That’s Me On That Horse, Terrified.
In which our writer discovers the gentlemanly sport of polo to be less gentlemanly and less sporting than it might appear.
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I almost didn’t go through with it. Even marching out of the locker room fully helmeted, the sun slicing through the thin bars of my face mask, the wind against my Yellow Team jersey, foreign and cold. I briefly considered turning back. But it was just too late. In a few more stiff-booted strides, I would find myself on horseback heading out to play—that is to say, ride—in a real live polo game with the members of the Houston Polo Club.
It was Bill Lane, across the gravel way leading to the field, shouting at me as he coped with Peggy Tipton, a beautiful brown mare named after his younger sister. Lane was wearing a pair of tooled silver spurs, handmade cowboy-style polo boots with white jeans tucked in at the top, a cap-shaped helmet, and a Green Team jersey with a yellow diagonal stripe across the front and a giant numeral “1” on the back. Slated to face him at the throw-in, I must have looked almost exactly the same, except that my pants (now the object of his pointing mockery) were real nylon English-made riding breeches, and the color scheme of my jersey, stripe, and numeral was the reverse of his.
There was one other difference: Lane had been playing tournament-caliber polo for the last year and a half. I had only been on a horse a dozen times in my whole life.
In the background I could see the field, some nine full acres of closely manicured Bermuda grass. At the far end of the field, over 300 yards away, boys from a youth help agency were setting up the green-and-white conical goal posts. The goal at my end of the field was already in position, and a small red flag and a white plastic bucket of polo balls were on the grass a few yards back of the line. The sight was at once sobering and giddying. It reminded me that in this supposedly effete pastime people could (and did) get hurt, maimed, and even killed. But it also set off that strange polo electric whirlpool sensation—a sort of tingling in my now aching back, neck, and lower body—that enticed me onward despite my corresponding queasiness about the danger.
The occasion for this impending madness had been provided only days before. I had read in the Wall Street Journal that polo is booming. Not only that, it’s being democratized—or at least relatively. In the last year, the number of players registered with the United States Polo Association has risen to more than 1800; hardly a Mongol horde, to be sure, but nevertheless more than double the number of players listed five years ago. Colleges are taking up the sport again, and so, for the first time, are scores of ordinary people: a truck driver in Chicago, an alfalfa processor in Iowa, a restaurant owner in New York, as well as the more predictable doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and equestrian aristocrats. And this is just polo played in the traditional way, with thoroughbreds and English saddles. Another 3000 to 4000 people are playing “cowboy” or “sandlot” polo on Western saddles and using modified rules.
Texas, it turns out, has played a leading role in this strange renaissance: Texas has the best horses; the best horse breeders, breakers, and trainers; the most available space; and the most top, or “high goal,” polo players, including the three highest-ranked players in the country. Since the middle Sixties, polo centers have sprung up or rekindled in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Kingsville, Brownsville, Midland, Wichita Falls, and El Paso. Texas now occupies a whole season on the national circuit, with two of the country’s four most prestigious polo tournaments—the Silver Cup and the North American Cup—rotating between Houston and Dallas each fall. In addition, club matches are played across the state on Sunday and various weekday afternoons throughout the fall, spring, and summer.
Behind this surprising boom are some equally surprising economics: polo, especially for Texans who already own horses and a place to keep them, need not be prohibitively expensive. While players with six or more horses may spend over $10,000 in a year and some great polo scions squander in excess of $300,000 yearly, it is still possible for a one-horse player to start from scratch for less than $5000 the first year, approximately what it costs to own a good-sized boat or join a country club.
But I was not, to be honest, much concerned with these or other facts when I began my own polo inquiry. Instead, I was more interested in the social aspects. I had already witnessed the endearing spectacle of the crowds at the tournaments and the Sunday matches: matronly ladies who toddled over from the Bayou Club sipping their Bayou Breezes; would-be Beautiful People sitting on the hoods of their gold Cadillacs and silver Mercedes; the few ordinary folk sitting in the sun. It was invariably a compact scene, never more than a thousand strong. I remembered one rather fashionable lady coming up to me to help put things in perspective. “Polo is absolutely the last elegant spectator sport,” she had announced. “Tennis has just been ruined.” Nowhere was the simultaneous truth and folly of that remark more apparent than at halftime, when, in a custom unique to polo, those elite spectators would venture onto the field to help stomp down the turf kicked up by the horses.
Then there was the patron himself, W. S. Farish III. From what little I knew of him, he seemed to represent every element of snob appeal known to civilized man. His grandfather had been one of the founders of Humble Oil and a founder of Houston’s first polo club, a short-lived organization of the Thirties. His father had died a hero’s death in World War II. At 36, young Will now ruled an inherited family empire worth hundreds of millions. He also owned a mining company, a horse-breeding company, and a piece of Secretariat. The few times I had seen him, he looked like he had just walked out of Brooks Brothers—a lean, almost anxious man with sky-blue eyes and immaculately parted brown hair. Like the Bayou Club itself, he seemed at once extremely Eastern and extremely Texan—a third-generation oil heir playing polo through the energy crisis.
