A horse is a horse, of course, of course, and no one can talk to a horse, of course -- unless, of course, you're a newspaper columnist who gets an exclusive interview with a champion polo pony.

That's what I did recently when I hoofed it out to Riverhead for the Sandy Relief Charity Polo Match at the Dorothy P. Flint Camp. The match drew about 400 people and raised more than $10,000 for the 4-H program at the camp, which is run by the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County.

The first thing I noticed was that Prince Harry wasn't there. Harry recently played in a charity polo match in Greenwich, Conn., but was conspicuously absent from the Long Island event.

"He's missing a good time," said Nick Aliano, owner of Aliano Real Estate, which sponsored the match.

The sport of kings would have liked to have had the prince, but it got several of the next best things in players who are rated as high or higher than Harry by the United States Polo Association.

That includes Aliano, 57, who took up the sport 13 years ago and is rated at 1 goal. Ratings go from minus-2 to 10, with 97 percent of players being rated at zero goals or fewer.

"You're as good as Harry," I said after finding out that the prince also is rated at 1 goal.

"I guess that makes me a prince of a guy," said Aliano, who showed me some of his horses, all Thoroughbreds that are the real athletes in the sport.

"Ninety percent of the game is the horse," said Alberto Bengolea, a player and trainer who has a reputation as a horse whisperer.

"I whisper, but the horses don't listen," said Bengolea, 61, who has worked with the animals for most of his life.

When I introduced myself to Catherine, one of Aliano's horses, she looked at me and sighed. Then she looked away.

"She's saying, 'I don't care about you. Let's just get this over with.' Right now, she's napping," Bengolea told me.

"I put her to sleep?" I said. "I have that effect on people. I had no idea I could do it to horses, too."

Fortunately, the other horses I spoke with (or whispered to) didn't doze off. But I had to wait until halftime of the match, a spirited affair between Aliano Real Estate and the 4-H Crusaders.

At the intermission, I had the honor of interviewing Pinton, on whom Aliano was riding when he scored a goal to help give his team a 4-1 lead.

"He scored the goal," Aliano said of Pinton, who actually nodded when I asked him if it felt good to help his club.

"He's a team player," said Aliano, who allowed me to mount a horse named 69, a gentle veteran that graciously stood still while Bengolea handed me a polo mallet. He showed me the proper way to hold it and how to swing it should I ever find myself playing in a polo match, in which case I would surely be rated minus-2.

"Or maybe I'd be off the charts," I suggested.

69 nodded, too.

The second half was even more exciting than the first, as the Crusaders rallied to tie the match, 7-7. But Aliano, who had three goals and was named best player, scored the decisive tally in a 9-7 victory.

As his team was awarded the Cornell Cup, the players sprayed each other with Champagne, some of which got on Pistola, who was named best playing pony.

"She doesn't drink Champagne, but she likes the spray," said her owner, Lobo Fernandez, 35, who scored three goals atop the 12-year-old gray speckled champion. "She's a really great horse."

"Congratulations, champ," I said to Pistola. "How does it feel?"

Pistola looked at me and lowered her head in modesty.

"She doesn't like to brag," Fernandez said. "But she feels good. She had a terrific match."

And it was all for a good cause. Too bad Prince Harry missed it.


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