White Birch notched another win, putting its name on the East Coast Open’s historic Perry Trophy after a three-year drought. Prior to this year, the team had won the title a dozen times, the last time in 2016 when team founder Peter Brant played his last season. The tournament has been held at Greenwich Polo Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, since 2005.
The tournament was established by polo player Donald Little Sr. in 1978 and played at Myopia Polo Club in Hamilton, Massachusetts until 2004. It was first played at the 14- to 18-goal level before being raised to 16 to 20 goals.
Due to COVID-19, the club canceled all of its tournaments except for the East Coast Open. The public was invited back, however guests were kept socially distanced, whether on the lawn, in the VIP section or tailgating.
This year, five teams competed from Aug. 30-Sept. 13. The action began with Altaris (Jamal Nassabeh, Joaquin Panelo, Lerin Zubiaurre, Kris Kampsen) defeating Gardenvale (Shane Finemore, Cristian “Magoo” Laprida, Felipe Viana, Pedro Falabella), 12-9. Kris Kampsen led the winners with six goals, all penalty conversions. The next day, White Birch (Chris Brant, Pablo Llorente, Mariano Aguerre, Peke Gonzalez) beat Los Violines (Christophe Landon, Gringo Colombres, Michel Dorignac, Tommy Biddle), 12-8. Tragically, in the opening minutes, Colombres took a ball to the face and had to be replaced by Lerin Zubiarre.
Colombres suffered several broken bones, requiring surgery and was unable to continue in the tournament.
Action continued with Black Hound Don Ercole (Will Tomita, Lucas Diaz Alberdi, Torito Ruiz, Matias Magrini) and Altaris tying, 6-6, when rain forced the game to be postponed with just over six minutes remaining in the third chukker. When it continued three days later, the teams kept it close until Black Hound DE eked out the 13-12 win.
The next day, Gardenvale outscored Los Violines, 14-10. Los Violines began with a two-goal handicap after 6-goal Mariano Gonzalez was brought in to replace 8-goal Colombres.
The last preliminary match saw White Birch fall to Black Hound DE, 12-11, in overtime. White Birch, Black Hound DE and Altaris advanced to the semi-finals while Gardenvale and Los Violines had to playoff for the remaining spot. Gardenvale eliminated Los Violines, 14-11, to advance.
The semi-finals were scheduled for two days later, however inclement weather forced the games to be postponed 48 hours. When the fields dried out, White Birch edged Altaris, 12-10, while Black Hound DE edged Gardenvale, 13-11.
The final was held on Sept. 15, allowing White Birch to revenge its earlier overtime loss to Black Hound DE. Pablo Llorente got White Birch off to a great start with a pair of early goals. Black Hound DE got on the board with a Penalty 2 from Toro Ruiz but Peke Gonzalez countered it with a Penalty 2 conversion of his own. Ruiz sandwiched goals around a Gonzalez tally, bringing Black Hound within one, 4-3. Gonzalez increased the lead with three in a row, including a Penalty 2, but another Penalty 2 by Ruiz kept Black Hound in the match, 7-4, at the half.
“Our strategy was to play fast and move the ball,” Llorente told the USPA. “I think the key was that we were really good on defense. We defended every ball as if it was the last.”
Gonzalez agreed. “I think the big difference between the final and the first game was that the four of us played closer to our men during the entire final game,” he explained. “We also tried to move the ball around a little more and play a more classic style of polo, which I think worked well for us.”
Black Hound DE benefited from the halftime break, coming back strong with Ruiz continuing to capitalize on penalty opportunities and Matias Magrini scoring from the field, while White Birch was held to a single tally from Mariano Aguerre. Black Hound was hot on White Birch’s heels and caught up early in the fifth when Lucas Diaz Alberdi split the uprights. Aguerre was unfazed and confident, coming back out on his 7-year-old grey mare, Machitos Francisca, who he played in the first. She carried him to goal, not once, not twice but three times in quick succession to regain the advantage, 11-8, and the momentum. Aguerre added another goal early in the sixth for good measure. Ruiz fired back with two in a row, but a final goal by Gonzalez put the game out of reach. White Birch prevailed, 13-10.
Aguerre was named MVP and Machitos Francisca, who Aguerre brought to the U.S. last January, was Best Playing Pony. Aguerre, now 51, has played for White Birch since the mid-1980s. He was inducted into the National Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame in 2017.
“Winning the East Coast Open was the cherry on the cake for a great final of this particular season,” Aguerre said. “We learned from our defeat in the first game and that was a key for the final. We were able to beat a very good team and that was a result of teamwork and chemistry.”