There is no doubt the guys in pink showed up to win. And the other 11 teams that participated in the U.S. Open Championship tournament knew early Crab Orchard was the team to beat. But as the season wound down, people were less sure. In an exciting finale, Crab Orchard overcame another colorful team, Las Monjitas, outfitted in bright orange, 15-12 to take the coveted trophy and reaffirm it ruled the field.
The U.S. Open is the crown jewel of the
high-goal polo season in the United
States. The tournament, sponsored by
Stanford Financial Group, is played at the
International Polo Club Palm Beach in
Wellington, Florida, the first three weeks in
April. The tournament ends the high-goal
season, which begins in mid-January with
two 20-goal events—the Joe Barry Memorial
and the Ylvisaker Cup—before the 26-goal
series begins with the C.V. Whitney, the
Gold Cup and finally the Open.
George Rawlings’ Crab Orchard team
played its first of two seasons with 10-goal
phenomenon Adolfo Cambiaso last year.
Cambiaso was red hot, and the team, with
Matias Magrini and David Stirling, lost only
two games all season. Crab Orchard lost the
first game of the C.V. Whitney, sending the
team to the subsidiary Iglehart Cup, which
it won. It then went on to win the Gold Cup.
The team lost just one game in the U.S.
Open but had already qualified for the
quarterfinals. It eventually won the Open,
beating a tough Jedi team.
Usually, at least one member of the winning Open team gets his handicap
raised, and since most winning teams play
with no less than a 26-goal team, the player
is unable to play with the same team the
following year. Cambiaso clearly played a
goal above any other 10-goaler in the
tournament, but his 10-goal handicap can’t
be raised any further. He also seems to make
anyone playing on his team play a goal
better than his handicap. After the season,
Magrini was raised from 9 to 10 goals, and
Rawlings was raised from A to 1 goal.
“Pelon” Stirling remained at 8 goals.
Rawlings would have to start over to find
another winning team for 2008.
“We are very dependent on [team
manager] Rosendo Usandizaga,” Rawlings
said. “He has been with us 17 years. We go
into a tournament with the objective of
trying to win it. Rosendo sets the tone. He
brings us options of what he would see as
good starting points and then works with
those players to assemble a team that works.
... You have to go into the tournament with
the idea of a team to win it. You go in with
a team that looks like a winner from the
beginning. You have to have that attitude to
Cambiaso is a good core player to have.
He is tough on defense and has no difficulty
taking the ball from anyone. He is nearly
flawless at offense, tapping the ball on the
end of his mallet, winding in and around his
opponents, or hitting 150 yards down the
field—whatever is necessary. He can even
back the ball or turn it on a dime. He plays
No. 1 in the Argentine Open but just as
easily slips into the No. 3 shirt.
With Usandizaga’s and Cambiaso’s help,
Rawlings enlisted the services of 6-goal Jeff
Blake and 9-goal Nachi Heguy. Heguy
hadn’t played much with Cambiaso, but he
said, “We have known each other a very long
time and have always had a very good
relationship [on and off] the polo field. I
really enjoyed playing together the Palm
The new team started out similarly to last
year, losing its first game of the C.V. Whitney
but winning the subsidiary Iglehart Cup.
The team was playing well, but it didn’t seem
to have the sparkle it had the previous year.
Rawlings conceded: “[Coming in with a new
team] was difficult. We were so confident
and attached to the team last year. We won
the Open and had to come in with new
players. I thought immediately Nachi and
Jeff had a lot of pressure to perform well
and win. It took a little while to get their
confidence and get used to the team.”
Still the team was having a lot of success.
Like last year, it lost one game in the Gold
Cup, but it was a semifinal game, so it was
unable to advance. It lost at the hands of
Camilo Bautista’s Las Monjitas team, which
went on to win the tournament.
Crab Orchard was beginning to find its
stride by the time the team reached the
Open. While last year it was beating teams
by an average of seven goals a match, this
year it was less convincing, winning by just a
goal or two. While last year it wasn’t
surprising when Cambiaso single-handedly
scored 13 goals in one match, this year he
was held to four or five. Nonetheless, the
team was still winning games and finished
its preliminary matches leading Bracket II
with a 2-0 record.
In Bracket I, Skeeterville was leading
after edging newcomer Zacara 11-10 and
Isla Carroll 12-9. In Bracket III, Las
Monjitas led after defeating Lechuza
Caracas 13-10 and White Birch 11-10.