Having come to polo via this social scene, I was unprepared for what I learned of the game. Simply opening a history book had turned into quite an experience. Out poured tales of wild Asian horsemen; Oriental emperors impaled on ornate saddle horns; angry rulers decapitating their opponents; elaborate Indian polo fields illuminated at night by great balls of fire; Persian polo poetry of no less caliber than the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; polo love; polo death; and, most gruesome, an early variation of polo played with a human head—presumably a former enemy’s. Teams of bearded warriors would line up, maybe 40 or 50 horsemen to a side, form giant wedges, then charge full speed at each other from distances of over a quarter-mile. There were no rules. The idea was merely for the side with the head to get it through the opposing line any way they could.
The progenitors of this charming exercise, I discovered, were nomadic tribesmen of Central Asia, a proficiently bellicose folk whose glory years came several centuries before the birth of Christ. In addition to domesticating the horse and inventing a host of light cavalry techniques, they are the people generally credited with originating the game of polo. Those variations played without the use of a human head were, according to several sources, the first games in history to be played with a stick and a ball. By these accounts, I had hit upon the World’s Oldest Sport, a game in existence more than 2500 years.
But in the beginning polo was considered less as sport than as excellent practice for war. It was this aspect of the game which attracted the power-hungry caliphs and khans, who learned and spread the game through conquest, then glorified it as the sport of kings. Some historians postulate that the superior horsemanship acquired from polo was a decisive military factor for the unholy in the Crusades. Nevertheless, Europeans did not pick up the game until British army officers “discovered” it in India around 1860. (The name of the game derives not from the Italian explorer Marco Polo, but from a Tibetan word meaning “ball.”) By that time, polo had long since passed its peak as a national sport in most of the lands between Japan and Byzantium, and was kept alive only by common villagers in remote mountain hamlets. The English colonialists took it back to the homeland where its obvious value as a cavalry training exercise and as “wild fun” won the support of both the military and the Royal House. Soon, the originally Oriental art of polo began to acquire an image peculiarly British.
That image deserved some modification. It was in 1876, only five years after the first British game on home soil, that James Gordon Bennett, Jr., publisher of the New York Herald, brought polo to America. Here the game enjoyed over a half-century of ever-increasing popularity, as it spread from the center of Manhattan to Long Island and the suburbs, up the East Coast, then across the country like a common immigrant.
By 1890, the U.S. Polo Association had formed. In an effort to make the game both safe and fair enough for anyone other than a Central Asian tribesman to play, the Association adopted a set of rules that have remained essentially unchanged through the present. Human heads were officially and forever replaced by a willow-root ball about the size of a softball. Team size was set at four players (three indoors), and fields at 300 yards long and 160 yards wide. Goal posts were fixed at 9 feet high and 24 feet apart, the same dimensions as those used by the ancient Persians and the current Shah of Iran. The Association also incorporated and developed a sacred concept of right-of-way called the “line of the ball.” Put simply, it stipulated that no player could safely cross or enter that imaginary line along which the ball was traveling, nor could a player attempt to “bump” or “ride off” another player at an angle greater than 45 degrees. Fouls were charged for violations of these rules, and the team fouled was awarded penalties ranging from free hits to a full free goal depending on the severity of the infraction.
In addition, the Association established a handicapping committee to rate each player on a scale of 0 to 10 goals. This ranking system was never meant to reflect the average number of goals a player might be expected to score each game, but the sum of his overall ability at the various skills of horsemanship, hitting, game sense, and so forth. It would allow teams to be matched in open, limited, and handicap tournaments, and would thus enable even a mediocre player to compete against and alongside the best in the world.
By the Twenties, U.S. polo was enjoying its finest hours, as crowds of more than 25,000 gathered at places like Long Island’s fabled Meadow Brook to see the military bands, the fancy spectators in scarves and straw hats, and, of course, the absolutely fabulous tournament action. But if the East would remain the fount of American polo for some years, Texas played a crucial role from the very beginning: it provided the horses. James Gordon Bennett’s first carload of ponies (then $20 apiece!) were from Texas, and so were most of the better horses ridden by succeeding generations of polo players. As the Easterners continued to send West for their mounts, the Western horse handlers became rather proficient poloists themselves.
