When your only exposure to polo is the Ralph Lauren logo, trying the real thing for the first time is anything but simple horseplay.
There are times when you realize you’ve made a questionable choice but it’s too late to change course. This is the sort of epiphany that occurs to a man as he sits uneasily astride an animal that could easily kill him with a single kick and never suffer a guilty conscience.
I am in Buenos Aires, where friends had advised me to try tango. Argentina is, after all, famous for it. But I have danced before, and the danger of making a fool of myself in a milonga puts me off. Polo, on the other hand, sounds like a lark. For about $200 a day, you can learn to play the game or develop your skills at various estancias, or ranches. It is only after I’ve committed myself that the idea begins to seem quixotic.
“Wow,” my dinner companion says. “That’s brave.”
Being told I’m brave makes me nervous. There is still time to cancel, but being told I’m brave also makes me feel committed. This is especially true if the person who says it has long, dark hair, sultry eyes, and a mildly admiring expression.
“Do you ride?” she asks.
As a boy, I had the conventional ambitions of becoming a cowboy. It didn’t help that I lived in a city. But I had good instincts. For example, I knew that to get a horse to go, you must give it a kick. And to get it to stop, you give it another kick. Unfortunately, the first horse I rode didn’t know that, and I wound up leaping off mid-gallop into a mound of fragrant mud.
“I’ve ridden,” I say, leaving out the details.
Perhaps, it occurs to me, I should have gone for the tango.
In the morning, I’m greeted at my hotel by Juan Martin Sarli, a 27-year-old player, and we drive 90 minutes to La Tarde Polo Club, a 180-hectare estancia he took over from his parents.
Polo players, it happens, customarily wear whites on the bottoms and colors on top. My blue jeans mark me as a rube. Add to that the fact that I’m given boots that are too large, so I end up wearing North Face hiking shoes along with pads Juan has that remind me of what the goalies wore when we played street hockey, only thinner. I finish off the outfit with a helmet, which I jam on down to my eyebrows and keep in place with a chin strap.
I catch my reflection in a glass panel. Look, Ma, it’s the Man de la Mancha!
“This is a good horse for you,” Juan says.
It’s not a good horse for me. A good horse for me is in a food court at the Mall of America and jiggles for 43 seconds when you put in two quarters. This horse, however, is the one on offer.
“Climb on,” he says.
“Come, Rocinante,” I say. Her real name is Calipers, but if I’m Don Quixote, she’ll have to take the name of his horse. “Let’s make a deal. I won’t hurt you, and you won’t hurt me.”
The Game of Kings is not a mass-market sport, but it is played around the world, and in Argentina it’s as big as it gets. There are 37,000 registered members of polo clubs here, and every year aficionados -- sultans and sheikhs, movie stars and moguls -- pour in by the jetload to train, play, and watch. The high-goal professional season locates here between October and December, capped by the Argentine Polo Open Championship, the sport’s premier event, in Buenos Aires.
Argentine players dominate the world’s top ranks. Twelve players have a perfect 10-handicap rating from the Argentine Polo Association, which is more than the rest of the nations combined. They include Adolfo Cambiaso, whose fame extends beyond the sport and has boosted the sport’s fame. His retail stores, La Dolfina, cater to an affluent set, with polo equipage and clothing that includes leather jackets and accessories. It’s a long polo tradition that wealthy people hire pros, like the Medicis used to hire artists. Having or being a patron, each in its own way, is proof of having arrived, and Argentine players are hotly pursued.
A lot of the sport’s money is in the horses, and what put Argentine polo in the saddle is its custom-bred polo ponies, a cross of native Criollo and imported Thoroughbred, with a dash of Arabian and a pinch of Quarter Mile. A strong four- or five-year-old horse can go for as much as $200,000.
The estancias, where horses are bred, sometimes host clubs or visitors, who come for stays that last from a day to a couple of weeks. Some estancias have luxury suites, chefs, and a variety of activities. The La Tarde Polo Club has 12 simple cabinas, a clubhouse, and a clientele focused on polo.
