It was fitting that John Goodman's Isla Carroll squad came away the victors in the 100th anniversary edition of the 26-goal U.S. Open Polo Championship. The tournament was hosted by Goodman's International Polo Club Palm Beach during its inaugural year.
The fresh, new club was a welcome addition to the Wellington, Florida, equestrian community after years of instability. The new season was reminiscent of the days when actors such as Merv Griffin, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Susan Lucci frequented Sunday polo and royals such as Lady Diana would come to watch her husband, Prince Charles, gallop across the manicured emerald field at Palm Beach Polo and Country Club, also in Wellington. That was in the 1980s, back when the polo players and their families would meet for brunch at the Player's Club, then wander over to watch the Sunday 3 o'clock match. After, everyone would head back to the Player's Club for cocktails. During the week, when families weren't watching polo, they were lounging around the club pool together.
As time went on, Palm Beach Polo Club was eventually sold to Landmark Land Co., which later filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The property was taken over by the Resolution Trust Corp. and was sold at auction to its current owner Glen Straub for $27.1 million in 1993. Though many talked about it, no polo players bid for the property. Though Straub eventually took up the sport, he didn't play when he purchased the club. A few years later the polo community began to splinter off. A group of players started a private polo league using their own private fields. And after Palm Beach hosted the U.S. Open for six years, the USPA awarded it to the Royal Palm Polo Sports Club in nearby Boca Raton in 2002 and again in 2003.
Though many players had invested large amounts of money in their Wellington polo properties, with about 25 private polo fields combined in the area, it was John Goodman who decided to step up and make polo what it had once been, not just for the players but for spectators, too. He envisioned more polo fields, a polo stadium, club house and facilities including a pool, tennis courts, restaurant and spa--a place where the members could enjoy spending time and where they would be proud to bring their friends on Sundays. He also wanted a place where riders from the nearby equestrian center would feel welcome, as would families in the local community.
He put three fields in last year, added to two existing fields, and bid for and received the U.S. Open. Once he got the permits for the buildings, he got right to work. The construction went on 24 hours a day, and Phase I was finished in 120 days, just in time for the start of the 2004 season. Phase II, including 36 more boxes and a 5,000 square foot ballroom/banquet facility are awaiting permitting and the club hopes to get started sometime this summer.
The club season got off to a great start with an 18-goal tournament and two 22 goals before starting the 26-goal season with first the C.V. Whitney and then ending the season with the grand finale, the U.S. Open. Memo Gracida said: "It was amazing. Everything was so exciting. All the tournaments--the 22 was brilliant, the 26 got the momentum of the 22 so it was a nice push."
In the Open 13 teams signed on and were divided into three divisions. Division I included five teams, each playing the other, with the top three teams advancing while Divisions II and III had four teams each and played across brackets, with the top five teams between those two divisions, advancing. Each team was given four preliminary games.
The early playoff games showed, Las Monjitas, Lechuza, White Birch and Bendabout, with a strong team including 5-goal Alejandro Astrada, who some thought could have supported a handicap raise, dominating. Catamount, Pony Express, Everglades, Old Pueblo and Isla Carroll, who has made it to the semifinals in each of the last two years, were showing promise. Millarville, San Saba, Orchard Hill and Texas Polo were struggling.
By the time the quarterfinals rolled around, there were no surprises. Catamount would meet Bendabout, Isla Carroll would take on Las Monjitas, Pony Express would battle Lechuza, and White Birch would go head to head with Old Pueblo. All of the games were played on Sunday April 11. Catamount's 10-goaler Mike Azzaro had been suffering with a back injury, and had enlisted the help of 10-goaler Adolfo Cambiaso, who has not participated in the Open the last two years. Cambiaso served as a valuable support to 9-goaler Carlos Gracida, who led the team with seven goals. By the end of the day Catamount had crushed Bendabout 10-4; Isla Carroll slipped past Las Monjitas 12-11 in overtime; White Birch, with Brant, who had been replaced by 4-goal Carlucho Arellano for a couple of games, back in the saddle, edged Old Pueblo 10-8; and Lechuza came out on top of a 13-11 score.
