BROKEN CURSE
White Birch beats all odds to win U.S. Open.
by Gwen Rizzo

THE THRILL OF VICTORY
Last year it was the Red Sox. This year it was White Birch. The Red Sox baseball team hadn’t captured a world series since 1918. They came close, losing the series in the final game on five occasions. Just when it seemed they probably never would win another, they beat out the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 2004 World Series. For years, the team was labeled cursed, and when the Red Sox finally won the headlines rang out in every major news organization announcing the curse had been broken.


 
 

Peter Brant’s White Birch team has a reputation as one of the top polo organizations in the world. They had won every major high goal polo tournament in the United States over the last 25 years except for one—the most prestigious, the 26-goal U.S. Open. For the past 11 years, the team, led by current 10-goaler Mariano Aguerre, has tried to win the Open but each time they have fallen short of their goal.
In 1994 the Open was brought back to the East Coast, and specifically Meadowbrook, Long Island, New York, after years of being moved around from California, Chicago and even Kentucky. That was the first year White Birch entered a team, and they almost won it, losing to Aspen in the final seconds on a controversial play. That game was symbolic of the luck the team has had ever since.
“If we had won the final in ’94, things would be totally different now,” lamented Aguerre.
Whether it was bad luck or not, something has kept them from winning the trophy ever since. Last year, they went down in the final game. Aguerre said: “We made it to the final but weren’t close to winning. It was the first year [Lucas Criado and I] played together and we probably used the horses too much earlier in the season. ... Until 2004 we were just a mediocre team in the Open. We’ve done [well] everywhere else, but in the Open we were pretty much 50-1. If you asked me then I would have said no, but now I realize we were far from winning it.”
Despite the unsuccessful years, the team kept trying. “Since ’94 Peter has been putting pressure to win the Open. We were focused on winning, but the last two years we were focused the right way,” said Aguerre.
Said longtime team manager Nick Manifold: “That is the greatest thing about Peter as a patron. If we lose a game, he says go back to the board, regroup, find out where we can get better horses.”
White Birch had an impressive string of horses and a good organization, but Aguerre wanted to find the right combination of players to win. He got along well with Criado the previous year, and Criado showed his commitment to the team by bringing in his best horses from Argentina. With Brant, the highest-rated amateur with 4 goals at back, they needed a good 3-goal No. 1. They found it in 16-year-old Julio Gracida. It was an unlikely pairing since Aguerre and White Birch were longtime rivals with Julio’s father, former 10-goaler Memo Gracida.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