The players during my visit are weekend duffers from Buenos Aires. They’re mostly in their 20s and 30s and include a medical student, some guys who work in financial services, and one whose main occupation is playing polo on weekends. “This is my psychotherapy,” he says.
The grandpa is a 53-year-old named Craig. As a cameraman for CNN, he covered the war in Nicaragua with Christiane Amanpour, then quit to become a rock star, which saw him through the 1980s. For the past three years he has been coming to Argentina to chase his passion for polo.
“It gets you into shape,” he tells me. “It has taken 10 years off of my life.”
He means that he feels 10 years younger, but I can see the truth of what he actually says pretty quickly.
Juan’s teaching approach seems to be that you get it or you don’t. He sends me into the field to get to know the horse, who walks and then canters.
“It’s smoother if you gallop,” Juan says when he checks in with me later.
That’s no doubt true. The problem is, it’s also faster, and at this moment in my life, I’m not ready for that level of commitment.
I bounce along for 20 minutes.
“How do you feel?” another player asks.
“Glad I’ve already had children.”
“It only hurts the first year.”
Some time later, I graduate to a mallet. It’s for hitting the ball, but it also helps with balance, like poles in downhill skiing. You hold the reins in your left hand and the mallet in your right. The swing itself is similar to golf ’s, requiring a shoulder turn and full extension at the point of contact.
After a little while, I feel as if I am getting the hang of it, striking the ball as the horse canters, turning the horse on a pivot when I overrun the target.
“You look good,” Juan says. “You are improving quickly.”
“I’m thinking of myself as a warrior charging into battle,” I tell him. “It seems to help,” I add, in case my first remark sounded too confident.
Part one ends with a convivial steak lunch in the clubhouse.
Part two begins with a real game, which is, they explain, divided into time periods called chukkers.
The difference between playing with seven others -- four on a side -- and by yourself is akin to shooting free throws in your driveway versus going full court. And when the action gets close, I am neither an officer nor a gentleman, commanded by fear as expletives directed at the general circumstances pour involuntarily from my mouth. I swing at the ball three times and hit it once. Rocinante wants to go for it -- her training is taking over -- and she starts to gallop. My foot comes out of the stirrup and I am slipping off to one side, experiencing a spasm of pessimism about my immediate prospects and another spasm in my lower back.
I pull the reins. I plead. I call out to God. I am saved.
I give thanks and straighten myself out. I’m sure I’ve made a spectacle of myself. But no one seems to notice. They’re already chasing the ball 100 yards in the other direction, and good riddance too.
I’ve just come to a truce with Rocinante and remind her of our mutual nonaggression pact when I hear the hooves beating earth back down the field, moving clouds of dust back toward us.
My courage rallies. I see the ball within reach. I swing, and my mallet connects on the sweet spot.
“Oh!” I say. “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”
She eyeballs me without blinking. Only the dead and the highly irate don’t blink, and from her snorts I gather that Rocinante isn’t dead. She seems to be okay. I’m not. My lower back feels as if someone shot me with a dart. My inner thighs burn. Mostly, though, I am weary.
I notice the others have stopped playing. At last it’s over.
“Oh, great time!” I say. “Is it time for tea already?”
“No, no. That was only the first chukker.”
“Oh. How many are there?”
I stretch out and try to wedge my joints back into place.
“Do you do yoga?” Juan asks.
I try not to take it personally.
I have dinner plans with Staci, the one who thought I was brave, at a restaurant in Palermo Soho, one of the city’s trendy neighborhoods. I enter the dimly lit establishment and trip over an ottoman.
“So, did you manage to hit the ball?” she asks.
“Sure,” I say. “Once. The same number of times I hit the horse.”
It turns out that Staci’s been riding since she was six years old. She owns a Ducati motorcycle and attended a racing school where they take the mirrors off the handlebars. She straps on crampons and goes for long hikes on glaciers. She is brave.
“Polo’s a hard sport,” she says.
“Do you happen to know how many Extra Strength Tylenol you can take in a day?”
She fixes me with a look that’s so full of sympathy I almost feel sorry for myself. “If you’re sore now,” she says, “it’s not good. It’s not even tomorrow yet.”