We gathered up our stuff and followed Lezlie toward the arena, threading our way through the crowds of polo players, grooms, and coaches, all here, like us, for the Southeast Regional Tournament. I mainly kept my head down, wanting to stay out of the way, but occasionally glancing up to see the other players: young men and women in multicolored jerseys and immaculate white jeans, carrying their gear and leading their shiny, muscled ponies. They came from prep schools and military academies from all over the country, some driving in like we had, but in their own BMWs and Audis, or, in the case of the team we were playing, arriving in a borrowed private jet.
We entered the stables connected to the arena, and immediately, I felt more at ease. All good barns, no matter how fancy or modest, smell the same: a tinge of dust and damp, the warm scent of horse manure and hay, and the sweet, comforting musk of the animals themselves. That smell meant home to me; it made me walk a little easier.
We began to groom the ponies that had been put aside for us—pro-level horses, glowing with health, stamping and snorting, ready to run. They were worlds away from our hand-me-down herd back home. I tried to hide my wonder and envy as I touched the first pony I would ride, running the curry comb over her already gleaming coat, sliding my hands over her sleek, dark neck, strapping on the saddle over her thickly muscled back. I loved our horses back in Philly but I knew that they were junkers compared to this expensive, perfectly trained Ferrari of an animal. For a moment I let myself believe that riding a pony this fine was surely all I would need to win.
"Hey, Kareem, help me out?" asked Gerb, bringing me back down to earth. He needed me to roll the leather on his stirrups because he was so small that even pulling them up to the last hole still left them too long for his little-kid legs. I interlaced my fingers so I could throw him into the saddle, then I jerked the stirrups as I high as I could get them and started to roll, trying to reach the soles of his dangling size-three boots.
As we groomed, I looked around, wondering where the other team was. There was a small crowd of people prepping what I assumed must be their string of ponies, but they were obviously the grooms who had flown over with them, not the players themselves.
It wasn't until we entered the arena, leading our horses behind us, that we finally came face-to-face with our opposing team. It was made up of eight big, strapping white boys—two fresh players for every chukker. They were clean-cut almost-men with rigid military posture and the look of athletes who didn't know how to lose. Lezlie had told us a little about them, so I knew that back at their Midwestern school, they had hundreds of perfectly groomed acres, access to a string of specially trained, high-goal polo ponies, and one of the finest indoor arenas in the nation where they could practice every day, year-round, if they wanted to.
Their coach was a lean, good-looking, ex-pro ten-goal player who was known for his no-mercy approach on the field. In later years, he would go on to be a private coach for one of his more talented players, being paid in the high six figures to fly all over the world with his charge. Our coach was a frazzled-looking, middle-aged white lady who spent most of her time just trying to make sure her players actually made it to and from her barn without getting shot. Lezlie had left her nine-to-five job with her family's business so she could sink her every last dollar into creating a barn where kids who had the bleakest of futures could find a home away from home and a chance to change their lives for the better.
The opposing players nodded blankly as we filed by. You would think that maybe the novelty of playing polo with actual children from the inner city would have made some kind of impression on them, but the distant looks on their faces seemed to say that we were nothing but nameless distractions to trample over on their way to the championship.
I felt a little chill as I looked back over my shoulder. They were standing there, seemingly unmoved by the noise of the crowd gathering in the bleachers, the ponies being hot-walked around the arena, the other waiting horses stamping and steaming in their pens. They were wearing burgundy jerseys, white jeans, leather kneepads, and of course, all of them—every last one these guys—had perfectly broken-in, gleaming and slick, Fagliano boots, a pair of which were easily worth more than Lezlie's car.
Still, I thought, like I always thought—maybe because I was a fool, or maybe because I just wanted it so goddamned much—maybe today will be different. Maybe today, we won't lose.