Polo’s John Goodman doesn’t live in the spotlight

John Goodman has not been charged in the crash that killed 23-year-old engineering graduate Scott Wilson. (Sun Sentinel, file)

Until this month, John Goodman was little-known outside the high-rolling, celebrity-studded world of elite polo. Within that world, he was revered.

The Texas-born heir to an air-conditioning empire is not just the man who rescued world-class polo in Wellington, sinking millions into a club that has lured the likes of Madonna, actor Tommy Lee Jones and some of the world's top players.

Now the community may be poised to learn a lot more about Goodman's personal demons — including his role in a fatal car wreck Feb. 12 and his former wife's allegations of cocaine use.

Goodman has not been charged in the crash that killed 23-year-old engineering graduate Scott Wilson, who was on his way to visit family in Wellington. But Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies have said they are investigating whether alcohol or drugs played a role.

Sheriff's reports say Goodman was at the wheel of his black Bentley convertible about 1 a.m. when it ran a stop sign, pitching Wilson's Hyundai into a canal.

The crash occurred about a half-mile from the entrance to Goodman's International Polo Club Palm Beach, shortly after he had left the Players Club Bar & Restaurant.

Goodman broke his wrist in the crash and is not expected to return to playing anytime soon, club spokeswoman Shamin Abas said.

Those who know Goodman have been reluctant to talk about his personal life. Goodman has been reluctant to grant interviews during his years in Wellington, and his 2008 divorce in Houston from his wife of 22 years, Isla Carroll Goodman, drew little or no scrutiny from the news media at the time.

That changed after the crash, as an April 2009 divorce court filing surfaced in which Goodman's ex-wife accused him of "a history of substance abuse, namely cocaine use."

In the filing, Carroll Goodman said she was "fearful for the safety and well being of her children" in John Goodman's custody "because of his history of substance abuse and his refusal to submit himself for drug screening."

Goodman, 46, has the resources to make a huge impact on his favorite sport.

Stories of the polo community's devotion to Goodman have abounded for decades. In the late 1990s, after designer Ralph Lauren filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Goodman's Polo magazine, fans at the Houston Polo Club "decided to alter their wardrobes" in solidarity with Goodman, according to a 1998 article in the weekly Houston Press.

"We've all thrown away our Ralph Lauren clothes," Goodman's ranch foreman told the newspaper. "Given them to the needy."

But Goodman, who played football and lacrosse while growing up, didn't start out as a polo player. He began taking lessons in 1989 in Houston, the Press reported. In 1991 he formed the team Isla Carroll, named after his wife.

His new pursuit would cost him millions of dollars as Goodman assembled a fleet of ponies and some of the world's top players.

Goodman's growing involvement brought him into contact with other players and sponsors, including Coca-Cola heir Summerfield "Skeeter" Johnston, who later joined him in founding the North American Polo League. (Johnston would die in 2007 after being trampled during practice.)

It also brought him into contact with Wellington's polo community, which by the 1990s was in decline from its Charles-and-Diana heyday.

Goodman brought back the glitz by opening the International Polo Club in 2003, attracting teams owned by the likes of Johnston, Tommy Lee Jones and Outback Steakhouse founder Tim Gannon. In 2005 he finished a $3 million expansion.

Goodman's club quickly became the new home of polo's U.S. Open championship, an honor that had once belonged to the venerable Wellington club Palm Beach Polo.

Without International Polo, "we wouldn't have a U.S. Open Polo Championship in Wellington," said Don Dufresne, chairman of the Wellington Equestrian Committee.

Goodman's club has also helped numerous charities, although Abas said Goodman doesn't often talk about his philanthropic work publicly. He owns International Polo and the Wanderers Club Wellington golf course.

Palm Beach Polo owner Glenn Straub said Goodman's willingness to invest in the International Polo Club helped the village's polo community by keeping the elite, "high-goal" version of the sport popular in Wellington.

Straub said he doesn't know Goodman personally. But as a polo club owner himself, Straub said he understands the pressures of the job, which entails attending hundreds of parties and social events every year.

"It's a tough business. There are a lot of distractions there," Straub said.

Straub said the polo community will likely remain loyal to Goodman as the investigation continues, to minimize any fallout and damage to the business of polo.

"I'm sure his family will pitch in and help him through this. He has a good family," Straub said. "The industry will protect itself."

Material from the Palm Beach Daily News and the Houston Press supplemented this report.