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Inner-city riders reach for pinnacle in polo

Phil Anastasia

PHILADELPHIA — There’s something special, something unique, about the players on the Cowtown/Work To Ride polo team.

But it’s not the color of their skin.

It’s the level of their skill. It’s the quality of their horsemanship. It’s the magic of their teamwork.

“They are easily one of the best teams in the country,” said Kim Syme, who is the United States Polo Association’s Interscholastic/Intercollegiate program director. “It’s actually pretty amazing when you think about it.”

This is polo. This is the exclusive game with the horses and the pith helmets and the mallets and the aroma of old money.

Even Cowtown/WTR star Kareem Rosser — a magnetic 18-year-old from West Philadelphia who might be the best high school player in the country — admits that his chosen game is a “sport of millionaires and kings.”

So maybe there is something else that’s special about this upstart team that is based in a humble barn in Fairmount Park, where Lezlie Hiner started the Work To Ride program in 1994 as a way to help underprivileged children from Philadelphia’s meanest streets.

And maybe there is something unique in that this team is composed of three African American teenagers who on Feb. 27 became the first all-black team to win a regional title and could become the first all-black team to win the National Interscholastic Championship this weekend in Charlottesville, Va.

“These kids are making history,” Hiner said, sitting in a tiny office in a corner of Chamounix Stables, where four dogs compete with two cats, several donated horses, and the WTR kids for attention, affection, and the opportunity for a better life.

It wasn’t long after Hiner, 53, founded the Work To Ride program — a nonprofit that offers students riding lessons in exchange for labor around the barn — that the youngsters started to develop an interest in polo.

Hiner had them competing in regional and national tournaments by 1999, and the 2005 WTR team won the Northeast regional title with a white player on the squad.

But this year’s team could win the national title with a squad that features Rosser and his brother Daymar, 16, as well as Brandon Rease, 15, who is from North Philadelphia.

“Other teams are worried about us,” said Kareem, who attends Valley Forge Military Academy with his brother. “That’s a great feeling.”

The Rosser brothers ended up at Valley Forge through polo connections. And Kareem is such a top student as well as top player that he hopes to attend Cornell University next school year.

“Polo has opened up so many doors for us,” Kareem said. “I never would have imagined that I would be a polo player. I’m so lucky and thankful for this opportunity.”

Much quieter than his brother, Daymar said he was “scared” to ride a horse when he joined the program. Now he’s a natural scorer for one of the top polo teams in the country.

“I thought the horse was going to kill me,” Daymar said. “Now I like it.”

Polo has taken the brothers to tournaments along the East Coast, as well as to California, Texas and Oklahoma. The WTR team also has been to Nigeria for tournaments on three occasions.

“All our friends from the neighborhood can’t believe we’ve been to all these cool places,” Kareem said. “It’s amazing to them. They used to think polo was just a logo on a shirt. Now we’ve got friends and family saying to us all the time, ‘What’s next? Where are you going now?’ ”

Last weekend’s 42nd annual interscholastic championship tournament featured indoor polo, played three on a side. The games are made up of four chukkers, or periods, each of which lasts 7½ minutes.

Polo is believed to be a 2,000-year-old game that was played by Asian nomadic warriors. Kareem, who calls himself a “sport fanatic” and a “die-hard Eagles fan,” still is learning the intricacies.

“The rules are so complicated that it’s a mental challenge as well as a physical challenge,” he said. “You have to control a 1,000-pound animal. It’s such a huge adrenaline rush.”

Hiner calls Kareem “the quarterback” of the team. Daymar  is more of a scorer, while Rease is a “linebacker who is very good with the mallet,” Hiner said.

Cowtown/WTR — the name comes from the program’s old association with the Cowtown complex outside Woodstown in Salem County, N.J. — was the No. 2 seed in last weekend’s tournament.

Kareem figures his team is the favorite. And he also figures that’s what makes his squad so special — not the fact that it is an all-black team with inner-city youngsters based in an old barn that Hiner leases from the City of Philadelphia for $1 a year.

“I couldn’t say that we’re not accepted in the sport of polo,” Kareem said. “Our name is out there. People are watching for us, but in a good way.

“We put smiles on many people’s faces. But at the same time, polo has put smiles on our faces.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer