NO SURE BET: Underdog DRF stops powerhouse Valiente

If polo was a betting game, a lot of people would have lost some money at the April 22 final of the U.S. Open Polo Championship at International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida.

A scrappy Daily Racing Form-DRF Bets team was taking on Valiente, which had taken the 2017 Triple Crown. But this year, Valiente had a new line-up. Patron Bob Jornayvaz enlisted 10-goal Facundo Pieres, considered to be the world’s No. 2 player, to join the world’s No. 1 player, 10-goal Adolfo Cambiaso, longtime rivals, in the middle of the team. A talented, disciplined 21-year-old 4-goaler, Tommy Beresford, rounded out the line-up.

With this powerhouse team mounted on large numbers of the highest-quality horses, the general perception was it was unbeatable, a point punctuated by its victories in the first three tournaments in the 26-goal series: the C.V. Whitney Cup, the Butler Handicap and the USPA Gold Cup. It was no surprise when Valiente won its first two games of the U.S. Open, putting it in first place in its bracket and advancing it to the semifinals.

Jared Zenni’s The Daily Racing Form- DRF Bets topped the other bracket. DRF took a different route getting to the Open. Most high-goal teams plan for years before making a run at the Open and even with the best preparations, it takes years before they are successful, if ever.

This was the first time Zenni was competing in the U.S. Open, something that was decided on just six months before. “We kind of started talking about it a little bit during the summer … we were like, if we are going to be serious about it maybe we’ve got to start looking for a few horses. … So, maybe in October we really became serious and I found a few horses we could bring up, Agustin [Obregon] found a few horses to bring up as well,” explained Zenni.

Zenni (5-goals) had been playing with 10-goal Hilario Ulloa in Argentina, and has played quite a bit with 5-goal Obregon so they would need another player to round out a 26-goal team. “We realized we need a 6-goaler, preferably someone who plays in front so me and Hilario absolutely wouldn’t change the way we’ve been playing the whole season,” said Zenni. Obregon’s cousin Mariano Obregon fit the bill so he joined the team.

At 22, Zenni has been riding as long as he can remember. His grandfather was involved with horses and his dad also plays, while his two sisters both jump. Zenni played his first game at about 6 years old. Horses are what drew him to polo. “Basically the connection you have with the horse is pretty crazy. You are running down the field at about 35 miles per hour, trying to hit a little ball on a half-ton animal, connecting and moving simultaneously together. It’s pretty cool,” he said.

Zenni said he has tried just about every traditional sport—football, baseball, tennis, golf--but after getting burnt out on basketball, he focused on polo.

A senior at the University of Miami, Zenni is studying marketing and finance. He admits that his parents insisted he get an education, and since he was able to continue to play polo at the same time, he figured why not. While others were thinking of nothing but polo, Zenni was studying for final exams as the Open was underway.

Early in the 26-goal series, DRF fell to Valiente 13-10 in its first game of the C.V. Whitney Cup, but won the consolation, 11-9, over Grand Champions. It also suffered defeat in the opening game of the Butler Handicap, again taking the consolation from Grand Champions, 16- 10. It got off to a good start in the Gold Cup, winning its first two outings, but fell to Flexjet 10-9 in its third game. It faced Flexjet in the semifinal, suffering another 10-9 defeat.

“For us, it took us a little longer to get into a rhythm. We came into the U.S. Open not even playing our best polo. We started playing our best the last three games,” Zenni said.

It can be tricky getting horses ready for a long season since you don’t want them peaking too early, nor too late. Daily Racing Form’s horses, which had played the other tournaments as well, were just peaking as the Open was starting while other team’s horses were beginning to tire out. Zenni explained, “Our goal was to have the horses in good shape by the time the Open came around so I guess we were able to do that.” He had also saved three horses to fortify his string as the Open got underway.

DRF downed Colorado, finalist in the first two 26-goals, 13-11, in its first match of the Open. Next, it faced Flexjet, which had beaten it the last two times they played each other. In a foul-riddled game, DRF took a 10-6 advantage at the half and went on to win convincingly, 14-11. Leading its division, it went directly to the semifinal, where it met U.S. Polo Assn. By then, DRF was working like a well-oiled machine, shooting out to a 6-0 lead after 14 minutes. It led 8-1 at the half and eventually won 11-8.

