The ball kicks loose from a scrum near the center of the field, and Diego Nuñez, a history and literature major writing his senior thesis on polo as an instrument of British imperialism, breaks away, crouching down in the saddle, mallet held high. With no one in front of him, he easily guides the ball home.
The match is barely a minute old, and Harvard leads, 1-0.
It’s a gorgeous day in Hamilton, Massachusetts, a half hour from Harvard’s campus—the sky cloudless, the horizon rich with the burnt orange of fall leaves on distant trees. A group of maybe 20 spectators, hands jammed into pockets against an unseasonable cold, gathers around the low walls of the polo arena. The sound of horse hooves beating the dirt fills the air romantically. And for this moment, it seems that all the cultural expectations we carry will be fulfilled.
These Harvard kids are the brightest in the land. They bear literary names like Diego, Albany, Casra. They ride horses donated by actor Tommy Lee Jones (Class of ’69). They are each around 20 years old. And they play a sport that symbolizes Ivy League wealth and privilege.
The opposing team is known as Work To Ride. It is comprised of inner-city middle- and high-school kids from Philadelphia. Its best player is a sophomore named Daymar Rosser, a 17-year-old from a rough West Philly neighborhood known as “The Bottom.” Like his teammates, Daymar has labored—brushed down horses, mucked out stalls—in exchange for the opportunity to learn horsemanship and play polo.
The very idea of an underprivileged inner-city polo team sounds like cheap fiction—the poor having a go at the sport of kings. Then Brandon Rease, a hulking 17-year-old, hits a ridiculous pass that travels 40 yards and lands right in the path of Daymar, who quickly tucks it in for the goal. Tie game. Daymar scores the next three goals. By the end of the first seven-minute period, known as a chukker, the scoreboard reads: WORK TO RIDE 6, HARVARD 1. By halftime, the poor Philly kids hold a 10-goal lead.
Rosser and Rease stick out not for their blackness but for their skill. They seem to anticipate where the ball is headed, flashing to every crucial spot. Even the Harvard stable assistant who cares for the team’s horses, Ambroise Nanquette, proclaims himself a fan. “After every chukker, the horses the Harvard kids ride are exhausted,” he says. “Covered in sweat. The Work To Ride team is also riding our horses. But they bring them back not even breathing heavy. So they are winning and not even working the horses as hard to do it.”
The final score is emphatic: WORK TO RIDE 20, HARVARD 3.
Games like this have turned Work To Ride into a feel-good story in the pages of Sports Illustrated and on ESPN and 60 Minutes. It’s easy to see why. Inner-city black kids who make the most of an opportunity provided by unconventional means are a cultural staple, the narrative arc of countless movies from Dangerous Minds to Remember the Titans. The mechanism—a tough teacher, chess, athletics—makes little difference. The story of poor children overcoming their circumstances confirms the American Dream, fortifies our notion that the least among us can leverage effort into prosperity. But the truth is far less cinematic. A little more than 48 hours after this game, several of the Work To Ride kids will sit in a parked car in Southwest Philadelphia and watch, helplessly, as that truth manifests just beyond their windshield: a sudden reminder that after every match, these Philly kids must do something far more difficult than beating Harvard.
They must go home.