Appearing in its second consecutive national final, Hotels at Sea made the most of it, capturing the title in the United States Arena Handicap at Twilight Polo Club in The Plains, Virginia on Oct. 2.
Fueled from its recent National Arena Chairman’s Cup victory, Hotels At Sea’s unified teamwork and familiarity propelled it in the United States Arena Handicap. After advancing in a narrow victory in the semifinals, Hotels At Sea was challenged by a determined Core Real Estate for the opportunity to claim the championship title and $20,000 grand prize.
Held at the brand-new arena outside downtown Middleburg, Virginia, Hotels At Sea (Tareq Salahi, Jorge “Tolito” Fernandez Ocampo Jr, Marcos Bignoli) and Core Real Estate (Andrew Baldwin, Wyatt Harlow, Connor Deal, John Gobin) delivered a captivating final of high-stakes fall polo. A whopping $40,000 in total prize money was awarded; $10,000 for second place, followed by $7,000 for third and $3,000 for the fourth-place team as part of the USPA Prize Money Match Program.
Starting with two goals on handicap, Gobin extended the scoring to three in the beginning of the first for Core Real Estate, followed by a quick response from Ocampo. As each team tried to establish their early strategies, Baldwin slammed in a two-point goal for Core Real Estate.
An arena newcomer playing his first arena tournament, Baldwin, who has a background in lacrosse and extreme sports, relished the challenge of arena polo. “[There’s] faster transitions than in the grass, the strategy [is] way different, working the angles and the boards,” he said.
Continuing the momentum from the beginning of the chukker, Gobin added another goal, giving Core Real Estate a 7-4 lead at the end of the first.
Despite trailing early, Hotels At Sea teammates were confident in their team chemistry and ability to communicate. Competing together as a team for three years, Salahi shared, “We know how to switch strategy and sometimes we do it in the middle of a chukker.” It was this familiarity that led to Salahi’s successful two-goal second chukker.
Ocampo said, “The idea was to find a position for [Tareq], where to be when Marcos and I hit the ball.” Playing unified was important for Ocampo. “[As] the highest handicap on your team, your job is not to play more than your handicap, it’s making your teammates play higher than their handicap,” he said.
The ability to adjust mid-chukker and utilize quick passing allowed Bignoli, with his own two-pointer, and Ocampo to join Salahi on the scoreboard in the third chukker as Hotels At Sea moved full steam ahead, leading 12-9 at halftime.
Not to be deterred by their three-goal deficit, Core Real Estate’s Harlow, substituting in the final for Deal, posted two goals in the third chukker, including a successful penalty conversion. Ultimately, the chukker would belong to Hotels At Sea as Bignoli and Ocampo continued their offensive onslaught and accurate shooting, adding a combined four goals to take their team into the final chukker with a five-goal lead.
With the fourth chukker underway, Core Real Estate began the push for a final comeback opportunity. Gobin hitting the goal mouth first was a good reminder for Hotels at Sea that there was no space to relax. Having played with Gobin previously, Salahi was cautiously aware and appreciative of his talents. “He knows my strengths and weaknesses, where I’m not going to be strong and ready. He comes to those areas, so we had to switch it up,” he explained. Hotels At Sea’s strategic execution and healthy respect for its opponents allowed it to hold Core Real Estate to just two goals from Harlow and Baldwin. Bignoli and Ocampo capped-off their tournament with an additional goal each as Hotels At Sea sailed to the 18-14 victory.
Ocampo was named MVP, finishing the day with an impressive nine goals and five assists, despite competing in only his fifth lifetime arena match. He reflected on his new journey into arena polo as differing from his experiences in Argentina.
“We arrive here [in the United States] and I’m a 6-goal [handicap] and I’m going against someone who is a 1-goaler, but he’s smart because he knows indoor polo. I don’t know this sport and it’s hard to play, but it’s good because every [type of] polo you play, makes you think and teaches you a lot,” Ocampo said.
Still learning and growing in his polo career and the American arena polo system in particular, he is thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to challenge himself in prestigious tournaments such as the United States Arena Handicap. “I want to be open; I want to play any polo,” he said.
Best Playing Pony honors were presented to Chrome, a fiery 15-year-old American Thoroughbred chestnut mare played and owned by Gobin in the second and fourth chukkers.
“I bought her from Justin Pimsner seven years ago,” Gobin said. “She is very athletic and fast, so she makes for a perfect polo pony. She has a little crazy chestnut in her though because you can only get on her if you are in the arena or on the field, otherwise she rears and brings you back to the trailer! Her craziness is worth putting up with once you start playing though because you feel like you can get to any ball or outrun anyone on the field.”
Overjoyed by the victory, Salahi took the time to recognize the fans in attendance contributing to an electric atmosphere.
“It’s great to see [them] here. It really drives us to play stronger and more aggressive polo,” he said.
In addition to claiming the title of United States Arena Handicap champions, Hotels At Sea also received the $20,000 grand prize check. When Bignoli was asked what he was going to do with his share, his answer was practical yet poignant. “Build more fences on my farm,” he said.
Hotels At Sea will now set their sights on fielding a team for the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship to be held at Twilight Polo Club next year. The challenge to assemble a competitive team is one that Bignoli embraces.
“[Tareq] says next year he wants to do the U.S. Arena Open, so we’ll see,” he said.