“Last year I saw him play and I wanted to play with him. I knew he was going to be wellmounted. He is a guy you don’t have to tell what to do and is a young guy with potential to play higher than his handicap,” said Aguerre.
Memo Gracida said: “We have had big battles but have always respected each other. They are temperamental players, and I thought it might not be a good experience for him, but they treated him like the golden child. These guys have incredible patience, and that’s what made the team work so well.”
Memo had collected an impressive string of horses for Julio and worked with him to get him used to playing at the 26-goal level on a regular basis. “In the middle of the second tournament I started feeling confident,” explained Julio Gracida. “I had to learn how to be quicker and think faster, to anticipate.”
This year International Polo Club Palm Beach, which hosts the Open, offered three 26-goal tournaments, following its 22-goal tournaments, beginning with the 26-goal Joe Barry Memorial, the C.V. Whitney and finally the U.S. Open.
As a warm up for the 26-goal season, White Birch played in one of the 22 goals. A neighbor of Aguerre’s in Argentina had a 4- goal son, Martin Ravina, who had moved with his horses to Florida hoping to find a playing job. When Brant was unable to make a few games during the 22-goal, Aguerre decided to give the 24-year-old a chance. Aguerre offered him the use of a horse or two to help out his string. The team didn’t make the final.
By the time the first 26-goal tournament got underway, White Birch won three games leading up to the final. Brant played the first game, but Ravina was called in for the next two, each won by a goal. Brant played the final against S.K. Johnston’s Skeeterville squad, with White Birch coming from a 7-3 deficit to win 11-10. Winning the first event in itself could have been a curse. Maintaining a string of horses through a difficult tournament takes a lot of preparation, and doing so through more than one tournament is almost impossible. Horses have to be fit enough from the beginning, but not so much so that they peak too early. Aguerre worked together with Manifold to try to find the perfect balance for the horses. “We doubled our second string in the beginning so we played every game at a high level. That made a difference. I saved two horses, High Ride and Bengalita, for the Open.” Another horse, Califa, played in the semifinal and final of the C.V. Whitney because Aguerre thought the horse needed those games to get fit for the Open.
During the C.V. Whitney, Brant again had to miss three of four games and Ravina was once again called to fill in. The team was gaining momentum and was beating the other teams by an average of six goals. Soon, the sidelines were buzzing with claims of cheating and ringers, and before long Ravina had drawn the attention of the USPA Handicap Committee. The Handicap Committee reportedly met to review his handicap on two occasions. Apparently, both times it was decided that his handicap would remain unchanged. With Brant back in the lineup for the final, White Birch went on to defeat Neil Hirsch’s Black Watch team 10-9 in overtime, capturing their second 26-goal tournament in three weeks. But could they could keep up this remarkable momentum?
A few days later, at the U.S. Open press conference, Aguerre was asked if he thought White Birch was cursed like the Boston Red Sox. A big fan of baseball, the allusion wasn’t lost on Aguerre, and he pointed out that the Red Sox had finally won the World Series. In their first Open game, White Birch crushed Isla Carroll 12-4. After, the Handicap Committee met again, but this time they decided to raise Ravina by two goals, effective immediately.
Aguerre admits Ravina was playing better than 4-goal polo but thinks the way his handicap was raised was unfair. “Two meetings [the Handicap Committee] says no ... then we beat Isla Carroll and the next thing we know he is 6 goals. It didn’t look good ... He was certainly playing more than 4 goals but I don’t think they did it correctly.” The change put White Birch at 28 goals, but the team was allowed to play as long as they gave opposing teams the handicap differential. This was because of a rule put into place this year at the request of high-goal teams.
White Birch faced Scott Devon’s 26-goal Catamount team, and after giving them a 2- goal handicap to start, White Birch still trounced them 18-10. Black Watch faced a similar fate, losing to White Birch 14-11.
Though Ravina was playing well, so were the rest of the teammates. “ You can’t tell me Julio Gracida was playing [only] 3 goals, and Lucas wasn’t playing as good as any player this season. The team was playing well,” said Aguerre. Even the usually vocal Aguerre was quiet, working hard and playing better than ever. Aguerre attributes this to “knowing we were doing things right before the game, having a strategy, and the zero tolerance rule helped, too! ... Screaming is a symptom of desperation, so ... maybe I’ve matured, or I realized I wasn’t using the full potential of my teammates. The more calm you are, the better chances you have.” What’s more, the entire team was mounted on what seemed like an endless supply of incredible horses.
In the next game Brant was back in the lineup, but the night before, his best friend and business partner had unexpectedly died. White Birch suffered its first loss at the hands of Old Pueblo, 12-11. According to Julio Gracida, this loss ended up being a blessing in disguise because it gave the team an easier game in the quarterfinal. Once Brant was back and the team was down to 26 goals, it had to remain at 26 goals, meaning Ravina could no longer play. When Brant couldn’t make White Birch’s quarterfinal match against Loro Piana, 4- goaler Del Walton took his place. White Birch advanced to the semifinal.
Meanwhile, Skeeterville was working hard, with Julio Arellano putting in the performances of his life. They lost their first game in the final of the Hall of Fame Cup against White Birch and lost only one game in the C.V. Whitney, to Orchard Hill, 14-12, keeping them out of the final. In the Open, they won all of their preliminary matches on the way to the final. In the semifinals, Skeeterville ousted Bendabout, while White Birch advanced over Catamount.
International Polo Club Palm Beach made sure everything was in place for the tournament, but especially the final game. The club opened separate gates and parking areas for general admission, members and box-seat holders, and players and spread the word to come earlier. This helped to alleviate the traffic concerns of the previous year. The club arranged for entertainment between chukkers and had helicopters bring in champagne at halftime. Clowns strolled the sidelines and giveaways were thrown into the crowds. More than 7,000 people packed the club for the final match.
Brant was originally expected to play but decided to sit this one out, too. “He played one game then didn’t come for two weeks. He couldn’t even make a practice, so there was no way he would have been able to [play]. Even if he was having a great day, his horses were completely out of shape and couldn’t have responded to him.”
From the first throw-in, the game got rolling. It was wide open, with little fouling. White Birch drew first blood with a lone goal in the first and scored three unanswered goals in the second to take a convincing four-goal lead. Skeeterville found their way in the third, scoring three in a row and four total to end the half trailing 4-6.
It was the type of match every polo junkie hopes for. In the second half, Criado put White Birch ahead, but Arellano reacted with a trio to tie the score. Skeeterville sandwiched a goal around another from Criado to take a first-time lead in the fifth. It was neck and neck as Criado tied the match in the sixth, then Arellano and Criado swapped penalty conversions to force sudden-death overtime. The crowd, though largely cheering for Skeeterville, was on their feet.
“I would love to have people on my side but it doesn’t bother me. I understand there are issues between White Birch and the USPA and I learn to live with it because I’m part of White Birch,” Aguerre said.
The final chukker lasted only a few minutes. Skeeterville unsuccessfully shot at goal a few times before one of their players caught the umpires’ whistle. The ball was placed on the 30-yard line in favor of White Birch. With what felt like the weight of the world on his shoulders, Criado took the shot and drove it through the uprights. Criado jumped from his horse, while Aguerre stepped off his horse and dropped to his knee. “I was just thankful to everything. Everything seemed beautiful then.” Gracida hugged his proud father while the Skeeterville teamed seemed stunned.
The White Birch team celebrated as they grasped the coveted U.S. Open trophy they had longed for. Suddenly, the release of all the pressure finally brought Aguerre to tears. Julio Arellano was honored as most valuable player, while his mare Malia took best playing pony honors. As the trophies were placed in his hands, Arellano broke down, thinking of the loss and at the same time appreciating the recognition of his hard work. Aguerre said Julio played fantastic, but he was disappointed MVP didn’t go to one of the White Birch players.
Aguerre said: “I remember a phrase from Jack Nicklaus, ‘If you keep putting yourself in contention, eventually the breaks are going to go your way.’ That was my saying the whole season.” When Aguerre called Brant about the win he said, “You broke the curse!”
Aguerre said, “Now, I want to win it with Peter. He deserves it more than anybody.”