America downs England in historic challenge

The John R. Townsend Challenge Cup was vied for the fourth time since its inception
nearly 100 years ago. America downed England in each outing, including the most recent, which was held at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California on March 26.

Named for John R. Townsend, the Cup was first played in Manhattan in 1923. Townsend was a prominent figure in New York society and a longtime horseman who was an advocate for arena polo in the early years of its development. The trophy was first presented by Townsend for the Class A Championship from 1921 to 1933. In 1923 Townsend decided to offer the trophy for an international arena event, pitting a U.S. team against a team from England. It was this historic arena match that spurred the growth and development of arena polo in the U.S. The trophy continued to be awarded to winners of the Class A Championship, which became the Senior Championship in 1934 and was played for until 1957. Today, the trophy is engraved with winners of all three tournaments.

It wasn't until 81 years later, in 2004, that the trophy was again played as the international arena John R. Townsend Challenge Cup. The USPA awarded the cup to the Shallowbrook Polo Club in Storrs, Connecticut for the U.S. team of Tony Vita, Peter Daly, and Michael Zeliger to take on a visiting English team. The U.S. successfully defended the cup and it was shelved until 2008 when it was awarded to the Great Meadow Polo Club in The Plains, Virginia. The U.S. team of John Gobin, Adair Seager and Billy Sheldon took the victory over an English team that year. It hadn't been played for since then until it was awarded this winter to Empire.

Gobin was asked to come back to represent the U.S. and 7-goal Sheldon served as alternate and team coach. Arena 8-goalers Tommy Biddle and Shane Rice joined the 6- goal Gobin for a 22-goal team. They challenged a 22-goal English team of 6-goal Ryan Pemble, 9-goal Chris Hyde, and 7-goal Sebastian Dawnay. Tarquin Southwell, also 7-goals, served as alternate and coach.

Since none of the players had strings available in California and flew in for the match, the USPA rented 30 horses for the event and divided them into two strings, putting the teams on equal footing. Due to the time of year in Indio and the amount of grass polo being played, finding enough quality horses was a concern but Erik Wright, George Dill and Russ Sheldon stepped up and delivered. Each player had four horses and a spare to use. Sheldon explained that the physical strength and horsemanship of the U.S. team played in its favor. "While the horses were good, some were a little tougher than most guys would play. Our guys were able to muscle up when needed to get around."

The players arrived a few days early so they could practice and get used to the horses. Because of the high level of play, horses were changed halfway through each of the four chukkers, with no horse playing more than two half chukkers.

According to Biddle, since both teams were on borrowed horses, neither team had a horse advantage. The Brits advantage was having played arena polo in the months leading up to the tournament because the only polo played in the winter in England is arena polo, while the U.S. team didn't have a chance to practice in an arena or as a team before flying to California.

The event created a buzz around the desert and despite blustery, cold conditions on game day, a crowd of about 1000 surrounded Empire's arena to witness this historic matchup. The Haagan family and its Empire club made sure everything was in place from portable heaters, a bar and concessions to the arena expertly groomed and ready for some fast play.

Biddle had a lot of confidence in the team. "I love playing with John. We both want to win. Shane played better and better as the game went on. It was hard for him because he had to fit in with John and me who have played a lot together. It is hard to get by John."

Gobin, winner of four U.S. Arena Championships, was the first to find the target. Biddle followed with a goal and Gobin scored another before Pemble put England on the board. Dawnay scored at the end of the chukker to bring England within one but a half dozen fouls called on the English during the chukker slowed the action.

"The variation in the rules made a huge difference," explained Biddle. "In England, when you hit the ball out of the arena, the other team gets a penalty shot so they play more of an individual style, tapping the ball. We hit and ran."

The English team had talented players but the rule differences made it difficult. "The Brits always bring a talented squad and this time they did as well, but just like when we played in England, the differences in the rules always plays to a major disadvantage to the visiting team," explained Sheldon. "The Brits know what to do but if you spend a split second trying to figure out if you can go or not [based on the American rules], that little bit of hesitation is the difference between winning or losing a play at the 22-goal level. You can't think, you have to react much faster and it is tough to do when you are just being exposed to different variations of the rules."

A Penalty 1 in favor of the U.S. squad spread the gap in the second. England couldn't lose any more ground if it was going to win it and its players marked the U.S. players closely. Biddle added a goal but Pemble answered. Gobin found the goal but Dawnay responded.

Sheldon said, "Sometimes our guys got a little anxious and tried to do too much. We had spurts where one of our guys would try to check up to make a play behind his boot, but at the 22-goal level, someone good is always coming in fast behind you. They needed to trust that their teammate would be that next guy coming and play through." Gobin scored two more to put the U.S. up 8- 4 but Hyde scored to end the chukker.

Sheldon told the team at the half that the only thing they need to do differently was to calm down. "All three of our guys are great players and teammates. They wanted to win so bad, especially Shane and Tommy, that they were sometimes pushing a little too hard and trying to do too much. John was the beneficiary of their over-exuberance and capitalized with a bunch of goals that were left on the field," explained Sheldon. At halftime they regrouped and played much better the second half.

The U.S. team was gelling nicely, as Sheldon had hoped. "One of the components when I selected the team was to try and match players who had played together before, maybe not as a team, but together at some point, which they had."

The U.S. team was hitting and running with the ball while England seemed to be trying to slow it down a bit. Sheldon said, "The British style of play is to do more 32 POLO P L A Y E R S E D I T I O N dribble and run, but they seemed to struggle on our dirt surfaces more so than their rubberized playing surfaces in England. We manned up hard on defense and hit away."

Overall, the footing was good. It started out in excellent condition, however it began to get chopped up a bit after a while. Nonetheless, by all accounts it was an exceptional place to host arena polo of this caliber.

The U.S. kept up the pressure in the third with Gobin and Shane Rice combining for three goals before Hyde found the mark for England. Entering the last period England trailed by five. A pair of goals by Biddle put the game all but out of reach. But Hyde and Dawnay didn't let up and responded with goals. Rice scored but Dawnay answered. Gobin scored the last goal putting the U.S. ahead 15-9 with under a minute left.

Night had settled in by the time the evening match was over. Trophies were presented to both teams under the lights. John Gobin was high-scorer with seven goals. Tommy Biddle was named match MVP. Best Playing Pony for the U.S. went to Kat, played by Shane Rice and owned by Poway Polo, while Best Playing Pony for the English went to Eric Wright's Soco, played by Ryan Pemble.

After the game, Biddle was smiling from ear to ear. "Since my dad has been [USPA] chairman, there has been more international competitions, but mostly the U.S. has gotten the short end of the stick. We lost by a goal in the Westchester Cup and we lost in England. So, it was important for us to pull out a victory here. I am glad we were able to do it."

Biddle noted that shortly after the Brits returned home, two of the players were raised a goal in the arena. Ryan Pemble went from 6 goals to 7; while Sebastian Dawnay went from 7 goals to 8. The Brits would like the U.S. team to play in England next year. Biddle hopes to play with the same team.

POLO Players' Edition 2773 W Forest Hill Blvd, Suite 206 • Wellington, FL 33414 Phone: 561.968.5208 Fax: 561.968.5209 Email Address: info@poloplayersedition.com

Polo Players Edition Online Magazine, a publication dedicated to the sport of polo and the lifestyle of polo players, is copyright protected. NOTHING from this site may be copied without permission of the publisher.