For the first time ever, polo matches will be played in Philadelphia next fall.
The inaugural Philadelphia Polo Classic will be held on Sept. 24 in Fairmount Park. It is organized by Work To Ride, an organization that introduces under-resourced kids in Philadelphia to horseback riding and equestrian sports.
Work to Ride was the first all-Black team to win the National Interscholastic Polo Championship in 2011. But the team has never competed on its own turf.
“We have not played any real matches here,” said Kareem Rosser, standing outside the Chamounix Stables in Fairmount Park. Rosser was the team captain in 2011 and is now a professional player.
“We have ridden and practiced here, but it’s going to be the first time that Philadelphia’s had a polo match on this soil here, to our knowledge,” he said.
Kareem first got involved with Work to Ride when he was 8 years old. Now 29, he is the author of the recent memoir “Crossing the Line,” about his difficult upbringing in West Philadelphia. He said the opportunity to play polo through Work to Ride gave him a “second chance at life.”
“I was born into a zip code that was plagued by violence. Resources were scarce and people were struggling every day,” he said. “Where I grew up, a lot of kids don’t make it to the age of 18.”
“Now I am fortunate enough to travel the world and ride horses and play polo,” he said.
The event this fall will include at least two rounds of championship play, as well as VIP and family-friendly activities all day. Philadelphia Parks and Recreation commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell expects about 3,000 people to come into Fairmount Park to watch.
“The opportunity to bring an event like this to Philadelphia is just beyond our wildest dreams,” Ott Lovell said. “But it’s not that surprising, because when you know the organization behind it, Work to Ride – this small, scrappy, incredible, extraordinary organization that has always punched above its weight.”
The tournament will be co-captained by Rosser and Ignacio “Nacho” Figueras, an internationally recognized polo champion from Argentina, dubbed the “David Beckham of Polo.” He has been an admirer of Work to Ride since he learned about the organization in 2006.
“Fast forward 16 years, seeing what that has done for a guy like Kareem, who has become a man,” said Figueras. “This program really shaped his life and gave him confidence, and gave him tools to be the man that he is today. It’s inspiring to me.”
Figueras has been playing polo professionally since 1994. He says the Philadelphia tournament will be one of the very few in the world played in an urban park.
“When Kareem approached me with this idea, which has been in the works for a few years, we stressed that having it close to the city would be a very special thing,” he said. “I think it brings a lot more attention. It’s going to make this event much more impactful and bring more awareness to these programs. I think it’s an amazing thing to be able to play so close to the city.”
The annual Polo Classic may be the first step toward wider acceptance of the sport in Philadelphia. The founder of Work to Ride, Leslie Hiner, is planning to construct a major indoor horse arena in Fairmount Park, at Work to Ride’s home base at Chamounix Stables.
The arena is expected to cost $10 million, of which Hiner said she has raised about $7 million. As soon as she gets closer to her goal, Hiner will begin construction, perhaps right after the tournament wraps in the fall.
“We’re going to probably be the premier host site on the East Coast for high school polo. The arena’s going to be much bigger than the standard arenas, which is why it costs so much,” Hiner said. “It’s going to be fantastic. We’ll have people coming in from all over the country.”
Saturdays just got more interesting.