“Our goal the whole time was to at least make the final,” said Zenni. “Once we won the semifinal, I was able to wrap my head around it a little more. … we started saying we played our best three matches of polo, but [now] we need to play our best six chukkers of polo.”

Meanwhile, Valiente hadn’t lost a game in the 26-goal, enjoying a 12-game winning streak, and was a game away from winning the Triple Crown. Zenni admits that a few days before the final he was having his doubts but by game day he knew that if his team played well, the horses played well and everything was in line, they had a good shot to win. Forecasters were calling for rain, with as high as a 90 percent chance, for the final.

Still, DRF was preparing for the big day. All season Zenni has eaten sushi the night before his games and he didn’t want to change that even when people told him it probably wasn’t the best choice. The day of the final, despite weather reports, he knew the club would be hesitant to call off the game so he kept his game-day routine.

By mid-morning the clouds were rolling in and by noon passing showers were dumping rain throughout the area. At the scheduled 3 p.m. game time, players were stick and balling under dark clouds and organizers were keeping an eye on the radar. The game was held up while another soaking storm rolled through. By 3:45 the sky was clearing and the players were introduced. Ulloa wore a yellow dishwashing glove on his left hand for the first chukker to prevent the reins from slipping.

Up against a strong Valiente team, DRF used the same strategy they’ve had all season. Mariano and Agustin would split the first two guys and if no one was coming to Mariano, Zenni and Agustin would split the field in half, Zenni going left and Agustin going right. “The first chukker, we are going to feel each other out, see what they are going to bring us, how we are going to play. They want to see what we are going to do so we don’t want show all our cards too early, too soon,” said Zenni.

Facundo Pieres wasted no time in putting Valiente on the board early in the first chukker on a run with his slick bay mare Corcha. Ulloa found the goal for DRF but Pieres added another goal before the chukker ended. Zenni said the speed of Pieres’ horses caught him off guard. “The first two chukkers I was like, OK, maybe I need to give them a little more because his horses were faster than I thought they would be,” he said. “That guy, he’s been gold. He’s quicker mentally than me so I needed to give him extra space.”

Each team was awarded an open-goal penalty in the second, both of which were converted, and Ulloa tallied from the field to knot the score at 3-all. DRF kept up the pressure, with Zenni doing an incredible job at back and the Obregons sticking to the two 10-goalers. After Facundo had one or two breakaways, the team plan was adjusted slightly. Zenni and team coach Julio Arellano agreed that someone always needed to be back and the other three needed to be in the mix, fighting.

Meanwhile, Ulloa kept the ball moving offensively off his 10-year-old grey mare, Future Lituania, and split the uprights with back-to-back goals for the 5-3 advantage. Cambiaso scored his first goal to cut the deficit to one ending the first half, 5-4.

Threatening rain denied spectators the traditional halftime champagne divot stomp. Arellano quickly reminded the players to stick to the game plan, stay disciplined, keep talking to each other and not to rush as the players got right back up to start the fourth. Ulloa put DRF back up by two but Cambiaso brought Valiente back within one. DRF had been persistent, dominating the throw-ins and driving to goal, but with 14 minutes left to play, the crowd wondered if it could keep its momentum.

Zenni said while he usually remembers a lot of the plays, this game was a blur. He remembers some but not much of it. “All I know is I was really tired and was just thinking about getting to the fifth and sixth chukker with fresh horses,” he explained. “I didn’t want to go to the bottom of my horses at the end of the first half. We knew the game would be won in the fifth and sixth chukker and I needed them to be fresh. That was one of my main goals.”

Just 40 seconds into the fifth, Ulloa took a hard-hit backshot to the face. He jumped off his horse and writhed on the ground. In a show of good sportsmanship, Cambiaso jumped off to see if he was OK. Ulloa’s eye goggles took a direct hit, cutting his face. Fortunately, his eye was protected. Paramedics applied a butterfly bandage and within a few minutes he had remounted and was ready to play.