Lechuza Caracas had perhaps the biggest
mountain to climb after revamping its team
prior to the start of the Open. Victor Vargas
replaced 9-goaler Pite Merlos and his
brother 10-goal Sebastian Merlos with 7-goal
Guille Aguero and 8-goaler Sapo Caset,
dropping his team from 26 goals to 22 goals.
Six-goaler Nicolas Espain remained with the
team. Since it is an open tournament, no
handicap goals are given. Still, the team
played remarkably well, and lost its first two
matches by just two goals. Vargas had
perhaps his best season.
Zacara and Audi also made lineup
changes. Zacara exchanged 7-goal back
Tommy Biddle for 6-goal forward Pelon
Escapite, and Audi traded away Juan Bollini
for Santiago Chavanne.
The three teams with 2-0 records,
Skeeterville, Crab Orchard and Las
Monjitas, would go straight to the
quarterfinals, while the six teams sporting 1-
1 records would play off. Of those, the top
five teams would advance to the
quarterfinals, while the team with the lowest
net goals would be eliminated and drop into
the subsidiary Hall of Fame Cup with the
three 0-2 teams, Bendabout, Lechuza and Orchard Hill.
The first two games were won by a
one-goal margin, some say predictably,
allowing both winner and loser to
advance. That left White Birch and Isla
Carroll in a fight to the finish. Both
teams left no doubt they were playing to
win. White Birch had a strong first
chukker, but Isla Carroll fought back to
trail by just a goal, 7-6, at the half. The
next two chukkers were a back-and-forth
battle with the teams entering the sixth
tied 11-11. In the final chukker Isla
Carroll converted a Penalty 2, but White
Birch answered with the same. White
Birch scored, but Isla Carroll answered.
White Birch scored again, but Isla
Carroll responded to stay tied. With just
35 seconds left 4-goal Martin Aguerre
scored, giving White Birch the win.
The quarterfinals were scheduled for
four days later. First up was Crab
Orchard against Audi. Crab Orchard led
3-1 after the first period, but the teams
were tied by the half. Crab Orchard
outscored Audi 3-1 in the fourth
and held on for the 13-12 win.
Next Pony Express faced
Skeeterville. The teams were tied
in each of the first three chukkers,
but Pony Express came on strong
in the second half to eliminate
In the White Birch vs. Zacara
match, White Birch held a narrow
9-8 lead at the half but came on
stronger in the second half and
Las Monjitas, which was
playing strongly during the
tournament, held a convincing 9-
4 lead after three periods against
Black Watch. Black Watch fought
back in the second half, scoring
seven goals, including five penalty
conversions, but Las Monjitas
held on to the lead, winning 13-11.
The semifinals would pit Pony
Express against Crab Orchard, while
Las Monjitas would face White Birch.
By now Crab Orchard was finding its
groove. Rawlings says: “We were
playing our best at the quarterfinals,
semis and final. Throughout the
tournament we were under control ...
We peaked at the right time. Las
Monjitas beat us in the semis of the
Gold Cup. That was the worst game
we played throughout the season. It
took longer for us to peak, but we
came to win the Open, not the Gold
Cup, so it wasn’t discouraging.”
Heguy considered the last three games
the most difficult because “having a bad day
means the end of the tournament.”
For Las Monjitas 8-goal Nacho Astrada
stepped up his game, and the team, threequarters
of their Argentine Open team, was
beginning to catch people’s attention.
Pony Express would have to bring on its
best game if it was going to get in the final.
It scored first, but Crab Orchard responded
with three in a row. Pony Express, with 2007
Crab Orchard teammates Magrini and
Stirling, tried to hold back the Crab
Orchard wall, but Crab Orchard scored two
more while Pony Express came up empty.
Both teams scored a pair of goals in the
third, leaving Crab Orchard ahead 7-4. Pony
Express cut its deficit by one in the fourth
but couldn’t gain any more ground in the
fifth. Pony Express outscored Crab Orchard
2-1 in the last chukker, but it wasn’t enough.
