Philly’s urban park polo a rarity for the sport

The Philadelphia Polo Classic will be a rare event for the sport of polo. Matches are almost never held in places like Edgely Field in East Fairmount Park.

Work to Ride program alumnus Esteban Penados practices his swing at Chamounix Stables, in West Fairmount Park, home of the Work to Ride program. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Work to Ride program alumnus Esteban Penados practices his swing at Chamounix Stables, in West Fairmount Park, home of the Work to Ride program. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For the first time ever, horses will run in Philadelphia playing polo, on Edgely Field in East Fairmount Park, just a stone’s throw from the rowhomes of the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.

It’s not just unusual for Philadelphia. In the world of polo, the game is rarely played in an urban park anywhere.

The inaugural Philadelphia Polo Classic will take place on Saturday, attracting 3,000 spectators to what organizers hope will be an annual tradition.

The event is a fundraiser for Work to Ride, a youth development program based at the Chamounix Stables in West Fairmount Park that uses horses and equine sports to aid disadvantaged youth.

Tents go up on Edgely Field in Fairmount Park near Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, in preparation for the Philadelphia Polo Classic. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
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Esteban Penados has grown up in the Work To Ride since he was 10 years old. Now 19, he says he always had to travel to polo facilities in neighboring states like Maryland, Virginia, and New York.

“To think that we’re going to be playing a match in Philadelphia, that’s crazy to think about,” he said. “There’s going to be polo in Philly! It’s very exciting.”

Work to Ride program alumnus Esteban Penados, pictured with Teresita, will play in the Philadelphia Polo Classic at Fairmount Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Classic will feature two polo matches with some players from Work to Ride and additional players from out of town. There will be a parade of horse-drawn carriages, a traditional divot stomp where spectators take the field to reset holes created by horse hooves in the turf, and an opportunity for people to show off their late-summer style.

“It’s going to be a big-hat event,” said Kareem Rosser, one of the organizers of the event and a star polo player himself. He and international polo star Nacho Figueras will be team captains.

Kareem Rosser and Nacho Figueras on their ponies
West Philadelphia’s Kareem Rosser (right) and Ignacio ”Nacho” Figueras of Argentina will captain the teams in the first Philadelphia Polo Classic, to be held in September at Fairmount Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Rosser came up through the Work To Ride program and became its biggest success story, overcoming a troubled upbringing in West Philadelphia through his love of polo, to become a champion player.

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He was the captain of the first all-Black team to win the National Interscholastic polo championship, and told his story in the 2021 memoir “Crossing the Line.”

Now Rosser, a financial analyst by profession, is a board member and treasurer for Work To Ride. He spearheaded the idea to bring a polo match to Philly.

“The match is going to consist of 16 Work to Ride alumni and current kids,” he said. “This will be probably the only place in the country where you see this many people of color on the polo field.”

Kareem Rosser of West Philadelphia rides Louisa at Chamounix Stables He will captain one of the two teams in the first Philadelphia Polo Classic to be held in September at Fairmount Park
Kareem Rosser of West Philadelphia rides Louisa at Chamounix Stables He will captain one of the two teams in the first Philadelphia Polo Classic to be held in September at Fairmount Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A few days before the Classic begins it is sold out, from the $25 general admission to the VIP passes for $500. Disappointed people calling for tickets are being turned away. Rosser said at least one person broke down in tears.

“They’re having a major FOMO [fear of missing out] because they didn’t get their tickets soon enough,” he said. “I imagine this event at some point becoming a multi-day event. I think people are really going to love what we’re going to do on Saturday.”

Those attendees will have a chance to see one of the main characters in “Crossing the Line”: Cholo, a dark bay thoroughbred that Rosser trained to play polo. Rosser credits Cholo for giving him responsibility and structure as a teenager.

Now nearly 20-years-old Cholo no longer plays polo, but rather likely give short rides to kids.

“He’s not in the racecar business anymore,” said Work to Ride founder Lezlie Hiner. “He’s just chilling, loping around.”

Work to Ride founder Lezlie Hiner nuzzles Cholo, the horse featured prominently in Kareem Rosser’s book about his experience with the polo training program, ”Crossing the Line: A Fearless Team of Brothers and the Sport that Changed their Lives Forever.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

There are 36 horses cared for in the Chamounix Stables, of which six will play polo this weekend. Hiner showed off one of her favorites, a 16-year-old former thoroughbred racehorse named Edwin.

The horse goes by many names: Easy Eddie. Eddie Spaghetti.

Lezlie Hiner. founder and executive director of Work to Ride at Chamounix Stables, checks on Edwin, a polo pony she affectionately calls Eddie Spaghetti. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Ed is primarily a polo pony, but also is quite good at jumpers,” said Hiner while petting Edwin’s nose. “He’s done quite a few of these shows. He’s also fox hunted. He’s one of those multi-discipline guys that we use for more than one activity.”

Hiner shows off another horse who will play this weekend, Cumbia, named after the traditional Colombian dance music.

“That’s what she does. Her feet are always moving,” she said. “She was aptly named.”

More horses are coming in from outside the city, some from as far as Colorado, to fill out the roster of 22 animals.

The polo match is a fundraising event for Work To Ride, which is planning a major development at the stables: a 35,000-square-foot, semi-enclosed horse arena for training and events. Hiner says the $10 million capital campaign is more than 80% complete. She expects to break ground next year.

Hiner says proceeds from the polo event will not go toward construction costs, but rather toward the cost of operating the facility. She expected her budget needs to grow as her facility expands.

Lezlie Hiner. Founder and Executive Director of the Work to Ride program at Chamounix Stables. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Once the arena is built we’re going to need a serious bump in our operations revenue,” she said. “That’s the primary purpose for it. Another one is we’re just so super, super excited to be exposing the community at large in Philadelphia to polo. You’ve got kids of color playing. They’re going to be 80% of the players on the field on Saturday. That’s an anomaly.”

This year’s event is capped at 3,000 tickets, but the field could accommodate more. Hiner, who has been personally fielding phone calls from disappointed people unable to get tickets, plans to incrementally expand the scope of the event in the future in response to demand.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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