Foremost among this set was the legendary Cecil Smith of Boerne, 35 miles northwest of San Antonio. Establishing himself first as a sort of Babe Ruth of American polo, then as a “perfect gentleman,” Smith, a former horse trainer, finally led the polo crowd to social acceptance of the low-born professional polo player. One of the highlights of Smith’s career, and a kind of turning point in U.S. polo history, was the East-West grudge match of 1933. After being knocked out for 45 minutes, the wiry Texan got back on his horse to lead the underdog West team to a 2-1 victory in what amounted to America’s first World Series of polo. In the process, Smith outplayed East team captain Thomas B. Hitchcock—polo’s immortal “Tommy”—then rated 10 goals and considered the best player the country had ever produced. After the series, Smith was promoted to 10 goals, the game’s highest ranking; he held it until he retired to his Boerne ranch a quarter-century later. His remains the longest span of “perfect” polo playing in history.
Meanwhile, the West’s victory over the East turned out to be a harbinger of the Texas Sixties. World War II devastated the game in most parts of the country, but particularly in the East. Many top players were killed in action* and the great strings of ponies had to be sold. (*Among polo's greatest losses was the unsurpassable Hitchcock. At the age of 48, he joined the Allied effort as a pilot, and later convinced the Army to accept the controversial P-38 airplane. He went down in England testing one of them. The sports pages mourned a great sports hero who “refused to be a playboy.”) After the war, the urban pinch and the suburban sprawl subdivided the polo grounds. Not until the economy had reached its mid-Viet Nam peak did polo really begin to thrive again. With seeming inevitability, one of the places it boomed was the Southwest, with its land, animals, and new affluence.
Perhaps even more inevitable, much of polo’s revival was the result of good old-fashioned Texas promotion. Enter young Will Farish. In 1965, he founded the Houston Polo Club by picking up the lease on the dormant Bayou Club fields. At that time San Antonio, long a favorite winter training spot for the professionals, was the only significant polo center in the state. Then Farish organized four yearly polo events in the Astrodome from 1967 to 1970. Game attendance averaged 24,000, and over $100,000 was raised for Texas Children’s Hospital. Those Dome games, perhaps more than anything else, both proved and boosted the popularity of polo in Houston and across the state.
By 1973, Dallas had taken its place as a major polo center, thanks to the efforts of two self-made polo-playing patron/promoters—Steak and Ale restaurant chain owner Norman Brinker and financier Danny Robinowitz. Their family-style Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club features a restaurant and bar, swimming pool, tennis courts, a large Western saddle area, three polo fields, and grandstands to accommodate 1500. As Texas’ largest polo club with some 30 playing members, it is the home base for most of the state’s high-goal players, and is thus able to support two high-goal teams, Willow Bend and Lone Oak. Many poloists call it the finest polo facility in the country.
As these developments attracted the better professionals to Texas, the Texas polo patrons began to replace the old Long Island types as officers of the U.S. Polo Association. Soon Texas—or more precisely, Will Farish—won the bids on the highly prestigious 20-goal Silver Cup and 18-goal North American Cup tournaments, and well-mounted teams from Houston and Dallas proved themselves as polo players. (“In polo, money can buy victory,” Lane would emphasize. “There’s just no two ways about it.”) By 1975, Norman Brinker had become president of the U.S. Polo Association, and there was talk that he would be able to bring the U.S. Open from Chicago’s (some say, dying) Oak Brook to Willow Bend.
Farish, meanwhile, spoke confidently about the commercial possibilities of high-goal polo in the near future—“another tennis,” he calls it—but proceeded cautiously with expansion plans and advertising as his club grew from eight to over twenty members. This policy, he said, was to protect the privacy of prominent Houstonians, who sometimes come out to escape the pressures of their work. Facilities were also a factor. The club’s stables can only handle about twenty players, and the apron around the Sunday field can barely contain the crowds who show up for the little-advertised fall tournaments. Still, perhaps in anticipation of polo facilities being built at Bear Creek, Farish maintained that his club was indeed open to the public, and hired a professional, Chuck Wright, for the express purpose of teaching and encouraging new players.
Bill Lane, a city child who had ridden only at summer camp, is the first product of that training program. In both a more and less complete way, I am the second.
A conversation with Lane in his tack room as he dressed for a practice session before the North America Cup tournament simultaneously confirmed and contradicted all the usual images of polo and poloists. “Playing good polo is an ego trip,” he was saying. “It’s like conquering a great golf course that hardly anybody else is even allowed to play. Also, no matter where you go in the world, you know that there will be polo players there who will be interesting people and who probably will have heard of you.”
But then he went on to explain that most of the new Texas polo players were really land-rich, ranch-poor—self-made men with country/western pretensions. He compared them to well-groomed cowboys. “You’ll probably see them wearing jeans and a western shirt and maybe a pair of Lucchese boots and a striped polo belt with a big Mexican buckle. That’s the kind of guy who plays polo nowadays, not the Eastern rich kid who was born in a Ferrari.”