For Las Monjitas, Nacho Astrada came
on strong, scoring four goals, while White
Birch was held to two. Nine-goal Lucas
Monteverde converted three open-goal
penalties in the second, while Las Monjitas
tallied two Penalty 4 conversions. The teams
traded goals in the third, with Las Monjitas
holding a 7-6 lead. The three Novillo
Astrada brothers on Las Monjitas tagteamed
the White Birch principals,
Monteverde and 10-goal Mariano Aguerre,
any time either of them went near the ball.
White Birch reached the uprights on
just one offensive drive in the second
half. It also converted four Penalty 2s,
but Las Monjitas scored five to hold
on and win.
The final promised to be a battle.
Las Monjitas had momentum, and
some questioned whether Crab
Orchard would be able to stop it.
Hours before the start of the match
the first of some 8,000 spectators
began entering through the club
With much anticipation, the ball
was thrown in. Cambiaso wasted no time in
putting it through the goalposts. Las
Monjitas responded with two to show it
wasn’t going to let the game get away.
Cambiaso scored again, but Nacho Astrada
answered. Nachi Heguy converted a penalty
to end the first chukker tied 3-3. Crab
Orchard took control in the second chukker.
Heguy scored three, added to goals from
Cambiaso and Jeff Blake. Las Monjitas was
held to two goals from Nacho Astrada,
including a Penalty 2. The teams traded
goals in the third, ending the half with Crab
Orchard sporting a 3-goal lead.
This was not the position Las Monjitas
wanted to find itself in to start the second
half. Las Monjitas would have to do some
damage control to stay in the game. The team marked its opponents closer,
but it backfired when its players
were whistled. Crab Orchard was
awarded two Penalty 2s in a row,
which Heguy easily converted.
Nacho Astrada converted a
Penalty 3, but his team was now
trailing by four.
Everyone on Crab Orchard was
playing well, but the surprise was
how well Blake was playing. He
not only brought his best game at
6 goals, but many people thought he played
at least two goals better than his handicap,
if not more. He didn’t back off from the
higher-rated opponents and made several
crucial plays, making it necessary for one of
the Astradas to mark him. This left just one
man each to cover Heguy and Cambiaso,
rather than the tag-teaming Las Monjitas
had done against other teams.
Las Monjitas made up some ground in
the fifth when Javier Astrada scored three
goals, including two penalty shots, while
holding Crab Orchard to one. Down by just
two going into the sixth, Las Monjitas knew
it had to strike early. It shot at goal a few
times but missed. It was not to be. Cambiaso
sent the ball through the uprights from the
60-yard penalty line on two occasions as
time was winding down. Javier Astrada
scored from the field late in the chukker,
but it was too little, too late. Crab Orchard took the 15-12 victory. Blake was named
most valuable player. Cambiaso’s mare Sylvia
took best playing pony of the final, while
Nacho Novillo Astrada’s Pico Blanco took
best playing pony of the tournament.
“I have to commend Las Monjitas. They
are an excellent team. The three brothers are
great, and Camilo played a great game,”
Nachi Heguy became the first Heguy to
win the U.S. Open. He said, “It is an honor
to win the U.S. Open. It is quite gratifying to
win one of the best three tournaments in the
world ... It is more than satisfying. It had
been a few years since I played the U.S.
season, and I put a lot of effort into being
well-organized, and it really paid off.”
Having won the Open two years in a row,
Rawlings said: “Every polo player looks at the
Open as the pinnacle of U.S. polo.
To win it the first time is so
exciting. The second time is
satisfaction for a job well done—you
know it’s not a fluke.” Still, he says,
both wins were really special.
Playing with Cambiaso, largely
considered the best player in the
world today, is just about every
player’s dream. Rawlings said: “It
was everything you’d imagine. Every player, pros and amateurs,
want the opportunity to play with him. It’s
just as good as you can imagine.”
Heguy agreed, “[Playing with Cambiaso]
was great and we had a lot of fun. Jeff and
George are amazing guys and great players,
although it took the team a little time to play
at its best, but finally we did it!”
Cambiaso has committed to playing in
Argentina during the Open next year, so the
team won’t try for a three-peat. For next year
Crab Orchard will take a break from the 26-
goal. “We are going to play the 20-goal and a
lot of medium-goal and look at getting
reorganized. Some of our horses are getting
older. We are going to reorganize that and
rebuild our string to compete at that level.
Next year we are taking a deep breath and
Heguy is confident he’ll be back playing
in the Open soon. “I am sure I will play and
win it again!”