“Is it time for tea already?” I was so grateful it was over. “No, no. That was only the first chukka.”
Novice Todd Pitock signs up for a chukka or two at the world’s premier polo grounds in Argentina
Friends had advised me to try tango. Argentina is, after all, famous for it. But the idea seemed to put me in danger of making a fool of myself. Argentina, I reflected, is also famous for polo, and it turned out that for $200 or so a day, I could try it out at an estancia, or ranch. The brochure I found said the estancia welcomed people of any level.
Juan, the instructor, and his girlfriend picked me up at my hotel and we drove 90 minutes to a 180-hectare estancia outside of Buenos Aires.
“Do you ride horses?” he asked.
“I’ve ridden,” I told him. “Three or four times,” I might have added.
I had hiking shoes instead of riding boots. Polo players customarily wear whites on the bottoms and colours on top. My blue jeans marked me as a rube. I had thin pads on my shins and a helmet that I jammed on down to my eyebrows and kept in place with a chinstrap.
I caught my reflection in a glass panel. I looked like the Man de la Mancha.
“This is a good horse for you,” Juan said.
It was not the right horse for me. The right horse for me was at a food court at the Mall of America where for two quarters it would jiggle for 40 seconds. “Climb on,” he said.
Already this was feeling like advanced stuff.
“Come, Rosinante,” I said to the horse. Her real name was Calipers. “Let’s make a deal. I won’t hurt you, and you won’t hurt me.”
The King’s Game 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 about 40,000 registered members of polo clubs here, and every year aficionados – sultans and sheikhs, movie stars and moguls – pour in by the jet load to train, play and watch. The professional season locates here between October and December, capped by the Argentina Open, the sport’s premier event, in Buenos Aires.
Argentina’s custom-bred polo ponies are a cross of native crillo and imported thoroughbred, with a dash of Arabian and a pinch of Quarter Mile. 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 have luxury suites, chefs and a variety of activities.
The players during my visit were weekend warriors from Buenos Aires. They were mostly in their 20s and 30s and included a medical student, some guys who worked in financial services, and one whose main occupation was playing polo on weekends. “This is my psycho-therapy,” said the grandpa of the group, 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 several years he had been coming to Argentina to chase his passion for polo.
“It has taken 10 years off of my life,” he said. He meant that he felt 10 years younger, but I could see the truth of what he actually said pretty quickly.
I was sent into the field to get to know the horse, who walked, then cantered.
“It’s smoother if you gallop,” the instructor said when he checked in with me some time later.
That was no doubt true. Unfortunately it was also faster, and at that particular moment I was not ready for that level of commitment.
I bounced along for 20 minutes.
“How do you feel?” another player asked.
“Glad I already have had children.”
“It only hurts the first year.”
I was handed a mallet. It’s for hitting the ball, but it also helps with balance, like poles in downhill skiing. You hold the reigns in your left hand and the mallet in your right. The swing itself is similar to golf, requiring a shoulder turn and full extension at the point of contact.
After a little while, I felt as if I was getting the hang of it, striking the ball as the horse cantered, turning the horse on a pivot when I over-ran the target.
“You look good!” Juan said. “You are improving quickly.”
“I’m thinking of myself as a warrior charging into battle,” I told him. “It seems to help,” I added, in case my first remark sounded too confident.
Part one ended with a convivial steak lunch in the clubhouse.
Part two began with a real game, which was divided into time periods called chukkers.
The difference between playing with seven others – four a side – and by yourself is akin to shooting free throws in your driveway versus going full court, and when the action got close, I was neither a warrior nor a gentleman, mastered by fear as expletives directed at the general circumstances and invectives directed at myself poured involuntarily forth like I had some kind of disorder – which, at that moment, I probably did. Rosinante’s training took over and she wanted to go for it. She started to gallop. My foot came out of the stirrup and I was slipping off to one side, experiencing a spasm of pessimism about my immediate prospects, and another spasm in my lower back.
I pulled the reigns. I pleaded. I called out to God. I was saved.
I was sure I’d made a spectacle of myself. But no one seemed to notice. They were already chasing the ball 100 yards in the other direction, and good riddance, too.
I’d just come to a truce with Rosinante and reminded her of our mutual non-aggression pact when I heard the hoofs beating earth back down the field, moving clouds of dust back toward us.
My courage rallied. I saw the ball within reach. I swung, and my mallet connected on the sweet spot.
Of my team mate.
I’d never hit a living being with a mallet before. I’d wanted to a few times, but the would-be target has usually been taking my customer service call from a distant part of the world.
“Oh!” I said. “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”
She eyeballed me balefully. She said she was okay. I was not. My lower back felt as if someone shot me with a dart. My inner thighs burned. Mostly, though, I was weary.
I noticed the others had stopped playing.
“Oh, great time!” I said. “Is it time for tea already?”
I was so grateful it was over.
“No, no. That was only the first chukker.”
“Oh. How many are there?”
I stretched out and tried to wedge my joints back into place.
“Do you do yoga?” Juan asked.
I tried not to take it personally.
Back in Buenos Aires, I met a friend for dinner.
“So did you manage to hit the ball?” she asked.
“Yes, I did,” I said.
“The same number of times as I missed.” She’d been riding since she was six years old.
“Do you happen to know how many Extra Strength Tylenol you can take in a day?”
She fixed me with a look so full of pity I felt sorry for myself. “If you’re sore now,” she said, “it’s not good. It’s not even tomorrow yet.”
Main photograph: Jorge Royan