While most Canadian boys grow up with NHL ambitions, few ever achieving them, Fred Mannix Jr. had an even more improbable childhood dream: chase a little white ball from atop a polo pony in some of the world's most exclusive locales.
Polo is a sport dominated by a deep talent pool in Argentina, where labour costs are lower, pristine playing fields are plentiful and it's a national obsession. Meanwhile, it's a sport played only by a few hundred people in Canada, where the northern climate cuts the outdoor season short, and it requires substantial wealth – eager patrons or incredible parental sacrifice – to make it to the top.
Despite the odds, Mannix has managed to shine.
The 28-year-old from Calgary is one of the best players this country has produced – good enough to compete in the so-called Triple Crown of Polo, which began last week with the Tortugas Open in Buenos Aires. His four-man squad, Alegria, lost its first two matches and will now prepare for the Hurlingham Open, before finishing with the sport's most prestigious stop – the Argentine Polo Open Championship, which ends in December.
Mannix is set to become the first Canadian in 65 years to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown, and is believed to be just the second Canadian to play in the Argentine Open, which dates to 1893.
He follows in the boots of Canada's most storied polo player, Montreal-born Lewis Lacey. Lacey also made it to the Triple Crown, and won the Argentine Open eight times between 1915 and 1937.
It's a major accomplishment for Mannix – and Canada – to be competing at this level, according to Don Pennycook, vice-president of Polo Canada .
"He's a very unique individual," he said, "I don't know anybody else in Canada who can afford to do what he's doing. No. 1, that he has the talent, and No. 2, that he has the financial wherewithal to play."
He has also benefited from the good fortune of birth.
The Mannix family is known in Alberta for its considerable wealth (and related philanthropy), as well as its exceptional privacy. The family's privately-owned Mancal Group has arms in real estate, ranching, coal, oil and gas. Canadian Business magazine estimated that brothers Ron and Fred Mannix (the latter is Mannix's father) had a net worth of $3.44-billion last year, and ranked them the ninth richest Canadians.
Equestrian sports are also in the family's bloodline. Mannix's grandfather established a farm south of Calgary, while his father, and mother, Li-Anne, are avid riders. So are all his siblings – notably his younger brother, Julian, who is internationally ranked on the polo circuit, and his younger sister, Vanessa, who is show jumping with an eye on the Olympics.
"I've been very lucky," Mannix said from Argentina. "My father had horses and, naturally, I was able to follow him to the barn."
He played in the pee-wee ranks in California. By 15, he watched an older friend venture to the U.S. circuit, and decided he, too, was going to play polo for a living. Quickly making the national team, at 16, he played in the 2001 world championship. He later attended Florida Atlantic University, where he studied business management while honing his polo skills.
Mannix made the trek to Argentina in 2006, teamed with local superstars and has since established a farm – Alegria. He's already played in the Argentine Open four times.
His time toiling in the sport of kings has not been without controversy.
In 2007, Mannix was playing at the U.S. Polo Association Gold Cup in Florida when his then-La Herradura teammates conspired to fix the match to receive a more favourable seeding in the U.S. Open.
"The three guys, they came to me and said, 'Fred we've got to lose this game,'" he recalled, "… It was just a messed-up deal. I didn't go along with it. I didn't condone it."
The other players were suspended. Mannix was not.
Mannix is ranked No. 47 on the World Polo Tour and has an eight-goal handicap (10-goal is the highest handicap). British-born financier Lyndon Lea, who holds Canadian citizenship, is the only other higher-ranked Canadian (No. 17).
Pennycook said the sport is no longer just for the super-wealthy, but nonetheless, describes polo as "an addiction that only poverty or death can cure."
Last Sunday, Mannix's team narrowly lost 18-14 to the world's top team La Dolfina, led by Adolfo Cambiaso, the world's top-ranked player with a perfect 10-goal handicap.
The significance of competing at this level – and making it to the Triple Crown – isn't lost on Mannix. "It's huge. I feel so proud. We've been working hard. Very, very hard. … A lot of effort has gone into getting us to the field."