Of course, Lane himself did not fit neatly into either category. At 23, he has never really worked a day in his life. As a child he had watched his father, Bill, Sr., rise to be chief executive of Riviana Foods, one of the largest corporations in Texas, then become campaign manager for Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s presidential effort. Young Bill now spent his mornings wading disinterestedly through his remaining undergraduate hours at the University of Houston. The rest of the time he could usually be found astride one variety of mare or another. Before he took up polo he had driven racecars in England. He often joked that he would be dead before he ever married, and no one ventured a serious doubt.
For Lane and the rest of the polo world, their game—like golf at the turn of the century and tennis until the recent boom—is a way of life. “The whole scene is still a real Peyton Place,” Lane said.
What was it that led me to doubt his word?
“O.K.,” he said, taking up the challenge. “Let’s have a party. At your house.”
Lane must have invited the whole North American Cup tournament: patrons, professionals, amateurs, drivers, trainers, grooms, wives, watchers, and groupies (Lane called them “stable snakes”)—the gamut of polo’s neo-feudal order. In the spin of things, I would later meet a few cosmopolitan couples like Allan and Maggie Scherer from California; and I would see cagey old Willie B. Wilson from Midland, at 63 one of the elder tournament competitors, wearing a powder-blue leisure suit. But most of the players were Texans or Oklahomans who came dressed pretty much as Lane had described, and who were thus virtually indistinguishable from their hired help as they talked, drank, smoked, laughed, and hustled on the couches and around the liquor cabinet.
I found Chuck Wright, my patient, prematurely gray polo instructor, off to one side of the living room with his wife Gay nearby. Chuck had broken his hand trying to block a shot on goal during a pre-tournament practice game and was now confined to an elbow-high cast for the duration. If that injury had made me seriously reconsider the prudence of my own upcoming polo debut, it had left Chuck, a 39-year-old boy, fitful and frustrated. Polo dominated his life in a different and more complicated way than was the case with either Lane or Will Farish. Raised on a farm outside of Wichita, Kansas, Chuck had bypassed college, to try his luck as a pro. Since there is no prize money in polo, he had to find a series of wealthy patrons—usually horse breeders—to support him. He would perform a host of duties in exchange. “To be a professional polo player, you have to be a horseman, a teacher, an organizer, a diplomat, a mechanic, a lawyer, and a shit shoveller,” he had told me in one of his more hassled moments. “It’s very glamorous.” He had now acquired a Mercedes, a pickup, eleven horses, and was making the equivalent of maybe $20,000 a year.
“You know, I don’t think about this all that much,” he was saying. “But when I go back and see what some of the people I knew in high school and the Army are doing, it makes me glad that at least I didn’t end up doing something typical and boring.”
Just then, I heard a commotion at the front door and saw some more people I didn’t know. They looked like they might be from someplace like Los Angeles. In a moment, a short, pinkish-pale man with extravagantly white hair came into the living room. It was Andy Warhol. He was wearing what I learned was his usual attire: jeans, a dull-colored blazer, a Brooks Brothers shirt, and battered black Oxfords. Bill Lane strode over and stuck out his hand.
“Bill Lane,” he bellowed.
“Andy Warhol,” came the low, even reply. A slow handshake. Bob Colacello, the editor of Warhol’s Interview magazine was there, and some thin, whitish men, and, with Andy, a tightly dressed woman with a British accent who was introduced only as Lady Ann. I could barely hear Andy say he was in town promoting his new book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol; he would be flying back to New York in the next day or so to complete a movie called Bad about a family in the Bronx. But now he was interested in talking to some polo players.
Despite the quantity in attendance, providing one for him turned out to be no easy task. I found Chuck Wright again, but he looked at me suspiciously out of the top of his eyes and said, “I don’t know if I want to meet him or not.” The attitude of the polo crowd didn’t seem to be aristocratic snobbery but much more middle class—like xenophobia, disdain (“He’s a faggot, you know”), or simply ignorance. (“When you play polo, you don’t have time for a lot of other interests,” Lane would later apologize.) On the other hand, one had to admit that Warhol’s entourage was itself a bit imposing.
Nevertheless, I finally managed, to produce Red Armour, the stocky, 27- year-old, tobacco-chewing star of the Houston team, widely considered to be the most promising player in America, probably our next 10-goaler. Once through Andy’s coterie, Red proved to be good at explaining the basics of the national polo circuit. He also recounted his recent trip to play against the Argentines.
“They have the only active 10-goal players,” he said. “They’re the best in the world right now. By far. We might be next, then England, and maybe Australia or New Zealand. But of all places I’ve played, I’d have to say Cowdray Park outside of London is my favorite setting. They have nine polo fields and it’s just beautiful countryside.”
“Yes,” Andy said. “Beautiful.”
Lady Ann interjected that she had played polo back in England, too. She tugged Andy’s arm. “The horses were always so beautiful.” Although the ancient chronicles mentioned women players, Lane would later cast grave doubt on Lady Ann’s claim. “It’s almost impossible for a chick to play in this country,” he would observe. “They’re even more macho about it over there.” Andy and Red apparently let it all go by.
