FAMILY OF FORTUNE: Brant team brings home East Coast Open

Chris Brant continued his family’s success in the East Coast Open after his Audi team edged Iconica on Sept. 9 at the Greenwich Polo Club in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Established in 1978 by Donald V. Little Sr. at the Myopia Polo Club, the East Coast Open was played at the club for 25 years, until 2003. In its inaugural year, it was played at the 14- to 18-goal level but was increased to 16- to 20-goals the following year.

In 2005, the tournament moved to Greenwich Polo Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, where it has been played ever since. Peter Brant’s White Birch team won the tournament for the first five years it was played in Greenwich. In 2010, Tupungato took the title. White Birch won it four more times before Marc Ganzi’s Audi team got its name etched on the historic Perry Trophy in 2015. White Birch defeated Audi the following year, the last time Peter Brant played.

Last year, GSA (Toro Ruiz, Santino Magrini, Matias Magrini, Henry Porter) won the title. This year, Ruiz joined Peter Brant’s son Chris Brant’s Audi team, while Matias Magrini joined Maureen Brennan’s Iconica team. Two other teams completed the lineup: Annabelle Gundlach’s Postage Stamp Farm and a Work to Ride team. The fact that half of the teams this year were led by women is testament to the growing number of women players at every level of the sport.

The tournament was the finale of Greenwich’s summer season, which was unseasonably wet. Still, games got underway as scheduled on Aug. 26 with Iconica (Maureen Brennan, Peke Gonzalez, Mariano Gonzalez, Matias Magrini) up against Postage Stamp Farm (Annabelle Gundlach, Brandon Phillips, Lerin Zubiarre, Tomas Garcia del Rio). Iconica jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the first seven minutes and held a three-goal lead through the first half, ending 6-3. Postage Stamp fought back in the second half, tying the game 7-7 entering the final period. Goals by father and son, Mariano and Peke Gonzalez, in the sixth secured the Iconica victory, 9-8.

The next day, Audi (Chris Brant, Toro Ruiz, Mariano Aguerre, Joaquin Panelo) faced Work to Ride (Daymar Rosser, Pedro Gutierrez, Gringo Colombres, Tommy Biddle). Audi quickly overcame the two-goal handicap given to WTR and exploded in the third chukker with four goals to take a 7-4 halftime lead. Audi kept up the pressure through the second half to win, 12-8.

The second round was played on Aug. 30 with Postage Stamp enjoying its first victory, 13-7, over WTR. Iconica trailed Audi for most of its game, but came alive in the sixth with four tallies to narrowly win, 12-11.

Round 3 was played a few days later on Sept. 2 when Audi amassed a five-goal lead at the half, 9-4. Postage Stamp chipped away at the deficit, coming within one, 9-8, at the end of the fifth, but Audi increased its lead to win, 11-8.

Iconica took its third victory with a 13- 10 defeat of WTR. Iconica trailed at the half, 7-6, but a strong fourth chukker gave it a three-goal advantage, which it carried through to the end.

Iconica met WTR again in the semifinal round. Iconica again trailed at the half, 7-5, but it tied the score in the fourth, 7-7. WTR gave a valiant effort, keeping the game level until the final period, when Iconica slammed in three goals in a row. Colombres scored one more for WTR but it wasn’t enough and Iconica advanced to the final, 11-9.

In the other semi-final, Postage Stamp held a narrow 8-7 advantage over Audi at the half. Audi edged ahead in the fifth, 10-9, after holding Postage Stamp scoreless. Postage Stamp briefly tied the score, 10-10, early in the sixth, but Audi answered with a pair of goals to take the win and the other spot in the final.

The final was set for Sept. 9, setting up a rematch of the second-round game between the two teams. Forecasters were calling for heavy rain in the area for the afternoon. To avoid a possible cancellation, the final was moved up by two hours. Despite the cloudy skies, hundreds of spectators kept the mood bright, as they enjoyed the action from the Players’ Lounge and field-side tents.

Audi wasted no time as Ruiz, aboard his quick bay mare Eleanor, outran Magrini for the first goal. Ruiz switched horses before slamming in his second goal in a row, all within the first three minutes. Panelo followed with a Penalty 3 after Magrini got caught in a melee late in the chukker. Peke Gonzalez nearly stopped the ball in the goal mouth, but the ball hopped over his mallet. Iconica was having some trouble completing plays and failed to tally in the first.

Panelo jumped out of the opening bowl-in to start the second on his quick gray mare, Stella, but the ball went just wide. Iconica was doing a better job breaking up Audi’s momentum, with Brennan on her gray gelding, Cinco, helping with defense and Magrini and Mariano Gonzalez working well together.

