads to the surf to let it all go.
“Horsemanship has played a key role in Nick’s life since he was just seven years of age …”
Horsemanship has played a key role in Nick’s life since he was just seven years of age, where at his grandparents’ home on the outskirts of Sydney, he first showed his agility and fearlessness on horseback – both traits of a successful polo player. Jumping ahead to his 20s, Nick up and moved to the USA, where alongside fellow Aussie- expat, and photographer Lincoln Pilcher, he opened the first New York establishment in his empire, Ruby’s on Mulberry Street. Following their success, they were approached by Ralph Lauren to open a restaurant in their Georgetown, Rugby Ralph Lauren store – very fitting for a man who would shortly enter into the world of polo and living in a uniform of dirty Ralph Lauren jeans.
While the restaurant was in development, Nick lived in Virginia, surrounded by homesteads with hundreds of years of heritage, endless stone fences and rolling fields – a landscape rich with history in the world of polo. With a friend at his side, Nick jumped back on the horse (as they say) and realised that although he was ‘rusty as hell’, he loved it. For a man ready to take any challenge, Nick leapt at the opportunity to play polo in Argentina, the home to the greatest polo players of today, and set out to push himself by riding every day until he was at a level to lead and learn the game.
And so he was hooked. As Nick puts it, “Polo is an addiction. The better you get, the more the sport needs of you – and your money. When I started I would jump on anyone’s horse and just play a game and have a great time. But then I realised I was getting to be good – and so I went and bought two ponies. Then you get better and you need four, then six, then eight… Then you have professionals with 16 plus horses”.
But having five horses of his own in Santa Barbara, with a full-time groom, doesn’t mean that Nick is tied to his LA coastline. “I love the sport, and it is a really international lifestyle. As the avid polo aficionado Sir Winston Churchill once stated, ‘A polo handicap is your passport to the world’. I travel around the world playing polo.”
With all this travel, all the horses and their needs, as well as the time taken every week to play matches, polo is dismissed as an elitist sport, closed off to those who are not from privilege. “If you want to go down that route, I would strongly advise you not to. That is not what it is all about,” he explains. “Can I tell you what polo is all about? It is about family. It is about the lifestyle. It is about ending a game and all piling into the back of a truck, some people popping champagne, others a beer, and with kids and dogs running around the empty field, just laughing and talking.”
“Polo is an addiction. The better you get, the more the sport needs of you – and your money.”
To an outsider it could seem that polo is a sport of contradictions – exclusive by cost, cross-continental travel and social standing, however, once you are in the polo pack it is defined by inclusiveness and connectivity – family, friends and a place to come back to day after day, week after week to share. I’ve noticed that there are many teams and players seem to move between them fluidly. So it is a promiscuous sport, I wonder?
“Ha! Yes, it is. You can swap and choose. I play for so many different teams,” laughs Mathers.
When asked if the sexiness that is alluded to in Jilly Cooper’s ’80s romance novel Polo is the reality of the modern game, Mathers just laughs. “My mother loves those books!” But it seems that his description of the world’s top players, who travel with a team of horses, flying in and out of games on helicopters, and no doubt flanked by a glamorous entourage of their own – is a pretty clear
For Mathers, anyway, it seems, the life of the player is more grounded, focusing on the horses and the games, playing in the best chukkers, getting a higher handicap and hitting the perfect goal.
“I hope to make it to a two-goal handicap – a professional – but even then I won’t play it at that level. But it is important to have goals, you know? It is a real life commitment. It is important to have goals set outside of the world of restaurants.”
Nick is warm and quick in both word and step. This is not without similarity to the way he describes the best traits of the polo pony – fit, agile and embodying the upmost ability. Mathers speaks with pride and a certain youthful excitement – how it feels to be spoken about over the PA system, scoring goals and how the exhilaration of that one moment makes you come back for more. “It is like when you play tennis or golf and you hit that perfect ball and it just soars. It makes you practise and play again and again – just to try and recapture that one perfect play.”