Hilario Ulloa and Nico Pieres. Photos: Alex Pacheco.
Wellington, FL – March 29, 2015 – The U.S. Open Polo Championship continued in full force Sunday, with an exciting triple play at the International Polo Club Palm Beach. In all three games, a single point dictated the outcome, and two games went into overtime.
In the featured match on Engel & Völkers field, Lechuza Caracas defeated Alegria Assist Card 13-12 in overtime. Agustin Garcia Grossi was named Most Valuable Player. Hilario Ulloa’s mount in the second and sixth chukkers, Clave, was Best Playing Pony.
Earlier in the day, Orchard Hill took a 15-14 overtime victory over Valiente, and Audi defeated FlexJet 11-10.
For a winning team, polo is a game played as much in the head as it is on the field. Lechuza Caracas put that principle into action Sunday when it stared down the mighty Alegria Assist Card team, defending champion of the U.S. Open. Taking a gamble (and a leap of faith) that paid off in spades, Lechuza Caracas won by hedging its bets on a strategic move: scrambling the lineup.
That move has worked at times for other teams, but it is risky business. Just ask Agustin Garcia Grossi. “We’re lucky we scored the last goal,” he said moments after he made the hit that broke the 12-12 tie in overtime.
Granted, Lady Luck is always hovering over the polo field, but Sunday another intangible force was at work. Playing a mind game as much as an athletic one, the Lechuza Caracas squadron took out its opponent by turning polo into a shell game. The question of the day was: Is that Nico Pieres or Agustin Garcia Grossi under those Foster Grants?
In an eleventh-hour switcheroo that had even the announcers guessing for a bit, Lechuza Caracas swapped the positions of two of its key players. The decision was made so shortly before the start of the game that the program and the scoreboard still showed them in their old positions. But Pieres, who usually plays number two, was wearing the number three jersey, and Grossi, the team’s steadfast number three, was sporting a two on his back.
The reason became evident soon enough. Pieres was all over the ball, the field and the scoreboard from start to finish. The high-scorer of the game with nine goals, he was omnipresent throughout the match, scoring at least one point (and sometimes three) in every chukker of regulation play. Almost without exception, his success was facilitated by Grossi, who made it his perpetual mission to mow a path for Pieres to carry the ball through.
Why did this strategy work better than the original formula, when Pieres was playing number two and Garcia number three?
“The change of positions helped us a lot because we can send Flaco (Grossi) forward. He’s more powerful than me,” said Pieres. “Then I could work with the ball more, and I’m a bit better at that.”
The impetus for the change, said the two, was the team’s disappointment over its record this season in 26-goal play. “We changed the lineup because we didn’t do so well in the last tournament,” said Grossi, referring to the USPA Piaget Gold Cup. Lechuza Caracas had one win and three losses in that tournament and was knocked out of contention in the quarterfinals.
There were no signs of the past in Sunday’s game. Lechuza Caracas came onto the field with the eye of the tiger. At every possible opportunity, one or another of its players pounced upon the ball as though it were live prey. Alegria Assist Card showed a similar resolve, but it seemed to be tinged with a touch of uncertainty about how to thwart the newly invigorated and restructured Lechuza Caracas band of brothers.
Pieres, who scored the first field goal, stormed onto the field with a steely-eyed look that could knock the breath out of an elephant. With consummate speed and power – and with Grossi running interference – he cut to the center and outran a herd of defenders to tie the game at 1-all. That set the tone for the rest of the game. Pieres and Grossi melded into a tag team, keeping Alegria scoreless in the second chukker and bringing Lechuza Caracas into the lead for the first time in the third chukker. Picking up a long pass downfield from Pieres, Grossi made a supremely confident cutshot that rolled the ball in within inches of the goalpost, moving Lechuza Caracas into a 5-4 lead.
Alegria Assist Card retook the lead courtesy of Hilario Ulloa, who scored on a penalty shot. Moments before, Mariano Aguerre had sent a centering shot to Ulloa, which drew a whistle, and a foul was called in favor of Alegria Assist Card. In what seemed on its face a curious move (but turned out not to be), Alegria Assist Card challenged the call on ball placement. Had it been successful, the challenge would have changed the penalty two to a penalty one (an automatic goal for Alegria Assist Card). The call stood, and Ulloa scored on the penalty two, giving Alegria a 6-5 lead at the end of the first half.
The pace picked up decidedly in the second half. Taking the ball on the nearside, Sterling Giannini worked the room with finesse, zigzagging like mad to get past the defenders and deliver the ball to Ulloa. With a burst of speed, Ulloa ran it into goal, giving Alegria Assist Card a two-point lead. Juan Martin Nero, the only 10-goaler on the field, outran Julian Mannix and sent a slick pass to Pieres, who rode his speed stick toward goal and swatted in a pinpoint shot. Pieres followed up his own act in the fifth chukker, making three goals (two of them from the field).
In Ping-Pong fashion, the score swapped back and forth between a tie and a one-point lead for most of the sixth chukker. At a pivotal juncture, a Pieres play drew a whistle smack in front of Alegria’s goalmouth, resulting in a penalty one for Alegria. Lechuza Caracas unsuccessfully challenged the automatic goal.
