"What kind of a game is polo?" the girl asked.
"Fast." -- From "Passion Play" by Jerzy Kosinski
The champagne was flowing, the women were beautiful, and out on the vast sun-splashed green of the polo field men were risking death and worse as they thundered downfield. There were boutiques and a "Tackeria" with $450 calfskin boots for sale, one section of $60 seats was roped off for "Black Tie Guests Only," and the Jags and Sevilles were so thick you could barely get to the pa te'.
It was the Potomac Polo Club's annual International All Star benefit, and 7,000 people turned out on a beautiful Saturday afternoon to take part in a scene that seemed lifted from a James Bond thriller. In fact, the event is expected to be the highest-rated polo match internationally this year, meaning that the eight players -- Argentine, U.S. and Mexican -- are among the best in the world and, taken together, have the highest total rating.
Polo, with about 2,200 registered U.S. players, is the most dangerous sport after car racing, said club president Joseph A. Muldoon Jr., an attorney.
"And General Patton said it is the best training for war in the world," he added. "In Persia, they used to play with their enemies' heads!"
Muldoon's son, Michael, was hit in the head with a polo mallet. "We spent two years trying to bring him back." Michael died in 1979, and Muldoon said the experience gave him the idea of holding the annual benefit. The proceeds -- about $40,000 this year -- go to the Washington Hospital Center for research on spinal cord injuries.
"If you play, you're gonna get hurt," said Tommy Wayman, one of two U.S. players in Saturday's match. On the other hand: "If you like horses, you like action and contact sports, you have to play polo."
"I met him when he was playing polo, so it came with the territory," said his wife Rosemary of the danger, at a black-tie gala sponsored by Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige Friday night as part of the benefit.
Party favors included little bottles of Ralph Lauren cologne. Indeed, polo is as much glitter as sport.
"It's as much a social sport as a physical sport," said Jim Nelon, an electronics firm employe who photographs the club's matches.
"It opens so many doors," said Rosemary Wayman. "How many people go to England and meet the queen?"
"Especially coming from Oklahoma," said Wayman, 36, a professional player and horse breeder with a good ol' boy image. His father was a cowhand and Wayman grew up riding. He sits on his horse like a Texas ranger, glued to the saddle and stirrups long. The referees may have been posting English-style Saturday, and the Argentines riding wild like gauchos, but Wayman looked like the Marlboro Man cutting a herd.
"In some ways, the polo field is a social equalizer," said Ami Shinitzky, publisher of Polo, a magazine based in Gaithersburg. "You get business tycoons playing alongside Texas cowboys."
Shinitzky said he is a friend of Jerzy Kosinski, whose 1979 novel "Passion Play" featured a polo-playing, womanizing existential nomad named Fabian. The novel mentions both Polo and Equus magazine, also published by Shinitzky.
In the novel, Fabian has deadly, one-on-one duels with other polo players. Shinitzky said such things are "fantasy," but that the novel overall is true to the "spirit of polo."
Fabian knew that his only fire was polo, his only art the power, mounted and in motion, to strike a moving ball, his only craft the guile to place that ball where he would within the field, undaunted by the presence of other players -- he astride the horse at full gallop, his polo stick a lance at the ready, his brain a compressor of present, past, future in a single act, matchless, without flaw."
Out at the club's field in Poolesville on Saturday, a man in a blue blazer asked a woman, "You still takin' your horses south in the winter?"
A young blond woman in blue jeans and carrying a bridle was walking along, saying to a friend, "It may be a man's world, but I'll tell you, when I'm out riding with some man . . ."
Her voice trailed off, lost in the crowd.
Argentine Ambassador Lucio Garcia del Solar was there, as was Republican insider and public relations man Peter Hannaford, a club member who has been playing polo since he was 11.
The field, as big as nine football fields, was deep green. The near and far hills were green. There was a cool breeze.
Thirteen white Seville convertibles were parked near the field. Cadillac was a cosponsor of the event along with Glenlivet, an expensive scotch, and the Ritz-Carlton, an expensive hotel. The players got to use the cars and stay in the hotel and, at the end of the match, they each got a bottle of scotch.
"It's remarkable," said Shinitzky, "that eight professional players, among the highest paid and the world's best, would come here and play for a charitable cause."
At one end of the field, the players were seated in director's chairs, putting on their gear and checking their mallets. The polo ponies, on loan from local enthusiasts, were being taken from their trailers and readied nearby.
"It's a way of life -- it gets in your blood," said the other American competitor, Lester (Red) Armour, a professional player and horse breeder from Texas. "My father raised horses as well. Instead of playing golf or tennis on the weekends, we'd play polo."
Armour, who looks a bit like Robert Redford and has a 9 handicap, has played in the U.S. Open, the $100,000 World Cup and England's Coronation Cup.
In France they call him "Le Rouge Armour."
Wayman had a 10 handicap last year -- the top rating -- but now is down to 9. There are only five 10-handicap players in the world, and three of them -- Alfonso and Gonzalo Pieres and Ernesto Trotz, all of Argentina -- played in Saturday's match.
