RANCHO SANTA FE — The question caught Ron Bonaguidi off guard. His hand rose to his chin, he pondered for the longest time, he said nothing.
Have you got more to lose than to win?
The question was about Sunday's Spreckels Cup, a polo challenge that has been steeped in San Diego County polo history since it was inaugurated in 1909. John D. Spreckels put up the cup as a prize for the winner, either his Coronado Polo Club team or his imported team of English lords.
Bonaguidi is looking forward to playing in front of his friends and family for the right to win what is believed to be the highest-rated polo match in county history, a 26-goal match.
He will be playing with the team he has enlisted to compete with him in next month's United States Open in Indio, and two of his partners on the four-man Hanalei Bay team are a pair of real John Waynes. Brothers Memo and Carlos Gracida are two of only six 10-goal players in polo's worldwide handicapping system. Memo has won nine of the past 10 U.S. Opens, and Carlos has won six.
Bonaguidi is a one-goal player, and Julio Arellano is a five-goal player. The team they play Sunday, Fish Creek, from Calgary, has one 10-goal player, Owen Rinehart, and has a 25-goal rating (combined score of four players).
The 2 p.m. match is hosted by the Rancho Santa Fe Polo Club. Bonaguidi is a member of the club. He has a chance to win big in front of his friends.
Bonaguidi, a real estate developer who has spent well into six figures to assemble this team for its run at the U.S. Open, finally broke the silence.
"I'm not excited about a Canadian team coming down and taking the Spreckels Cup from us," Bonaguidi said. "I don't want the humiliation of losing in front of the hometown crowd. It's important to play our best in front of our fellow polo players in Rancho Santa Fe."
Bonaguidi has won the Spreckels Cup the past two years, but neither time was the match rating so high. This matchup with half the 10-goal players in the world is strictly first-class.
"It's taking the competition of the polo in San Diego to its highest threshold," Bonaguidi said. "It will be a great thrill to captain the team in the Spreckels Cup because this is my hometown. It's a great thrill to play in front of so many of my friends who have supported my team over the years."
Bonaguidi involvement in polo began five years ago in Kauai. He walked up to a couple of players after viewing a match and said he was interested. They let him get on one of their horses. A love affair was born. He returned to San Diego and approached legendary polo player Willis Allen, who helped Bonaguidi immerse himself in the sport.
The Spreckels Cup is a big invitational match regionally, but Hanalei Bay is using it as a warm-up for a much bigger prize: the U.S. Open, a 10-day tournament at the Eldorado Polo Club in Indio beginning Oct. 21.
Bonaguidi, 46, has been readying himself for the past six months in preparation for the Open, weighing his diet and working the weights. At 6 feet and 175 pounds, his training appears successful.
For him, this is the ultimate opportunity.
"How would Jerry Buss like to play with the Lakers, or Jack Kent Cooke take a snap with the Redskins?" Bonaguidi asked. "That's what separates this sport from the others--the sponsor gets a chance to participate but must be able to play to his handicap."
Bonaguidi has played in one other U.S. Open, in Lexington, Ky., in 1990. Hanalei Bay lost in the finals.
Hanalei Bay has been together for the past two weeks in Rancho Santa Fe and should be well-rested for Sunday's match. Fish Creek plays in Calgary on Saturday, then returns to San Diego on Sunday morning. Both should be among the favorites for the U.S. Open title.
"We're a good team," Bonaguidi said. "If we can play together, we'll win."
It's the only outcome he has considered.