With just 47 seconds left in regulation play, a penalty three was moved to a penalty two in favor of Alegria Assist Card. Ulloa took the shot and tied the game at 12-all, sending it into overtime. The seventh chukker went on for an excruciating two-and-a-half minutes until Grossi sealed the deal for Lechuza Caracas.
Nero said he felt there was more to his team’s win than its lineup change. Although he agreed that the Pieres-Grossi swap-out had been helpful, he also pointed to Lechuza Caracas’ intense preparation during the previous week. Even more crucial, he said, was Sunday’s outstanding performance by the team’s captain, Victor Vargas, who played his normal number one position.
“Today the key was Victor,” said Nero. “He made a big difference. They couldn’t pass him. He kept them away so we could score.”
Orchard Hill Overcomes Valiente 15-14 in a Game of Endurance
The highly anticipated show down between 10-goalers Adolfo Cambiaso (Valiente) and Facundo Pieres (Orchard Hill) came to an abrupt end 35 seconds into the first U.S. Open match for both teams when Cambiaso retired from the match with a hip injury. Sapo Caset, also rated 10 goals, replaced Cambiaso and performed admirably in his understudy role, challenging Facundo and galvanizing Valiente to a sixth chukker comeback to force overtime, but after all the delays, lineup changes, lead changes and injuries, Orchard Hill prevailed 15-14 over Valiente.
“That was the longest game I have ever played!” declared a weary Steve van Andel after the match. “That was a tough game. It was back and forth; they did a good job staying on us.”
When asked about the substitution of Caset for the injured Cambiaso, Facundo Pieres commented, “It was a bit of a change, but we know how they play. They played without so much pressure, which I think helped them, especially Alejo and Terrera, and they complicated us. With all the delays we couldn’t play the game we wanted, but we are happy we won.”
There was a long delay at the start of the match while the injured Cambiaso determined if he could play or not, the delay and roster change for Valiente seemed to throw both teams off their rhythm in the first two chukkers. Caset and Facundo Pieres dueled it out from the penalty line, Caset even converting a 90-yard penalty five which is a rare feat in polo, but the goals came slow for both teams and the score was only 4- 3 in favor of Valiente after the second chukker. Play opened up in the third chukker as the Valiente team started to click with Caset. Guillermo Terrera tallied a pair of field goals for Valiente, and Bob Jornayvaz added another when he anticipated a broken play near goal. Orchard Hill countered with field goals from Polito Pieres and Ezequiel Ferrario sandwiched around another penalty four conversion by Facundo.
Orchard Hill erased the Valiente lead in the fourth chukker behind two more penalty four conversions from Facundo Pieres. Some strong blocking from the Orchard Hill players led to a splendid run by Facundo on a blaze faced chestnut. Valiente held steady with two goals, the teams entered the fifth chukker tied at 9-all.
The fifth chukker was all Orchard Hill. Facundo Pieres continued his sharp shooting success from the 60-yard line on penalty fours and cousin Polito chimed in with a gutsy field goal through traffic. Play was held up again when Alejo Taranco hit the ground after a collision, but Orchard Hill kept the momentum rolling to finish out the chukker in the lead 12-9.
Valiente showed determination in the face of adversity in the sixth, relentlessly driving the ball down field and forcing Orchard Hill into a penalty one situation. After Valiente was awarded the automatic goal on the penalty one, Caset stole the ball on the ensuing throw in and quickly turned and fired to bring Valiente within one goal of the lead. Facundo Pieres countered with his seventh penalty four conversion of the game, but Caset rose to the occasion and scored two more penalty goals to send the game to sudden death overtime with the score tied at 14 all.
The Orchard Hill team won the first bowl in, delivered the ball and a horse length’s head start to Facundo Pieres. He did what he does better than anyone in the world and ran the ball down field to goal for the win.
“Fortunately we squeaked through in the end!” said a relieved van Andel post match. Orchard Hill will take a 1-0 record into their next U.S. Open match against Las Monjitas on Sunday April 5 at International Polo Club Palm Beach.
Facundo Pieres was already thinking about the next match. “It was so important to win the first game of the Open; now we prepare to play our game for the next match.”
Audi Speeds Past FlexJet 11-10
Audi defeated FlexJet 11-10 in bracket play in the U.S. Open Polo Championship at the International Polo Club Palm Beach. The match pit Marc Ganzi of the Audi team, last week’s victors of the Piaget Gold Cup, against his son, Grant Ganzi, each rated one-goal.
Both teams came out swinging, with goal attempts going wide for Audi and FlexJet. A penalty conversion by Miguel Astrada put FlexJet on the board with the first goal of the match. A neckshot by Gonzalito Pieres evened out the score. Rodrigo Andrade quickly drilled a long shot along the ground to put Audi in the lead. Tough, quick play ensued by both teams, which would characterize the play throughout the match.