Soon after, the tough-as-nails Ulloa passed to Agustin Obregon who fought off both 10-goalers to find the mark with a difficult nearside neck for DRF. Out of the throw-in, Beresford sent a pinpoint backshot to Pieres who ran to goal but a minute later Zenni shot in one of his own. Each time Valiente managed to make any headway, Daily Racing Form had the answer. Tommy Beresford, who had been working hard at defense the entire game, put in his first goal and Pieres sunk a Penalty 2, but soon after Mariano Obregon responded with a Penalty 3 conversion to again lead, 9-8.

In the final chukker, Obregon made two runs on his lightening fast bay mare, Sally, but was unlucky with his last shots to goal. Hilario, who had blood running down his cheek and admitted he couldn’t see very well, took the ball but was hooked. Zenni was following behind him and found the uprights to increase the spread to two with just over 4 minutes on the clock.

Valiente struggled to free itself from the relentless DRF defense. The close marking eventually led to a Penalty 2 conversion, which Pieres capitalized on, bringing Valiente back within one, 10-9, as time was ticking away. With 2:08 on the clock, Beresford jumped on a pass from Cambiaso and drove to goal, but Mariano Obregon covered him closely, causing him to hit wide. Another drive by Valiente was turned back by DRF but with seconds remaining Pieres took the ball at midfield, ran to about 80 yards out and shot a Hail Mary.

Zenni said at that point he didn’t want to get his hopes up. “I’ve seen so many games, like two years ago, I think it was, when Cambiaso was down by three with a minute left and won it, something crazy, so I wanted to stay focused,” said Zenni. “If you lose your focus for a second, you’ve already lost.”

Zenni was watching the clock and hoping the ball rolled out. “I knew there was probably around 40 seconds to go … all I wanted was for it to go out. I was like, OK, if it goes out and there is some time, I’ll take a big loop and then hit it as hard as I can so the ball can’t come back,” he said. Pieres had cut it too much and it went wide left.

Using the international rules, if the teams were not tied, the game would end at the 7-minute mark. Seconds later the horn sounded, declaring Daily Racing Form the winner. Zenni shook hands with the Valiente team before jumping off his horse to celebrate with his teammates, tears running down his cheek as emotions got the best of him. “I was filled with joy. All I know is it was pure excitement, pure joy. It was pretty surreal,” said Zenni. The team’s fans went wild as the teammates, family members and grooms embraced in celebration.

Zenni was named MVP and Mariano Obregon’s Sally, an 8-year-old Argentine mare, was Best Playing Pony. Obregon said he purchased the mare, an American Thoroughbred trained by Cesar Jimenez, from Marty Cregg. “She is very complete. She has a lot of speed and is very light in the mouth,” said Obregon.

“Getting MVP with such great players on the field in the final of the U.S. Open was a dream come true. If someone had told me at the beginning of the season … I feel like we played really well and anyone could have been named MVP. I mean Hilario played amazing. He got hit with the ball and kept on playing,” said Zenni. “Agustin was working hard for the team and Mariano was also working super hard, pushing the team. Anyone could have gotten it.”

Even the teammates seemed stunned they had actually won the match, Ulloa telling USPA Network’s Dale Schwetz at the conclusion of the match it was unbelievable. Mariano Obregon told Schwetz, “It’s a miracle. I can’t believe it.” Agustin added, “It’s amazing. I don’t know what I’m feeling, [there is] too much emotion.”

After some time to ponder it Mariano Obregon wrote, “To win the Open is amazing. It is a dream come true. I still can’t believe it and to beat an incredible team ... I think we were successful because we played as a team and were organized.”

While it was the first U.S. Open win for Zenni and the Obregons, it was a third title for Ulloa, who won it in 2010 with Crab Orchard and 2014 with Alegria.

With the 26-goal series being lowered to 22 goals in 2019, Zenni has not thought about what he will do next year. His focus now is on the classification tournament for the Argentine Open, which he and Agustin Obregon will compete in this fall.

-- By Gwen Rizzo




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