Panelo and Stella had another great run later in the chukker, but Panelo broke his mallet. Aguerre, riding his red roan Pistolera, carried the ball to goal but it was kicked wide. With just a minute and a half left in the second, Gonzalez put Iconica on the board with a Penalty 2 just inside the post. With 40 seconds left, Aguerre turned in front of Magrini, setting up Mariano Gonzalez for a Penalty 4. The penalty conversion put Iconica back in the game.

Early in the third, Magrini passed to Mariano Gonzalez who split the uprights to tie the match, 3-3. Then, Peke Gonzalez got around Aguerre on his black horse Melody and headed to goal.

Mariano Gonzalez took over and carried the ball but it took a bad hop and went just wide. With just over two minutes left, Panelo broke the tie with a Penalty 4 high over his opponents’ heads. A minute later Ruiz, with Peke Gonzalez hot on his heels, finessed the ball through the goal. With time running down, Peke turned on a Magrini backshot, knocking the ball out of the air and escorting it through the goal. The first half ended with Audi ahead 5-4.

The rainy summer had taken its toll on the field, leaving the usual level, green surface scarred and lumpy. The halftime divot stomp helped, but it proved to be only a temporary fix.

Ruiz jumped on the ball out of the opening throw-in to blow by Peke Gonzalez and increase the Audi lead early in the fourth, but Magrini quickly answered, finding the bullseye. After several miss-hits by Audi, Mariano Gonzalez hit the target with a nearside in traffic to tie the score, 6-6. Brant had two goal attempts but couldn’t connect.

Panelo put Audi on top with a Penalty 4 through the posts. With seconds on the clock, Aguerre threaded the needle from a difficult angle a few foot off the backline, a shot umpires confirmed to begin the fifth, for an 8-6 Audi lead. Aguerre shot through another seconds into the fifth. Brant, who couldn’t seem to buy a goal, missed yet another, but Ruiz made up for it with a neckshot into the target, increasing the spread to four.

Magrini got something going for Iconica after hopping on a pass from Mariano Gonzalez to split the uprights. Soon after Iconica sent the ball toward the goal. Panelo tried to defend, turning the ball in front of the goal mouth, only to have it bounce between the posts, scoring for the other team and cutting Iconica’s deficit to two to begin the final chukker, 10-8 in Audi’s favor.

Coincidentally, it was the same exact score the teams held to start the sixth the last time the teams met. In that match, Iconica allowed Audi just one more goal while slamming in four to take the win, so Iconica couldn’t be counted out. Peke Gonzalez admitted the last win against the tough Audi squad had a lot to do with luck. This time, luck didn’t seem to be on their side.

Some of the best horses were back on the field. Peke Gonzalez counted on his fast gray Azúcar and Mariano Gonzalez came out on Ballerina, both for second appearances. It started out promising when, with just over 5½ minutes in the sixth, Mariano Gonzalez muscled past Aguerre and Ruiz, guiding through a sure goal. But in another stroke of bad luck, the ball took a hop into a horse’s foot just before the goal line, remarkably bouncing parallel to the goal and just around the outside of the post.

Brant also continued experiencing misfortune, carrying the ball close to goal several times, hitting all the difficult shots on both sides of the horse, only to have the ball skirt the goal time and again.

With less than two minutes on the clock, Peke Gonzalez guided the ball to within inches of the center of the goal only to have the horse kick it sideways, sending it just wide, something he likely couldn’t duplicate if he tried.

Thirty seconds later, he picked up the ball after it hopped over his dad’s mallet about 25 yards from the goal and with Panelo defending, sent it through the posts. The umpires blew the whistle, penalizing Panelo for fouling and giving Iconica a Penalty 1—a goal and a mid-field free hit. It was just the break the team needed but down to the last 30 seconds, everything would have to go their way to tie the match.

Their luck was short-lived as Aguerre intercepted the ball, backing to Panelo, who, riding Lucky Five, took the ball to the other end of the field. He shot on goal with Magrini defending but the ball still found its way through the post as time expired.

Audi hung on for the 11-9 victory. Joaquin Panelo—flawless from the penalty line, converting three goals and scoring one from the field—was named MVP and his bay mare, Penelope was named Best Playing Pony, an award presented by Peter Orthwein. It was Panelo’s second East Coast Open appearance and first win.

A humbled Panelo said winning MVP felt amazing but gave his team just as much credit. “I just went out there to help my team and went to every ball like it was the last. I guess everyone saw that and it feels great,” he told the USPA.

It was back-to-back wins for Ruiz as he faced Magrini, last year’s teammate, in the final. “It’s tough, it’s alway tough,” he admitted. “[Magrini] gave me horses and both teams had the same chances, but I’m happy we won.” Ruiz was high-scorer of the match with five goals to his name.

Aguerre, who has won the tournament numerous times with Peter Brant, was happy to have won it with Chris Brant. “It was a great game to play and an awesome tournament to finish up the season,” he told the USPA.

-- Words by Gwen Rizzo, Photos by Marcelo Bianchi





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