Can the First Philadelphia Polo Classic Make the City a Pony Town?
Work to Ride phenom Kareem Rosser is aiming to make the city a force in the polo world. Are there enough horse-crazy supporters here to make it happen?
No one would dispute that the reputation of the polo community is clubby and elitist. But behind all that hauteur and wealth is a weirdly democratizing fascination with horses. Want to get in good with the fancy folk? Talk horses, and more precisely polo ponies. These magnificent animals are the real stars of this “sport of kings” and the common bond that brings people together. That’s why the world’s most famous polo player, Nacho Figueras, was walking around an impoverished West Philly neighborhood last spring.
Figueras was in town to announce the Philadelphia Polo Classic — our city’s first-ever polo exhibition match, happening this month (September 24th) in Fairmount Park and annually thereafter. Figueras, a celebrated ambassador of the sport and teammate of BFF Prince Harry, will be one of the team captains. And he was curious to see the West Philly neighborhood, known as the Bottom, where another close friend, polo-playing phenom Kareem Rosser, grew up.
As Rosser, now 29 and captaining the opposing polo team at the Philly Polo Classic, writes in his 2021 memoir Crossing the Line, “No one grows up where I grew up and doesn’t understand what death is. People had died in my neighborhood, on my block, and in my family. There was a homemade cross and a pile of wilted flowers on practically every street corner in my neighborhood. Every other person had a gun or sold drugs or both.”
So it was incongruous to have international VIP Figueras walking through. The locals had no idea who the Argentinian was, but they definitely knew Rosser, their local hero, one of six siblings in his family. “People get excited to see me come back into the neighborhood, and when I bring an outsider with me, there’s a reason,” Rosser explains. “And to be frank, when they see a white person, they want to know why they’re there.”
Figueras had questions: “Is this where all the crime happens?” “Are people being shot here?” “Is this where people deal drugs?” “Obviously, Nacho’s very well-traveled and has been to many places in the world,” says Rosser. “But I don’t know how many inner cities he’s been to.” As Rosser showed his friend his old house on Viola Street and shared memories, Figueras took pictures with his phone.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is where my friend got killed.’ ‘My brother was killed here,’” recounts Rosser. “I think he was just processing it all.” After the tour, they skipped the planned upscale lunch and instead hit Jim’s Steaks on South Street.
Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, recalls how at the official announcement of the Polo Classic, “I listened to Nacho, this Argentinian god, talk about Kareem. Their friendship is like a movie — about worlds and cultures colliding, from race and socioeconomics to cultural perspectives. It’s incredible that these two people from different worlds connected and that Kareem is the inspiration to Nacho, not the reverse. Kareem is not just using these connections to make his own life better; he’s using everything he’s been given to pay it forward and help more kids.”
This “worlds colliding” — or, better, “worlds connecting” — story line is important to the mission of the nonprofit Work to Ride (WTR) program that founder Lezlie Hiner began out of Fairmount Park’s Chamounix Equestrian Center in 1994. Her goal was to empower young people through horsemanship, equine sports, and educational programs. Not only does she want participants — they range in age from eight to 18 and reside in communities of concentrated poverty — to finish high school; she wants them to have a safe haven at the stables and to expand their concept of what’s possible in their lives. Traveling up and down the East Coast to play in competitions at high schools, colleges and polo clubs has been a way to show her players that the world is bigger than the 10-block radius they might have kept to in Philly. Polo has taken Rosser around the United States and the world — including on team trips to China and Nigeria.
“In the beginning, we felt out of place,” Rosser says of the Work to Riders joining the polo circuit. “We grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood with very few white people. A conversation I would have with someone in my neighborhood would not be the same as what I’d have with someone in the Hamptons. But the one thing we do have in common is our love of horses.”
Rosser also acknowledges how terrible the team was before they figured things out and went on to assert their dominance. “Over time, our talent and winning won people over,” he explains. “When you’re good at something, people at least consider having you around, tolerate you, even if maybe in the back of their minds they may not have wanted us around because of the color of our skin or where we came from. Winning put all of that stuff to bed pretty fast.”
Rosser’s rise from the unlikeliest of places to captain the first all-Black team to win the United States Polo Association’s National Interscholastic Championship in 2011 has been catnip to media outlets for years. Sports Illustrated, HBO Real Sports, 60 Minutes and this publication have all covered the feel-good story.
But now, Work to Ride is ready for its sequel. It’s no longer a team of outsiders wearing hand-me-down gear that beats the odds by conquering posh rich kids. It’s staking its claim on the national polo stage by hosting the city’s first, star-studded Philadelphia Polo Classic. If it can hit its $10 million fund-raising goal, Work to Ride will also build an ambitious state-of-the-art indoor arena and seed an endowment to cover future operational costs of the program. And that would secure the legacy of this ambition that Lezlie Hiner has worked for almost 30 years to create. Can this dream, too, come true?
Horse people often talk about the universal smell of barns. Elegant or dilapidated, they have a scent that’s an amalgam of damp, musk and sweet, thanks to the horses, their hay and manure. That smell envelops me as I find Hiner sorting out the morning chaos while WTR summer campers arrive, stalls are mucked out, and horses are readied for activities.
