Foul! Dangerous riding!" the ref shouted across the arena. The crowd roared back in response—a few in support of his call, but most of them groaning in anger. We were at the very end of the fourth chukker, one point behind, and I'd just been given the chance to make a two-point goal.
Steam rose off the body of my pony and left a misty trail behind me as I galloped back onto the field. I smiled to myself and just barely resisted pumping my fist in excitement.
I should have been pissed. The captain of the other team, a big blond dude with the kind of deep tan that only comes from spending Christmas in Aruba, had just illegally boarded me, coming out of nowhere and riding up so close and fast that he had slammed me and my pony into the wooden wall surrounding the arena. He'd thrown me a nasty sneer as he pinned me to the wood, and then galloped off, hit-and-run style, hoping the ref wouldn't notice. He was playing rough, breaking rules, and he could have easily hurt both me and my horse. In fact, my shoulder was throbbing from the blow and I knew I'd feel it for days. But I shook it off and grinned. I couldn't be angry. Because if he was playing rough, that meant we were finally being taken seriously as a team. If he was playing rough, it meant that he actually thought we could win.
THREE YEARS EARLIER
It was always our boots that gave us away.
I mean, it didn't exactly help that we showed up to the polo club, one of the top facilities in the country, in our coach Lezlie's old junker of a car, the one that smelled like fast food and road-trip stink and was missing a hubcap. My two teammates and I crammed into our seats between all the gear, desperate as hell to get out after being forced to listen to two hundred fifty miles of All Things Considered.
I'm also sure it did not go unnoticed that one of my Work to Ride teammates, my little brother Gerb, was still so small that he had to use both hands to lift his polo mallet, and the other one, Drea, was mean-mugging like he'd kick your ass if you even looked at him wrong.
Because these were the only riders available for us to play against, we were scheduled to match up with a team of full-grown, eighteen-year-old, high-school seniors from a top-seeded military academy. So it was also pretty noticeable that we had barely hit puberty. I was the oldest at fifteen, and Gerb and Drea were both thirteen.
It was definitely more than obvious that we were the only Black faces within a one-hundred-acre radius of the arena.
But what really gave up our game was just south of our knees. They might look past our age and race and Lezlie's crappy car, but as soon as they saw our hand-me-down, duct-taped, ill-sized, janky old fake-leather boots, they all knew that we were in the wrong place. Those boots made it instantly clear that my teammates and I did not belong in the exclusive, expensive world of polo.
We stood for a moment, stretching and rubbing our eyes. Back at home in Philly, it was still icy, gray, and freezing, but here in Virginia the air was sweet and mild, the sky was brilliant blue, and the seventy-five acres of rolling hills that surrounded us on all sides were covered in the softest, greenest grass we had seen for months.
From where we stood, we could see the regulation-size, professional-level polo field, the acres of white-fenced corrals and pastures, and the perfectly groomed outdoor practice spaces. We were playing indoors today, in the immense polo arena attached to the stables.
Our team came from The Bottom, a neighborhood in Philadelphia where you had a better chance of being incarcerated or getting shot than graduating from high school. We grew up in a city that had one of the highest murder rates per capita in the nation, and that number seemed to be mainly fueled by what went down on a daily basis in our hood.
Our team had almost no funding and a bunch of donated-because-nobody-wanted-them-anymore ponies who were stabled in the middle of Fairmount Park. The barn was leased from the city by Lezlie for a dollar a year, and it showed. No indoor ring, no real fields or regulation riding spaces. She'd built the program bit by bit, scraping to get by. All the barn work was done by volunteers and kids who participated in the program. During the warmer months, we practiced polo across the street in a bumpy soccer field, fighting for space with picnickers and ultimate Frisbee teams in the good weather. Between October and April, when the ground would freeze and the cold and ice made it too dangerous to play in the soccer field, we simply didn't practice at all. In fact, the only time we even had a chance to ride during polo season was when we traveled to play an actual game in an indoor stadium.