There are only a dozen or two 9s in the world. Most players are a 0 or a 1, or a minus 1, which is the lowest in the United States. England goes down to minus 2.
On the field, a woman decked out in a spiffy blue uniform and top hat was giving an exhibition of dressage, handling the horse with seeming perfection.
An NBC-TV crew was filming Wayman and Armour. Wayman agreed to be wired for sound provided NBC would edit out the cussing.
NBC producer Joe Schreiber agreed. "You've got to use good taste to be fair to the person, and also for the FCC," he explained.
Armour mounted a gray pony and immediately complained that the saddle blanket was too thick.
Muldoon came running over. "Take that off!" he shouted.
It was done.
Players use their own mounts when they can, but shipping ponies around is expensive. There are six chukkers (periods) in a match (plus overtime if needed), and each player needs a fresh mount for each chukker. And additional mounts are needed in case there are unforeseen problems, such as an injury to a horse.
Players have several mallets of varying lengths so they can get the same reach to the ground depending on the size of their horses. At speeds of up to 30 miles an hour and from horseback, it's hard enough to hit the little white ball.
"Red and Tommy by the American flag!" someone shouted.
There were also Argentine and Mexican flags, and when everyone was in place the grand parade began.
After that somebody sang the National Anthem, and then announcer Lew Potter, an insurance brokerage consultant, shouted, "The first chukker of polo, ladies and gentlemen!"
Then thundering hoofbeats.
Polo, the fastest, boldest team game played today, was also among the oldest organized sports in the country. Its cowboy-like horsemanship so close to trick racing, its daring use of stick and ball, the roughness of clashing teams, made the sport, in Fabian's eyes, ultimately American."
Polo originated in Persia, was developed in its present form in India and began to be played in America in the late 19th century. It flourished in the 1920s and '30s, then dwindled and is now having a big comeback, according to Muldoon.
Everybody associated with polo this weekend was busy saying how it is not elitist anymore. Muldoon's son, Joe III, runs a polo school in Poolesville where you can take lessons at a reasonable rate. But in fact, if you are going to get into polo in a big way, it is going to cost some money.
According to Jamie James in the March 18 Sports Illustrated, "Modern polo could scarcely exist without millionaires. It costs a fortune to keep a four-man team in tack and ponies . . . Thus, a typical team consists of one low-ranked amateur, usually a businessman with more love and money than aptitude for the game, and his hired high-goal pros, sometimes with a middle-goal son thrown in."
Muldoon, with his sons Joe III and Charlie and his daughter Mary, makes up a family team -- the only one, the family members say, to win the national association cup.
Says Mary Muldoon: "I think women are here to stay in polo. It doesn't take brute strength to play polo. It takes training and hand-eye coordination."
Often, professional players like Wayman and Armour are not members of regular teams, but join teams that are formed to compete in certain events and for certain cups. They make a living by having sponsors from time to time, and by trading and selling horses.
In Saturday's game, the eight world-class players were divided into two fairly even teams, the "Washingtons" and the "Ambassadors." While the players functioned as teammates, the relatively arbitrary assignment to a team reflects the somewhat individualistic element of polo.
Each of the four positions on a polo team has its task: Some attack and others defend, although if a player in the goalie position gets on a roll he is expected to follow through and score if he can. In Saturday's match, all eight players each scored at least once.
According to Shinitzky, "A midlevel professional who plays with his own horses might get from $10,000 for a season to $75,000." A season, he said, is a quarter of a year.
While 7,000 is a big crowd for a polo match in the United States, in Argentina the matches are viewed by as many as 30,000. Argentina is considered the top world power in the sport, with the United States second.
George Haas, an investment banker from New York and a governor of the U.S. Polo Association who came down for Saturday's match, said the association's membership, now about 2,200, has doubled in the past five years. That figure includes collegiate members. Haas said he thinks there may be another 3,000 unregistered polo players in the country.
Fabian kept the mare in tight check. In a sequence of pivot, half-turn, gallop, with the ball always near the horse's forelegs. Shuttling his eyes between the ball and a target , he accelerated for the fury of a strike, wielding an erect mallet, his right arm arched up and back, his elbow and wrist locked.
When Wayman's horse went down in the second chukker, Wayman rolled. And kept rolling.
Away from the horse, watching the horse.
When he was sure he was clear, he got up.
"He's up and movin', folks. Let's give him a big hand!" shouted Potter, the announcer.
Wayman moved cautiously at first.
"All right, Tommy's back up, making sure everything works, his arms work, his legs work!" shouted Potter encouragingly. "As we know, we've all spent our hours in the air and on the ground!"
After the match, Muldoon was energetically telling a TV crew as it filmed him, "Anticipation and speed are the key . . ."
Rosemary Wayman rushed a beer to her husband, who drank it thirstily.
Wayman, the world-class player, shook his head and drawled, "Couldn't hit the ball."