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George Plimpton
July 19, 1971
A number of international polo players have been unhorsed and are no longer able to afford their strings of ponies. These days they compete on bicycles, which if less glamorous, are cheaper
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July 19, 1971

The Rajahs' Game Falls On Hard Times

A number of international polo players have been unhorsed and are no longer able to afford their strings of ponies. These days they compete on bicycles, which if less glamorous, are cheaper

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Yet, the practitioners of the game support it with passion. It has evolved its own language ("Pump! Pump hard!" a player will shout to urge on his teammate). New tactics and shots are continually being developed. Gene Bierhorst, an American on the Buenos Aires team, has established a considerable reputation with his "under the sprocket backhand" shot, in which he smacks the ball between the wheels of his own bicycle—such a rarity in regular polo that it is referred to as "a millionaire's shot" because only a few can afford with equanimity to try a hit that could damage their mounts. And the bicycle equipment is constantly being refined and improved. The Cuban contingent developed the cut-down handlebar on their shot-making (right) side, so that the sweep of the mallet would be less impeded.

The relative value of the different types of bicycles is always a topic. A large percentage of the players seem to prefer the minibike with an 18-inch wheel, which gives them maneuverability. Some of the Americans prefer the 27-inch British touring bike, normally a stripped-down Raleigh girl's model, especially on a large field where they can use their bike's superior speed to advantage. The bicycle polo players have considerable affection for what they call their mounts. Carlos Concheso owns seven of them. Andr�s Carrillo of the Southampton team has one for which he has such simpat�a that he has given it a name: Black Beauty. "Yes," says his teammate, Nick Simunek, "you can develop an enormous love-hate relationship with your machine. Obviously, you can't train a bicycle the way you can a pony. But you'd think we were trying—what with all the oiling, and grooming, and caressing, and talking we carry on with them. It's really rather depressing...."

At halftime, the Wysteria team having ousted Central Park and put itself in the finals against Buenos Aires, the girls' teams rode out and played an exhibition chukker, the Knockouts vs. the Bombers. The girls wore white hot pants and formfitting jerseys. The interest along the sidelines, which during the main matches had been desultory, was now intense. "No bras," a knowledgeable viewer announced. "Helps pedal faster."

"Helps the pedaling?"

"Absolutely. And turning is easier. The weight, you see, free like that, helps swing them around. We call it the 'momentum factor.' " He gestured with his hands.

"The momentum factor?"

"That's right."

A few of the girls had not been able to resist accessories: Lulie Morrisey, a striking girl with blue eyes, wore three slender necklaces from which dangled a red coral Fatima's hand, a St. Christopher medal and a large brass Arabian kohl jar shaped like a fish that clonked alarmingly on her breastbone as she pumped after the polo ball. Lee Sable, who owns a fashionable Southampton store named Zoom and is of such competitive nature on the polo field that her nickname is "Sudden Death," wore one necklace of seashells and another with a lion's tooth pendant. The girls' game was infinitely slower than the men's, with the polo ball often sitting untouched, shining like an ostrich egg in the grass as the girls circled it warily, their bikes teetering sharply from the effort of a missed swipe at the ball with their mallets. A Southampton summer resident who has written half a novel said, "They move about with the agile inconsequence of kittens." Their cries rose in the summer air. The spectators cheered them on and booed when the exhibition was finally called with the Knockouts leading by a goal.

The Wysteria team took the field against Buenos Aires in the finals. As expected, it won—five goals to three. Russell Corey scored three of his team's goals on long foul shots. The awards were handed out at a ceremony under the school portico. Each winning player received a small pewter mug with a glass bottom. The runners-up got a jar of 100% Colombian coffee. "We are at the beginning of a great era for bicycle polo," said Carlos Concheso.

As the crowd meandered off to its evening festivities, a slim girl in a red jump suit announced to her neighbor that everything was pretty small potatoes compared to what went on occasionally in New York's Dutchess County, namely, a golf-cart polo tournament in which one person drove the golf cart with a teammate in the seat alongside wielding a regulation-size mallet against a croquet ball.

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