After an 11-month delay, La Indiana finally closed out the 2020 Gauntlet of Polo season with a USPA Gold Cup victory, Feb. 14. The team ousted defending champion Pilot in the semi-final and downed Daily Racing Form in the final to take the title and the $100,000 prize money.
The Gauntlet of Polo includes the C.V. Whitney, the Gold Cup and the U.S. Open, all played at the 22-goal level.
The tournament got underway on February 23. 2020 with 14 teams in contention. The teams were divided into four brackets. La Indiana topped Bracket I with a 2-1 record; Pilot went undefeated, topping Bracket II; Las Monjitas (2-1) led Bracket III; and Dutta Corp. finished undefeated at the top of Bracket IV. These teams advanced to the quarterfinals along with three teams with 2-1 records: Santa Clara, Park Place and Patagones. The remaining spot was filled after Daily Racing Form, Tonkawa, Coca Cola and Equuleus, all with 1-2 records, had a shootout. Jared Zenni advanced DRF after scoring all of his shots.
About that time, COVID-19 was starting to take hold around the country. International Polo Club closed its doors to the public, limiting entrance to club members, game officials and teams and their staffs.
Pilot (Curtis Pilot, Lucas Escobar, Gonzalito Pieres, Facundo Pieres), Las Monjitas (Camilo Bautista, Mackenzie Weisz, Francisco Elizalde, Pelon Stirling), DRF (Costi Caset, Agustin Obregon, Jared Zenni, Tommy Collingwood) and La Indiana (Michael Bickford, Jeff Hall, Polito Pieres, Santi Gomez Romero) emerged from the quarter-finals, advancing to the semi-final. The teams that did not make the quarter-finals played a consolation match on March 17. The same day, the USPA announced it was suspending all USPA events for 14 days but a few days later, the balance of the Gauntlet of Polo season was canceled, including the Gold Cup semi-final and final and the entire U.S. Open. It was the first time since World War II that the Open wasn’t played.
Players made their way back to Florida by the end of the year to prepare for the 2021 Gauntlet of Polo, but first the 2020 Gold Cup needed to be completed.
“Last year when the tournament was canceled due to COVID-19, I didn’t know if we were every going to get here,” Hall said.
Unfortunately, Los Monjitas patron Camilo Bautista was unable to compete this year, so Melissa Ganzi replaced him in the semi-final. The team came with a new line-up of 10-goalers Pablo Mac Donough and Juan Martin Nero and 2-goaler Marc Ganzi.
Melissa Ganzi recently overcame breast cancer so the players wore pink armbands in the semi-final games in her honor. The first semi saw Melissa, playing her first competition post-treatment, and the Las Monjitas team take on Daily Racing Form, the only team to play with last year’s line-up. The teams started out slowly with each team tallying just once in the first. Las Monjitas got a one-goal edge in the second, but DRF caught up to end the half level, 5-5. Las Monjitas again went up by one before DRF knotted it back up in the fifth. The teams were still tied with under a minute left when Zenni found the goal to win the match for DRF.
The other semi-final pitted La Indiana against Pilot, the team that won the inaugural Gauntlet of Polo. That season, Pilot went 16-0 for the season. In 2020, Pilot kept the momentum, winning all its preliminary games in the first leg, the C.V. Whitney Cup, to advance to the semi-final. It faced La Indiana and for the first time in Gauntlet play, lost the match. This season, the teams were facing each other once again. Both teams had slightly different line-ups—Keko Magrini taking Lucas Escobar’s place and Nico Escobar taking Santi Gomez Romero’s place. Additionally, Michael Bickford was unable to play so he was replaced by young hotshot Juan Cruz Marcos.
“I wish Santiago [Gomez Romero] was here because he helped us get to the semifinal and it’s too bad he couldn’t be here,” Hall said.
A confident La Indiana jumped out to an early 3-1 lead. The teams matched goals—including a pair of Penalty 1s for La Indiana—in the second and third, allowing La Indiana to carry the two-goal advantage into the half. A strong fourth increased the difference to four. Pilot rallied in the fifth to come back within two. Pilot scored three goals in the final period, while holding La Indiana to one. But La Indiana’s third Penalty 1 tipped the scales, allowing it to advance, 16-15.
A few days later, La Indiana met Daily Racing Form in the final. Bickford was still not able to play, so Marcos again filled in for him, however Marcos had played so well in the previous game, his handicap was raised from 2 to 3 goals. That meant La Indiana, now 23 goals, would have to give DRF a handicap goal. Zenni struck first, sinking a Penalty 2 to add to it. Escobar, kicked off the scoring for La Indiana and got the team on a roll. It was one of numerous key plays Escobar made.
Escobar said, “I have a really good relationship with Polito and Jeff, and they both help me out a lot. I’m learning so much from them, like how to keep myself 100 percent focused throughout all six chukkers of the game and not to get distracted.”
La Indiana went on to score eight times in the next two chukkers, leaving DRF in its tracks, 9-2.
Coach Tincho Merlos seemed to motivate DRF at the halftime break and it came out scoring three goals while holding La Indian to one. It was still trailing 10-5 when La Indiana hammered in four goals in the fifth. Obregon found the goal and a trio of Penalty 3 conversions over the last two periods was not enough to dig DRF out of the hole it was in.
La Indiana had the 14-9 win. Jeff Hall was named MVP. “All of us try so hard. We train and are working at the barn every day,” Hall explained. “I take it very seriously, so it’s always a great feeling to be recognized for all the hard work [I] put in.”
Polito Pieres’ Machitos Pangia (Durazno x Pandora) was Best Playing Pony. The 8-year-old bay mare was played in the crucial fifth period. “Last year, the USPA did a horse feature on Machitos Pangia and this year she won her first Best Playing Pony award, so I’m really happy with her,” Pieres said.
Daily Racing Form didn’t go home empty handed. The runner-up took home $25,000 in prize money.
Nine teams are competing in this year’s Gauntlet of Polo, which began with the C.V. Whitney Cup on Feb. 17.