“Oh, yes, that’s nice,” Andy said. “The horses really are beautiful. I think they’re the most beautiful part.” Red nodded agreement, and the two of them launched off into more polo talk.
Later I asked Andy for his advice on approaching polo. He looked at me for a moment, half-nodding, half-smiling, his teeth yellowed, gobs of Clearasil smeared across his 48-year-old face, and he said, “Oh, polo is just so beautiful. I think you should just make big beautiful pictures.” Then he left for New York.
Andy did have a point. Polo is beautiful, not just as social spectacle, but as pure sport. After all, what scene in sports can quite equal the sight of someone like Red Armour charging down the field, a red bandana waving from his hip pocket, his horse glistening and straining, the turf flying as he picks up the ball in front of his own goal, weaves through the pack, and scores—a virtual Bobby Orr on horseback; Pelé, Willie Shoemaker, and Secretariat all rolled into one. I remembered what Fortunato Gomez, one of the Argentines, had said about the beauty of polo. “You forget,” he said succinctly. “When you are out on the field, you can be thinking about money, politics, anything, but it all goes away. You think only polo. It is like going into another world. Completely.” I thought of other games like golf, where the athlete must train himself, force himself, to concentrate, and compared them to the mind-clearing totality of polo. If scene and setting are partly the cause of this mystic transformation, the greater cause is the sheer speed and complexity of the sport itself. And most of this, in turn, derives directly from the presence of the horse.
Conventional polo wisdom has it that the horse, like the pitcher in baseball, is at least 75 per cent of the game: “If you can’t get to the ball, you can’t hit it.” The horse is the player’s legs, the source of his hitting power, and the reason why, unlike other fast sports, polo can be played well into middle age. Most of the better players ride thoroughbreds—horses, not ponies, really. The term “polo pony” is a holdover from the days when mounts were limited to 14½ hands (one hand equals four inches) in height; today there is no limit. Nevertheless, players seek horses between 14½ and 16; any larger, they lose maneuverability; any smaller, they would be unable to keep up. Thoroughbreds are preferable because of their long legs (speed); their short backs (handling); and their flat, streamlined muscles (fast cooling). Some mounts are also part quarter horse, but the full quarter horse is generally considered too short and too round-muscled for polo.
But to my enduring fascination, I discovered that polo’s more perplexing equestrian problems are mental, not physical. Each horse is an individual, a distinct personality. Some pick up the game easily, others never seem to learn. Some favor cutting to the left, others favor the right. And, as if it weren’t already hard enough to hit a three-inch ball bouncing on the ground seven feet away while moving at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour, the horse just might decide to shy away from the ball. Or step over it. Or jerk at the last second. “To be a good polo player, you have to be a horseman, not just a rider,” Chuck Wright had told me time and again. “The difference is the ability to take that horse and make him do what you want him to do.”
Under game conditions, the problems of horsemanship become terribly complex. In each period, there are sixteen equine personalities on the field—eight horses, eight riders. In a full game, each player must deal with the moves and reactions of more than forty-eight different horses, as well as with his own play and the play of his teammates and opponents. Any of over a dozen different acrobatic shots may be required at any second. And, if it’s high-goal polo, it’s all happening too fast even to think about. “You have to develop a photographer’s sense of anticipation,” Red Armour had told me once. “There’s just no other way to stay on top of the play.”
Nonetheless, the idea is for each player to stay paired off with an opponent so that all the positions down the line of the ball are covered. I would be playing Number One, no great honor since it is considered the easiest. Number Three, the “quarterback,” is usually the team’s strongest player. He and the Number Two fight in the thick of the action up and down the field. Number Four defends the goal. Meanwhile, the Number One tries to stay ahead of the pack in position to score. If a player is unable to get to the ball, his responsibility is to make sure that his opponent can’t either—by “bumping” him and “riding him off.” That is, slamming horse against horse. The animals don’t like this and I could understand why. Chuck had rammed me a few times in practice. It felt like some huge machine had simultaneously socked my jaw and crushed my leg.
Having acquired such insights, I had for the first time been able to see—not just watch—polo at the North American Cup. I knew something of the skill in Red Armour’s charges, and I could appreciate America’s only 8-goal players—Willow Bend’s Tommy Wayman, and the great Barry cousins from North Texas, Roy and Joe—their horsemanship and the way they could anticipate the play, as well as the length of their tremendous downfield hits.
Then disaster struck. It happened in the finals. Big Joe Barry had just put Tulsa ahead 5-4, when Captain Will Farish and a seventeen-year-old Mexican “ringer,” Chongo Gallendo, of the Houston team collided at full speed. Farish, who had been knocked unconscious, got up to finish the game, but young Chongo was carted away in an ambulance and was still out a week after the tournament. The doctors said there would be no permanent damage, but his recovery would be extremely slow.