In the second chukker, FlexJet fired back with a stolen ball by Nic Roldan breaking up an Audi play, and Astrada capitalized on it. He flipped in a goal under pressure and made the score 2-all. Pieres, always the cool customer, picked the ball from Astrada and drove a goal in to put Audi back in the lead. Roldan and Astrada teamed up, showing off their excellent passing game with supreme confidence, resulting in a goal by Astrada.
Roldan followed up with another assist, this time to Laprida, putting FlexJet ahead by one. Fred Mannix kicked it into high gear and dribbled the ball into the goalmouth, with Andrade backing him up to make the goal. Roldan fired off a signature long pass for Laprida who scored another goal for FlexJet, making the score 5-4 at the end of the second chukker.
After some fierce play at the top of the third chukker, a penalty conversion by Pieres tied the score 5-5. FlexJet quickly racked up two more goals in an effort to solidify their lead before the end of the half. Pieres rocketed out of the throw-in with a score that brought Audi within one at the end of the third chukker.
Audi revved it up in the third chukker, starting out strong with a goal by Andrade on the run. Another penalty conversion by Pieres made the score 8-7. An incredible team play by FlexJet culminated in a goal, tying the score 8-8. Intense play for the remainder of the fourth chukker had spectators guessing what the outcome of each play would be.
The fifth chukker was scoreless for the first few minutes, and it was Mannix who broke the dry spell with a near side back shot and a score for Audi. A penalty in favor of FlexJet was challenged by Audi. Each team is allowed one opportunity to challenge a call. The team may use at any time during the game to disagree with a call and ask for an instant replay. The game is stopped and the disputed play is evaluated by the instant replay judge, who makes the final decision. If the team wins its challenge, they are allowed to keep their one challenge in the game. If it loses, they are not allowed a challenge for the remainder of the game. In this case, the call was overturned and Audi retained their ability to challenge.
Roldan kicked off the sixth chukker blazing to the goal, but his attempt went wide. Laprida made a run in the next play, flipping the ball to Roldan who succeeded in this attempt and tied up the match 9-9. A penalty in favor of Audi was challenged by FlexJet but upheld, resulting in a conversion by Pieres. FlexJet continued to fight for the win, with Laprida dodging defenders to drive in a goal and tie the score with just minutes remaining. Audi responded quickly, putting the final goal in with 18 seconds before the final horn.
Both Pieres and Marc Ganzi agreed that the game was an incredibly important match for them to win, especially after their tournament win in the Piaget Gold Cup.
“Always, the first game after winning is tough because, unfortunately, you’re more relaxed and the other teams are more afraid of you, and they go for it with everything,” said Pieres.
“We knew we had to win today. It’s the first game of the [US] Open. You’ve got to go all in,” said Ganzi.
Play in the U.S. Open Polo Championship continues on Wednesday, April 1 with Valiente taking on Las Monjitas at 4 p.m. at the International Polo Club Palm Beach.
International Polo Club Palm Beach Fast Facts
What: Created by players for players, the International Polo Club Palm Beach was born out of the dream to build a facility to showcase the incredible skills of the ponies and players that dominate the sport.
Members and guests enjoy panoramic views of the action from field side box seats or lawn and terrace seating. Sponsors and fans convene at The Winners Circle to congratulate the players during the awards presentation following the games.
Gourmet brunches, après polo celebrations and the prerequisite charitable events will take place in The Pavilion, designed to accommodate large parties, corporate clients, as well as family and friends.
Herbie Pennell Cup – 20 Goal
Jan. 1-4, 2015
Joe Barry Memorial Cup – 20 Goal
Jan. 4-25, 2015
Ylvisaker Cup – 20 Goal
Jan. 28 – February 22, 2015
Iglehart Cup – 20 Goal
Feb. 28 – March 8, 2015
USPA C. V. Whitney Cup – 26 Goal
Feb. 15 – March 1, 2015
Piaget USPA Gold Cup® – 26 Goal
March 4-22, 2015
111th Maserati U.S. Open Polo Championship® – 26 Goal
March 25 – April 19, 2015
From the Turnpike:
Take the Lake Worth Exit
Head west on FL-802 W/Lake Worth Rd toward Hooks Rd
Continue to follow Lake Worth Rd (3.9 miles)
Turn right onto 120th Ave S
Destination will be ahead on the left (0.4 miles)
Exit Forest Hill Blvd, head West
Make Left turn onto 441/St Rd 7
Make Right turn onto Lake Worth Rd
Make Right turn onto 120th Ave S
Destination on Left
3667 120th Ave S, Wellington, FL 33414
International Polo Club Palm Beach: 561-204-5687
Mallet Grille: 561-282-5340
Spa & Fitness Center: 561-282-5288
Tennis Pro Shop: 561-795-7228
Polo Operations Office: 561-282-5283
Polo Hotline: 561-282-5290
Hampton Inn & Suites – (561) 472-9696 – Approximately 2 miles
Hampton Inn – (561) 472-5980 – Approximately 4 miles
Four Seasons Resort – (561) 582-2800 – Approximately 9 miles
The Breakers – (561) 655-6611 – Approximately 9 miles
Kimpton Tideline Ocean Resort & Spa – (561) 540-6440 – Approximately 9 miles
John Wash – President of Club Operations