August 20, 2001 12:00 PM

It was as if someone had pressed the mute button. On Aug. 3, eerily still on the field at the Cirencester Park Polo Club before 500 hushed spectators lay a fallen Prince Charles. “The reaction of the crowd went from a gasp to a Who-is-it? murmur and then to an absolute silence,” says one onlooker. “There was not a word.”

Moments later his teammate Prince William rushed to his father’s side, while a bodyguard acted to ensure that Charles’s tongue was not blocking his airway. Prince Harry (also a teammate) grabbed the reins of Charles’s errant steed, which had apparently slipped on the wet grass, pitching the prince to the ground. Thirty seconds passed before Britain’s 52-year-old future king regained consciousness. As he was being zoomed via ambulance to a nearby hospital, his sons, reassured that their father would be fine, continued playing. “They must have been worried,” says spectator Ann Tarlton, “but they didn’t show it.”

It wasn’t Charles’s first polo-related tumble. In 1990 he fell, breaking his arm in two places, and he bears a subtle 2″ scar on his left cheek from a crash landing in 1980. This time, released from Cheltenham General the next morning, Charles seemed no worse for wear. Appearing “remarkably fit,” according to one observer, he stood alongside other members of the royal family later that day in London to celebrate the 101st birthday of the Queen Mum. It’s likely, though, that the prince is still smarting from a bruised ego: His sons ended up winning the game without him, 6-3½.

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