Whatever else it did, that accident changed my opinion of Farish and of polo. It was more than a gentleman’s game for Humble oil heirs and Farish himself was more than a mere booster. Still, the accident was an ugly, haunting thing. I had been told that such collisions were “unusual,” that, while an emperor or two had been killed at the game (one as recently as 1970), truly bad spills occurred less than three times a year in high-goal polo and even less frequently in slower club games. However, since my own training period began, three of four Houston team members had suffered some sort of serious injury. So far, I had been lucky. I had not fallen off in practice. Not once. But I knew my luck could never hold.
Those thoughts returned me to the gravel road at the Houston Polo Club, with that polo electric whirlpool sensation now a tight knot throbbing in the pit of my stomach. I saw Lane already mounted and heading toward the field. Chuck Wright, wearing a prison-stripe referee’s shirt, came over and began to deliver a host of last-minute instructions and observations, none of them particularly reassuring.
“This is going to be a little more difficult than Plimpton’s football stunt,” he said. “They could rehearse the plays and know how everything was going to come out. In polo you can’t do that. It’s always changing out there. That’s one of the things that keeps it so interesting.” Another factor was time. When George Plimpton played for the Detroit Lions, he quarterbacked five plays, less than two minutes of action. I was scheduled to play a whole chukker—one of the six 7½-minute periods that comprise a full game. I had learned that the word chukker came from some old Indian syllables meaning “one full turn of the wheel.” I had sworn that if I survived the first, I would never venture another spin.
Although this would be only an intra-club game, the lineups would include a fair assortment of polo backgrounds and abilities. For the Green, there would be Red Armour, the 7-goal star, and Bill Lane, the improving speed demon. Bob Frost and Bill Guest, both club members rated 0 goals, completed the side. My team, Yellow, appeared the underdog. On the one hand, we had Captain Will Farish, a proven champion rated 5 goals, and Hector Garcia, an Argentine polo valet rated 3 goals. But then there was Dr. Barnhart. In his profession, Dr. Joe ranks among the very best, one of the nation’s renowned orthopedic surgeons. But on the polo field, at the age of 55, he could sometimes be a nearsighted terror, a real Dr. Magoo. There would be only one player worse. Me.
And then there was Freckles, my allegedly gentle training horse. Old Freckles was a sagging strawberry roan, about fourteen hands high, with a jutting left hip and an endearing white nose. Although the playing span of a polo horse begins at age five and can last for fifteen years, Freckles at eighteen clearly had no desire to become the George Blanda of his game. As a young pony he might well have been compared to a fine sports car, since he was then capable of smooth, sharp, quick, and hard responses at a mere touch of the bit or shift of the weight. However, I had found him to be now more like my even faster deteriorating ’68 Ford: hard to start, harder to stop, stiff on the turns, unwilling to run much at all. Perhaps because of his poor hip, he often seemed to stumble needlessly, like a stubborn former athlete who refuses to admit his coordination has slipped.
Even as Chuck went through a few more last-minute details, I saw Nancy Mcgoon striding toward us with Freckles in tow. Thank God she had him tacked up. That business remained an everlasting perplexity, a mountain of so much leather spaghetti. I knew what the different pieces were—the breastplate to keep the saddle from slipping; the martingale to keep the head down; the draw reins and the straight reins that allowed different ranges of bit pressures—it was just that I never could seem to put them all on correctly. There was something about how the horse should not be smiling if everything was right, but I could never tell if Freckles was smiling or just gritting his teeth. And I think he knew that.
Nancy Mcgoon, in her usual faded jeans and Linda Lovelace for President T-shirt, often seemed to present the same problem. “You have to stand up for your rights around here,” she had told me, speaking of herself. “Some of these polo players actually think they’re better than you are.” I suffered under no such illusions. Not only could she ride better than most of the club members, she was also one of the few women in modern times—Andy Warhol’s Lady Ann notwithstanding—allowed to play in a polo game. My upcoming stunt hardly impressed her. But my new white breeches did.
“Hey,” she cut in. “Did you buy those pants just for today?”
“No, the magazine did.”
“We just went through all that,” Chuck said, at last finished with his instructions. “Fifty-five dollars.”
Nancy frowned. “Well, maybe you can sell them to somebody after it’s over.” She paused. “Then again, they might be too covered with blood.”
Before I could reply, she shoved the reins and a polo mallet into my hands and sauntered off. Chuck suggested I better get going. I bunched everything in my left hand, and swung up into the saddle. Freckles stepped and started. I grabbed back on the reins. Chuck and some other people were saying things to me, but I couldn’t really hear them. My face mask made it hard to see. I suddenly felt warm and giddy.