Despite a big hole in the ceiling, a coating of dust and worn-out floors, this gritty, very “Philly” barn feels welcoming and energizing. Squid, a palomino tethered to a stall, is getting hosed off by one of the staff. Saddle blankets hang over a clothesline. Hiner warns a volunteer not to let anyone ride the newly donated horse from Baltimore. Besides the 35 equines in residence, 15 barn cats are lazing about. And before we enter Hiner’s office, she asks gruffly, “You okay with dogs?” When she opens the door, four canines bound happily toward me.
Hiner sits at a desk with the entire glossy 2019 Ralph Lauren ad campaign featuring the Work to Ride polo team mounted on the wall above her. Their impeccably attired, elegantly posed serenity is at odds with their mentor, who sports a pair of old Toms, jeans, a blue jacket, and a pair of reading glasses perched on her graying hair. She absentmindedly pets one of her very large dogs, which seems too big to be on her lap. The 65-year-old executive director, who exudes hard-nosed mother-hen compassion, can still be found at the barn six or seven days a week. Where she once had few boundaries and single-handedly drove her riders to matches, coached them, let them sleep at her Mount Airy house on weekends, she’s shifted how she allocates her time as she’s gotten older. She relies more on staff to help with the polo team, pony racing, riding lessons, and after-school, summer and weekend programming.
One of the simple joys she still welcomes each morning is breathing in the smell of the hay and listening to the horses munch on their feed. Many of the kids who walk or bike to the barn from adjacent neighborhoods feel that same magic. “The only place the fear fell away was at the barn,” Rosser writes in his memoir about what the place meant to him as a child. “As soon as I crossed into that warmth, that sweet, funky smell, as soon as I could lay hands on my pony, rest my brow against his neck, climb up on his back and ride so hard that the memories and panic couldn’t keep up, I was free.” Rosser wants to give kids with similar upbringings the same opportunity to take a break from fear. He’s now a WTR board member, and both he and Hiner are clear on their priorities. Winning polo games is nice, but giving as many kids as possible a wide-open future is the ultimate objective.
Ott Lovell says programs such as Work to Ride are more important than ever: “This is a city with a very serious violence epidemic. Neighborhoods in West Philly near Work to Ride are communities that are historically under-resourced and underserved, and we are feeling the ramifications of the gun violence epidemic acutely on a daily basis.”
Rosser affirms how much the barn helps kids. “When you wake up every day and all you can think about is just surviving the day, you don’t have the capacity to dream and to believe there are other possibilities out there,” he says. “But when you go to the barn, you have all that and more. You are now at a place where your mind is free.”
“We get the kids whose parents are not very stable or leave the kids to fend for themselves,” says Hiner. “I can say with a great deal of certainty that I don’t know where those kids would have been, a lot of them, if they didn’t have this as part of their daily sanctuary.”
But if Work to Ride has been able to create these opportunities with limited resources, imagine what would be possible if they had an even better facility, more support, more programs. “There are tens of thousands of Kareems out there who could use this place,” says Ott Lovell, “and parents who would embrace this. No one would say this isn’t our most critical moment in terms of the city moving beyond this epidemic of violence. The children who are shooting and being shot are the age Kareem was when he found Work to Ride.”
Enter the Philadelphia Polo Classic. The planned exhibition matches just might give Work to Ride enough momentum to reach its $10 million fund-raising goal, put the construction job for its planned center out to bid, and break ground in the spring of 2023. The proposed center will essentially be a high-end shed enclosing an indoor arena that can be used for local, regional and national equestrian activities, plus a mezzanine that can host a variety of events.
Rosser is clear that the Polo Classic has been conceptualized to raise funds for the operating budget, which will balloon with the new facilities and programming expansion. He explains that the operating budget is nearly $450,000 a year now but could reach almost $800,000 a year with the anticipated expansion. The Classic, held annually, will assist in filling the coffers required to sustain this new, more ambitious vision. Raising money, he says, never stops — “Especially for something like this.” General admission tickets for the Classic are $25, while VIP tickets range from $250 to $500, with various packages.
Though there are almost 250 active polo clubs in the United States, the closest most of us have been to a polo match is watching Josh O’Connor’s version of Prince Charles in episodes of The Crown. The Philadelphia Polo Classic, one of the few matches in the world played in an urban park, is expected to draw up to 3,000 spectators, who are in for a rare display of adrenaline-fueled athleticism by riders and horses alike. Players must strategize and predict the trajectory of the ball (only three inches in diameter and sometimes moving at 110 miles per hour) while balanced atop half-ton horses running at 30 miles an hour and jostling and bumping into each other along the way.
The Classic’s site, Edgely Field, in West Fairmount Park near the stables, is nowhere close to a regulation-size outdoor polo pitch, which is roughly as big as nine football fields. So each team will field three players instead of the typical four. The Classic’s exhibition matches, each lasting for about an hour, are divided into seven-minute periods called “chukkers”; players mount a fresh horse for each chukker. During the ceremonial (and practical) divot-stomp at halftime, fans are invited onto the field to stuff clods of grass kicked up by the horses back into the ground. Pro tip to save a lot of newbie confusion: Teams alternate direction after each scored goal.
The first match will feature the current WTR team and alumni, polo-playing young people who love the risk-taking of the game and revel in the sweat, endorphins and mastery of riding. The following marquee match presents teams captained by Rosser and Figueras; also riding will be the highest-rated American player and captain of the U.S. national team, Nic Roldan. Another celebrity in the match: Melissa Ganzi, a major patron in the polo world (pronounced in the Spanish way: pa-TROHN) and an accomplished player who grew up in the area and co-chairs the Work to Ride capital campaign. Her son, 24-year-old up-and-comer Grant Ganzi, joins her.
The Ganzis have deep local roots. Melissa is the granddaughter of Victor Potamkin, of the local automotive empire, while her husband, Marc, the chief executive of a digital infrastructure investment firm, is a member of the family that used to co-own the Palm restaurants. The couple both attended Penn and now split their time between Aspen and Florida, where they co-founded Grand Champions Polo Club in Wellington. Melissa tells me by phone from Aspen (where she and Marc founded the Aspen Valley Polo Club) that they’ll be supplying 24 to 30 horses for the Classic, to be trailered from Colorado. Since the Ganzis do hobnob with Prince Harry, I can’t help wondering if the U.S.-based royal might appear at Edgely.
“We tried, but he was busy,” Hiner says with a chuckle. “I did write him a nice letter inviting him, and Nacho gave it to him.” Maybe next year.
When we meet at Talula’s Daily, the Washington Square market and cafe close to where Kareem Rosser now lives and works as a financial analyst, he flashes his megawatt smile before sitting down at one of the outside tables to sketch out a road map of the capital campaign. To date, Work to Ride has received gift pledges ranging from $5,000 to $3 million from polo devotees across the country. “We are going to raise more than $10 million over time,” Rosser says with assurance. I ask if plans for the center could fall through if they can’t reach their goal. He says no: “There’s no plan B. This is happening.”
Peter Rizzo, the former CEO of the United States Polo Association — he’s now vice president of the WTR board and a force behind its capital campaign — tells me the board needs to raise three-quarters of its goal before beginning to build the new facilities. They’re closing in on that, with $7.3 million in commitments as of press time. “We must hold to our fiscal situation,” he insists. “We are looking forward to this with measured expectation, and we want to kick it off, but in the right way.” The planned arena will be one of the biggest in the tri-state area. Critically for Work to Ride, an indoor facility allows athletes to practice year-round. WTR could host national-level tournaments as well as weekly Friday-night polo matches for community members. Local university polo clubs could rent the arena to grow their programs, too.
Melissa Ganzi says, “This building will make a huge difference in ensuring the future of Work to Ride. Having a permanent place dedicated to polo will be helpful to East Coast polo and will allow the sport to flourish here.” But perhaps the greatest impact will be the message the new facility will send: Work to Ride is here to stay. It won’t be dismantled after Hiner retires.
On a sweltering Thursday in July, I stand by the Chamounix riding ring as five WTR polo players enter for evening practice. I can see why a proper indoor ring would be hugely beneficial to the program — it’s hot for both riders and horses out here. And the riders have to chase down the ball after every other hit, since the space wasn’t designed for polo. Unless a helpful passerby tosses the ball back after it rolls into the road, a rider has to dismount, hop the fence, and retrieve it.
The kids joke and rib each other the way teens do, warming up the horses with short bursts of speed. They practice turning by cueing the horses with their legs and hips, whacking a ball intermittently. Dust clouds kick up, lit by the low summer sun. Though it’s late by now, the temperature is still almost 90 degrees. But there’s a breeze coming over the fields, and the greenery and the soothing energy of the horses offer a break from the vigilance of city living.
Horses are built to notice everything. These massive creatures are observant to a rider’s sounds, smells, body language and feelings, but they’re also non-judgmental. For a kid, learning to ride — working to ride — has massive payoffs: confidence, resolve, self-worth. Right now, these kids aren’t thinking about that, though. They’re just focusing on hitting the ball.
I think about Rosser and the message he heard over and over again as a WTR kid: Get out of the Bottom and stay out. He’s said the problem with get out and stay out was there were always those you had to leave behind. But Rosser came back. Though this generation of kids moving through the program loves horses and riding, Rosser doesn’t think they have the same obsession with polo that he and his brothers possessed. “The kids today love the sport and want to play it,” he says, “but they have other dreams beyond polo, which is great. I prefer them to do that.” There’s room in this ring for individuals to write their own stories, their own futures, with the discipline and compassion that horsemanship breeds.
Before I leave practice, Hiner tells me she’s taking the team to Virginia next week to work on their game. There’s always more to teach, more wisdom to dispense, and more kids to help. There’s a lot to be said for what a rider and a horse can accomplish together.
The Philadelphia Polo Classic will take place Saturday, September 24th, at Edgely Field in Fairmount Park. Tickets and more information can be found at philadelphiapoloclassic.org.
Published as “Pony Up!” in the September 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.