The excitement focused on the semifinal scheduled for the following Wednesday, but the weather, which had been glorious all season, gave out on Tuesday night. The semis were rescheduled for Thursday, and by then the fields were in great shape. Although the excitement mounted, nobody could have predicted what would happen. The first semifinal pitted Isla Carroll against Lechuza. Some wondered whether it would be a replay of last year's semi when Isla Carroll led by about eight goals before Lechuza came back after the half and took the win. This year's match got off to a rough start, with the teams playing an aggressive-style of polo. With just 27 seconds left in the first chukker, Isla Carroll's 9-goaler Memo Gracida and Lechuza's 10-goaler Sebastian Merlos came together, with Merlos crashing to the ground and injuring his shoulders and an elbow. A foul was called on Gracida and since Merlos was unable to continue Lechuza had the option of finding a substitute or invoking a Penalty, 7 which allows that when a player is disabled by a foul to the extent the umpire permits the player's retirement from the game, the captain of the team fouled can decide on the removal of a player from the fouling team whose handicap is nearest above that of the disabled player. If the disabled player's handicap is equal to or higher than that of any player on the fouling team, any member of the team can be sat down. Lechuza chose the latter, sitting down the closest handicapped player to Sebastian, which was Gracida, with 9 goals.
The game officials and members of both teams discussed the decision for nearly an hour before play resumed. The holdup apparently was that both teams were originally 26 goals, and Merlos is rated 10 and Gracida 9, so by taking these two players out, Lechuza would be disadvantaged at 16 goals, while Isla Carroll was 17 despite the fact that Isla Carroll had committed the foul. The umpires decided to finish the last seconds of the first chukker, then allowed Lechuza to replace their 3-goal Gaston Urturi with 4-goaler Jorge Rodriguez in the remainder of the game, bringing both teams to 17 goals.
After watching the game from the sidelines, Gracida commented: "For me it was a tragedy that happened today in the semifinals because it was a complete determent to polo, sportsmanship and the spirit of the game. In my game it should have never have happened. [Lechuza] has another team that has been playing in the preliminary games. They just wanted to do terrorist maneuvers ... and unfortunately it backfired for them because my team was much stronger." Later, he continued: "It took one hour to decide what was the solution to the problem or the application of the rule. I knew exactly what was going on, and [the officials] applied it the wrong way. ...We are playing the U.S. Open. All the teams assume 26 goals, you remove a 10-goal player, the team comes up with 16 goals. They cannot come up with 17 goals. The only reason I agreed to that was because the team they put on the field, I thought we had a good chance of beating them. Otherwise I would have had another hour arguing. ...
"Rule 7 is bad all the way. You cannot have three-against-three polo. It is cruel for the horses, it is unfair to the players, unfair to the patrons and unfair for the crowd that stays to watch a polo game, not a rule game." Earlier in the season Gracida, through International Polo Club, had requested a rule variation for substitutes. His feeling was that with so few 8-, 9- and 10-goal substitutes available, it would be better if teams were allowed to fill in with a beaten player, just for the game in which a player was injured. The USPA turned down the request, standing by its rule, which does not allow a player to play for more than one team in the same tournament.
Perhaps Lechuza made a mistake by choosing to play three on three rather than putting in their second team, which had played at least two of their four playoff games. Lechuza led 4-2 after the second chukker, but Isla Carroll took a 5-4 lead at the half and led 12-8 after five. Lechuza came back to within one to make it exciting, but time ran out and Isla Carroll won.
The crowd moved over to the main field to watch as Catamount and White Birch battled it out. It was a much closer game and both teams were playing well. Cambiaso was out of the country, so despite his injury Azzaro got back in the saddle for Catamount. It looked as though the time off worked well for Azzaro, and dribbling the ball or sending the long ball downfield didn't seem to bother him. At the half, the teams were tied 5-5. When the teams came back in the forth, the pressure was turned up a notch and just two minutes into play, 3-goaler Del Walton was knocked down by 4-goaler Pelon Escapite against the boards. Walton was momentarily knocked out and was not allowed to continue. White Birch decided to invoke the Penalty 7 and Escapite, the player with the nearest above handicap to Walton was sat down. White Birch took an 8-7 lead after the fourth, but Catamount led 11-10 after five. Then White Birch Patron Peter Brant decided to replace himself with Arellano in the last chukker. The crowd got their money's worth with the teams tying it up at 12, forcing overtime. Ten-goaler Mariano Aguerre broke the tie less than a minute into sudden death to bring White Birch closer to what they have never done before, win the U.S. Open.
White Birch's Aguerre said: "I am very happy we won; I am not happy the way we won it. I don't think the U.S. Open deserves two semifinals as the ones we have today, playing three on three. ... Azzaro started playing great when we play three on three, and Carlos let up a bit. I thought we had the momentum and we outplayed them from the second chukker on. The thing that happened to Del killed us, but we were lucky to come back in the fifth chukker." When asked if Brant would play the final, Aguerre smiled and said, "Peter, for sure, will play on Sunday. I don't think there is a person that wants to win this tournament more than Peter Brant, and I come a close second." It is the only high-goal tournament White Birch has not been able to claim.
Memo countered: "I think I am hungrier than he is. I have the taste and I know how wonderful it is.. ... This is the final for me. Every single final I have reached in the Open is a day to enjoy it. All the hard work is behind, we have prepared the horses, we have earned a place in the final, now we need to enjoy it and play the best we can, to the best of our ability and the result is secondary. I am totally relaxed."
The final, just three days later, pitted White Birch against Isla Carroll. The crowd started piling in hours before game time, enjoying brunch and strolling the vendor area, which included a mock-up of a Bombardier Learjet and a $1 million-plus recreational vehicle. As the roads continued to clog up with a constant stream of cars rolling in, jets flew overhead and the club recognized more than a dozen past U.S. Open champions, including Tim Gannon, Carlos Gracida and Gillian Johnston. Star Jones of ABC-TV's The View and actress Nicolette Sheridan handled the pre-game coin toss as the more than 6,000 people settled in to watch the match.
White Birch had beaten Isla Carroll 14-9 in the first round of the tournament and it looked like it might be a repeat. Aguerre scored the only goals in the first chukker and Walton added another in the second to take a 3-0 lead. Isla Carroll finally broke loose, scoring four in a row to take a 4-3 lead at the half. White Birch couldn't find the goal, while 8-goaler Pancho Bensadon added pairs of goals in the fourth and fifth chukkers to push Isla Carroll ahead 8-3 going into the final chukker. White Birch outscored Isla Carroll 3-2 in the sixth, but it was too little, too late as Isla Carroll took the championship.
"We just had a bad day," Aguerre said. "They're great winners. John [Goodman], after all he's done for polo, deserves this trophy more than anyone else. ... The horses got a little tired, but we didn't lose because of the horses. We lost because we couldn't keep up with the plan." Aguerre didn't go home emptyhanded. His horse Califa was named best playing pony.
Bensadon, who scored eight of his team's 10 goals, was named most valuable player.
Sugar Erskine was thrilled to have been on the winning team. "I feel like I shouldn't even be here. Ten years ago, I was just starting out and messing around and John Goodman took me under his wing. I feel like I can't believe the dream. I keep pinching myself."
The win was the second U.S. Open for Goodman. The first was in 1997 in another 10-6 game over White Birch. "It's a great feeling, something we worked for all year," said Goodman.
For the 47-year old Gracida, it was his 16th U.S. Open win. The last time was in 1997 with Isla Carroll. "Everybody worked, that was the great thing. I have to admit it was a mix of different styles, but we learned to play with each other. ... John had a dream. He wanted to play with this team and ... you have to give him a lot of credit. Some games Sugar played at back, some games he played at 1, I played 2, Pancho 3. We mixed every game, we tried all different things and in the final we had the perfect formula. ... For me, that day when I woke up in the morning I said this is written in the history books, this is our Open."