I gave Freckles a nudge toward the polo field. Nancy made some indistinguishable gesture. By now, most of the other players were already out there, bouncing green and yellow shapes on the dark colors of their horses. From a distance it looked almost like slow motion, like men on fat round exercise bicycles, springing and flexing. There were some cars parked along the sidelines: a Mercedes, a Chevy, some pickups. Two six-foot-tall “stable snakes” sitting on the hood of one of the trucks waved as I fumbled with my mallet and tried to sort the reins. I also saw George Boddy’s blue polka-dotted cap and a woman in a white dress. George, the black groom, the only registered American polo player of his race...
Then Freckles gave a kick and a twist. The mallet flopped against his right front, and I felt myself slide. We were on the field. Quickly, I reined in. The saddle pounded my rear into the small of my back, whap-whap-whomp, again and again. Finally, I managed to jolt to a stop and bring my mallet back to perpendicular, but Freckles kept straining at the bit, and I kept getting warmer and warmer. Everything felt heavy. I decided I’d better canter him up and down the field a few times. Somehow, I made Freckles get up, circle, change leads, stop, start, turn, and cut. Not too bad, so far. I urged him toward the goal near the stables and began to take practice shots, or “stick-and-ball him,” as the poloists would say.
Thanks to my having played a lot of golf, this part—the hitting—hadn’t felt so unfamiliar. Since rules require that the mallet be carried in the right hand, the offside (right side) forward shot is considered the easiest and the most powerful. You line the horse up, bouncing, bouncing, draw the mallet back like a bowstring, turn and rise up to form a brace with the knees, lean over, and whip it on through. The shaft flexes, and the head, set at a slight angle to facilitate the shot, reverberates a solid click. Some players can fly the ball over 125 yards with this motion. I could hit it maybe 20 yards—with roll. But, cool as I felt, I was loath to attempt the even more complex acrobatics demanded by the neck shot, the tail shot, the back shot, and the nearside (left side) strokes.
By this time, most of the other players were gathering at midfield. They looked like overgrown jockeys, or, as Red Armour spat out a wad of tobacco, old-timey baseball players. Cantering toward them, I suddenly became conscious of an appreciable breathing and snorting. Freckles shied and pounded. I struggled with the reins and let my mallet drop again. I felt my feet lose the stirrups. It seemed strange to be with so many people so high up.
Will Farish rode over to greet me. “Light Horse Harry,” he called and stuck out his hand. “Glad you could make it.”
Lane brought Peggy Tipton face to face with Freckles and broke into one of his insidious giggles. “Let’s git it own!”
Chuck Wright came up on his referee’s horse. A photographer stood on the grass a few paces away. I heard the snorting get louder and louder as the other players joined the lineup. Freckles kept shifting and stepping. He didn’t like this part. Fortunately, there would be no national anthem, no announcer.
“OK, we’re gonna go through the throw-in two or three times for the photographer,” Chuck said. He put the whistle in his mouth and drew a ball from one of his saddlebags.
Farish nudged his horse against mine. “Harry, see if you can get the balls of your feet up on the stirrups instead of your heels. I think it’ll look better in the pictures.”
I tried to obey, knowing my feet would slip the moment the ball was thrown. Chuck cocked his arm.
The ball bounced underneath Freckles’ neck and into a forest of legs. I felt my right arm drop. Freckles flexed and sprang forward against my confused left hand. I lurched up, then pounded back against the saddle. As I came up a second time, I saw his eye glowering wildly... whammm! I pounded down again... unbelievable! Freckles tried to break for the barn. I jerked the reins, once, twice, harder. I got a better knee grip and leaned back. At last Freckles began to slow down. He cut stiffly to the right and cantered back toward midfield.
I shook all over. Freckles had scared the life out of me. First, with the energy of his charge out of the lineup and his unexpected burst of speed. But, even more with that look! It was so human, so familiar, a glare full of anger, frustration, and wild-eyed befuddlement, the very look of our times, the ultimate unspoken social comment reflected in the glossy eye of a polo pony as he strains against the inexperienced hand of his inherited master. I remembered Graham Greene had written of revelation occurring in that tumbling instant “between the stirrup and the ground.” Hemingway had found it in the simplicity of violent death in the bullring. I now felt that without falling off a horse or killing a bull, I had experienced something nearly as basic. Immediately, I understood the allure of polo. I also felt that I had seen enough. I wanted to quit.
Unfortunately, we had to repeat the process several more times for the pictures. None of the subsequent demonstrations proved so revelatory. Freckles kept springing for the barn, and I kept pounding against the saddle.
Chuck tossed the ball through the forest of legs again. This one was “for real,” a whole chukker. I kicked Freckles out of the lineup. He charged a little more smoothly now, but the sides of my stomach were racing too fast for me to notice much. He kept twisting his head, and I kept hoisting my mallet up and down as if it were some sort of perpendicular balancing bar. I tried to turn him toward the middle of the field. He ducked sharply to the right and lowered his head. It felt like the whole world had just dropped out from under me. Somehow, I kept squeezing. I was no longer warm, but shivering cold, as if I had just emerged from a swimming pool. The blur of the play was somewhere near the goal my team was supposed to be defending.
“Come on, make Freckles go,” I heard Chuck shouting. “Find Bill Guest, find their Number Four.”
I finally spotted him about 40 yards down the field, skirting the edge of the play, not really minding me. Just then Hector Garcia lifted a long, high shot right at me. I reined hard and pulled Freckles to the right. It was my smoothest maneuver yet. I kicked him out of the turn. All of a sudden, there was an incredible thundering over my shoulder. Freckles really sprinted, suddenly no ’68 Ford. He bowed his back and reached for his stride. I saw the sweat glistening, foaming over his withers and felt a tremendous snorting and straining all around me. Players sped past on both sides. It was like a stampede. Instinctively, I reined tighter. Freckles, just as instinctively, fought and shook and twisted his head, trying to chase the play. But in another moment, it was thankfully far out of reach. I could not believe how fast the play had screamed by. I watched helplessly as Lane backed the ball to Red Armour, who took it through the pack and scored. Only seconds had elapsed, and my team was already down 1-0.
Things kept up like that after the next throw-in. I tried to get myself into the action, but either I wouldn’t kick hard enough or Freckles wouldn’t deign to oblige my commands. Besides, the play kept changing and crossing the field much faster than I could even guess at it. (Later, all the players would comment on what a slow game it had been.) Soon I felt hot again and found it hard to breathe. The other players kept bumping and whacking and jousting like swordsmen in the blazing sun. The grass seemed to alternate back and forth between lush green and dust-gold. I wondered what we would look like from the Goodyear blimp—a whirling, frenzied skirmish up and down the field and around the goal; my own horse bucking and straining like a tail on a falling kite. It was too weird. I had to think about holding on. Chuck kept shouting more instructions. Then I heard the clang of the bell.
The chukker was over. I had not once hit a ball. But at least I had survived.
“That was terrible,” the photographer informed me as I came off the field. “You were always too far away. You’re gonna play another one aren’t you?”
There appeared to be little choice.
The action of the next chukker began as if it would be essentially the same as the first. I would chase the play in jerky, pounding circles, crashing against Freckles’ neck, flailing wildly at the ball. The pack would rush around me and past me and send Freckles into fits of head shaking. But once, when the action reached a momentary lull, I did manage to nick the ball. It ricocheted off Freckles’ legs. Then Lane scooped it up and scored.
The chukker had nearly ended when there was another throw-in at midfield.
“We’ve got to get the ball up to you so you can see what it’s like to break away and score,” said Will Farish, pulling up next to me. “Just race out ahead of the pack, and I’ll see that you get a pass.”
Chuck Wright bowled the ball softly this time, and I saw it stop just below me to the right. I chopped it into the forest of legs. Freckles bolted. I couldn’t rein him in. As he took off, I caught a glimpse of Red Armour, the star of the other team, backing the ball along my line. I reached over and swung. Contact! A pretty good hit, too, fifteen yards out in front. I was stunned. Freckles pounded on. The ball got closer and I heard the snorts of the other horses.
I swung again. And hit. Twice in a row. Freckles was picking up speed. Then I heard the clang of the bell.
The chukker had officially ended.
“Keep goin’, Harry, go,” Will urged. “Let’s see you take it all the way.”
The snorting of the other horses seemed to fade, but Freckles lurched on after the ball. We were really bounding now. Too close. Too fast. I couldn’t lean... missed. Then I saw the ball popping out in front again. Someone behind me... The ball was bouncing right in front of the goal now, rolling, slowing down. I moved Freckles over, crouching. A straight-in shot on the offside, the easiest one. I drew back, leaned, and whipped the mallet through hard. The shaft came crashing into my face mask, but I still saw the horrible sight of the ball as it skidded over the end line outside the post. No goal.
The game continued without me for four more chukkers. Final score: 8 for Green, 5 for Yellow, a crushing defeat for my team.
“Well, at least you didn’t break your legs,” Nancy the groom said as I trotted Freckles off the field. “Now you can sell your pants.”
As I dismounted, I saw Lane had already begun to devote his attention to a female in a yellow Corvette, while some of the others were starting to gather for the traditional after-polo group portrait. I pulled off my helmet and shook out my head. I felt as if I had been through an insane asylum at 30 miles per hour. Even so, that polo electric whirlpool sensation now ran in a steady, almost pleasant current throughout my body, and for one acheless moment—an instant charged with all the power in Freckles’ amazed glare—I cradled my helmet, hoisted my mallet, and thought but did not scream: