THIS TIME: Klentner Ranch claims
Pacific Coast Open

Atough Klentner Ranch team held off Lucchese to take its first Pacific Coast Open title, the crown jewel in the Santa Barbara high-goal season. The 16-goal tournament was held at Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club in Carpinteria, California, from Aug. 16-Sept. 2..

Klentner Ranch (Justin Klentner, Jesse Bray, Remy Muller, Mariano Obregon) couldn’t escape the memory of last year’s Santa Barbara season when the team cruised to two of three victories before losing last year’s Pacific Coast Open final in a heartwrenching double overtime match to Danny Walker’s Farmers & Merchants Bank. While it was disappointing, Klentner got some satisfaction hearing some refer to it as the best final in years.

Farmers & Merchants Bank:
Danny Walker
Tomas Alberdi
Lucas Criado
Matt Walker
16

2
4
8
2
 
Lucchese:
Carlos “Toly” Ulloa
Facundo Obregon
Jeff Hall
John Muse
16
3
6
7
A
 
Klentner Ranch: Justin/Jake Klentner
Mariano Obregon
Remy Muller
Jesse Bray
16
1
6
3
6
 
Restoration Hardware: Ben Soleimani/Mia Bray
Santi von Wernich
Iñaki Laprida
Geronimo Obregon
16
A
5
7
4
 
Sol de Agosto: Francisco de Narvaez
Paco de Narvaez
Adam Snow
Nico Escobar
16
1
7
5
3
 

“We, as an organization, have quickly climbed the ranks so we are pretty new to the PCO. We’re a local team but we’ve been playing 12-goal polo so we made the jump about four years ago to play the 16-goal every year. We were happy to be there,” he said. “Danny [Walker] had been trying to win for 40 years. We felt really fortunate that basically in Year 3 we were there. Obviously, its heartbreaking to lose in double overtime.

Klentner said he has won just about every tournament at Santa Barbara except the PCO. After some reflection, and some sage advice from competitor Paco de Narvaez, Klentner said the team decided to tighten the focus to the PCO for this season.

“It’s not that the other tournaments aren’t important, because they are and everyone wants to win whatever they can, but the primary goal is the PCO,” he said. “It’s very hard to win them all. It’s a long two months and the horses get tired. Last year, we were in three of the four finals so our horses played that many more games.”

This year, Klentner reinforced his string with six more horses and Bray added two more to his string. Obregon and Muller, new to the team this season, both came well mounted.

“Coming into the tournament this year we just wanted to make sure we weren’t snakebit,” Klentner said. “We were a little bit more selective and everybody played 10-12 horses the whole season and when we got to the PCO, we each cut our list down to our top eight.”

The team failed to reach the final in the first two events, the Skene and America Cup, losing the semifinals of both to Lucchese (Toly Ulloa, Facundo Obregon, Jeff Hall, John Muse).

Klentner said he was a little concerned at that point but they were in both of the semifinals and almost all of their losses were by just a goal, so the team knew it was right there.

“We just wanted to stay the course with the horses so we didn’t just burn ourselves out,” he explained.

Lucchese took the Skene and Restoration Hardware won the America Cup, so both were trying to keep their momentum rolling. RH edged Farmers & Merchants Bank in the opening match of the Pacific Coast open and Lucchese got the edge over Klentner 10-8.

After taking a first-round loss, Klentner had to win two of the next three games if it was to make the semifinal. Klentner treated their second game, against RH, basically as a quarter final.

“We were super concerned about the second game because that was really pivotal. We couldn’t go 0-2. We figured [a] 2-2 [record] put you into the semifinal so it was really important for us to win the second and third games,” he said. “That meant the fourth game was not a game we had to go to the bottom of our horses. If we won it great, we would have been the first seed, but if we didn’t, we were the second seed.”

It wasn’t easy but Klentner edged RH 10-9 in a tough overtime match. It then defeated Farmers & Merchants Bank, 9-7, in its next outing.

Meanwhile, FMB beat Sol de Agosto, 11-9, and RH defeated Lucchese 13-12. Sol de Agosto got a 12-11 overtime win over Lucchese, and RH slipped Sol de Agosto 10-9. The final round had Lucchese handing FMB its third loss, 13- 11. The last game, pitting Klentner against Sol de Agosto, was do or die for the latter. A loss would put FMB in the semis while a win would ensure its place. Sol de Agosto hung on for the 8-7 victory, knocking defending champion FMB out. RH, with a 3-1 record, took first place, while the remaining three teams tied at 2-2. A shoot-out was needed to determine semifinal placing.

Klentner Ranch met Sol de Agosto again, this time for the semifinal. In the second chukker, Bray hit a neckshot that hit Klentner square in the hand. “I was looking the other direction, where the ball was going to go, when it hit me,” Klentner said.

After a brief timeout while paramedics looked at his hand, Klentner came back out on the field. His hand was swelling, but since he could move his fingers, he figured it wasn’t broken. As the chukker went on, he was soon unable to lift his mallet.

Alonzo Cruz was called to substitute, but since Klentner had started the chukker, Cruz would have to wait until the chukker ended. Klentner gamely came back out on the field sans a mallet.

“I did what I could. I played defense and tried to clear the path for my players,” Klentner explained. It seemed to work as the teams ended the chukker tied. “We were lucky,” he said.

Klentner watched the rest of the game from the sidelines, worrying about his hand and the thought of not being able to make the final. He says he tried to stay optimistic at that point.

The teams battled back and forth and were tied again as time was winding down. With less than a minute remaining, Cruz jumped on a pass and slipped the game-winner through the posts.

“I was just glad we were going to the final. Sports people, and especially polo players, tend to be superstitious. And so we needed to get back to the finals,” Klentner said.

When he finally had his hand checked out, Klentner was told it was broken. Though disappointed, he was happy that his son, Jake, would fit on the team.

“Sponsors get hurt and then bring in a ringer 1-goal player who is really playing 3. My son is the same rating as I am and it being my son, was better,” said Klentner. “We all know its the finals and that’s great but you have to get to the finals and its the organization that gets to the finals. I was just happy for the Klentner Ranch organization to be there and for my son to be replacing me.”

It just so happened Klentner’s sons, Jake and Luke, were in Colorado, competing in the National Youth Tournament Series Championship. The team won its first match and was headed to the final.

Klentner had to pull Jake from the tournament to take his place. He said he felt bad until Joel Baker reminded him that the NYTS tournament was developed to get kids ready to play more competitive polo, just what Jake would be getting to do. Jake had substituted for Ben Soleimani on the RH team earlier in the season and he and his brother sometimes practice with the team so he was comfortable stepping in.

Klentner explained, “For them to improve as polo players, you have to play better polo. The Argentine kids, we go down there and they are all playing 22- goal practices and our kids are struggling to play 4 goal. It is too much of a disadvantage when you get into better polo. I’m trying to give the boys the opportunity to play better polo so they can be better.

“Joel Baker, Andy Busch, they were amateurs [rated] 4 and 5 goals, and good and contributing. It wasn’t just three highly-paid professionals and one sponsor running around with the other sponsor in the back of the game. In our family, we are not looking to buy the best seat in the house. We want to earn our way and contribute as much as anybody else on the team.”

Once the final got under way, Klentner said he wasn’t that confident considering they were the underdogs. “Everyone, even the game announcers, were like, ‘horse flesh, horse flesh, horse flesh of Lucchese’ and they just kept going on and on about it. I was like, oh my gosh, they are going to be so much better mounted than we are,” said Klentner.

But it was soon apparent that the Klentner team was well-prepared and came to play. In the opening minutes of the game, Hall made a breakaway to goal for an early lead, but a minute later, Jake drew a Lucchese player into a foul. Mariano Obregon easily sunk the ensuing Penalty 2. Obregon added another soon after to end the first with Klentner Ranch leading 2-1.

Bray, aboard Sydney, a pretty steel gray mare, capitalized on a Penalty 3 in the second, but Hall shot to goal from a melee 40-yards out. Just 15 seconds into the third, Mariano Obregon shot wide on a Penalty 4, but two minutes later his brother Facundo nailed a Penalty 2 for Lucchese to tie, 3-3. A backshot by Jake went just wide before Ulloa, who ran 120 yards, getting past several players, just missed the goal.

With less than a minute remaining in the half, Muller took Geronimo Obregon wide, clearing the way for Bray to send a centering shot to Jake for the tie breaker, 4-3.

Jesse’s dad, Graham Bray, was on hand to give advice. He and Klentner talked to the team at the half. “We were all trying to readjust everybody’s horse list, [seeing which horses] played how many minutes, and thinking what maybe they could change to do a little bit better,” explained Klentner. Ultimately, Klentner admits the game plan seemed to be working so the team stayed the course.

“My dad really helped us out this tournament. He switched our lineup around in the semifinal and today helped us to stay focused. Having an extra pair of eyes off the field has really helped our team,” Bray explained.

Lucchese was down by a goal at the half, but couldn’t be counted out. Hall and Facundo Obregon had played all winter together so they had good chemistry. And, Toly Ulloa, who is rated 5 in Argentina and 3 in the U.S., was mounted on some amazing horses, including at least one horse his 10-goal brother played while winning the U.S. Open final.

Klentner Ranch teammates were eager for the win and were willing to work for it. They were scrappy and hustled with every play. If a Lucchese player took off with the ball, a Klentner Ranch player chased them down. If they got past one player, another was there to put a spoke in their wheel.

Though some speculated Lucchese would be better mounted, it didn’t seem to be the case. Nino Obregon played Sally, Best Playing Pony in the 26-goal U.S. Open, among other standouts. Jake had his dad’s amazing string; Bray had plenty of power with his two grays, Disney and Sydney, and bay Venice; and Phoebe, an 8- year-old bay mare, topped Muller’s impressive string.

Back in action, Facundo Obregon showcased his talent just 12 seconds into the second half, which began with a throw-in in front of the Lucchese goal. Facundo got ahold of the ball and made a coast-to-coast run on Fondue, a 12-yearold Thoroughbred he bought from Ezra Stevenson, to level the score at 4-4.

Shortly after, Jake reacted, making an amazing nearside neck to goal to take back the lead. His dad said at that point he knew it was their day. Nino Obregon followed with a Penalty 2 conversion to make the spread two goals, 6-4. Facundo Obregon took the ball downfield after a Penalty 5 but his shot went wide. He connected with a Penalty 2 two minutes later. With 32 seconds left in the chukker, Bray necked the ball to goal, but missed the target.

Muller began the fifth with a shot to goal but it too went wide. Nino Obregon put Klentner Ranch back up by two on a Penalty 4 after being cross-hooked. Halfway into the chukker, Facundo Obregon hustled past two opponents to find the mark and bring Lucchese back within one, 7-6. After a few more near misses, the fifth ended with the teams still separated by just a goal.

Just 34 seconds into the sixth chukker, Nino Obregon capitalized on a Penalty 2 to go up 8-6. Every minute someone was shooting at goal but the ball wasn’t finding the mark. Facundo Obregon had two shots go just wide and Ulloa had one. Shots by Muller and Bray also missed. When the final horn sounded, Klentner Ranch had maintained the two-goal spread.

“It seemed like almost from the beginning that we had the momentum. We had them on our heels. I don’t think they were ready for as hungry as [the team] was,” said Klentner. “Those guys were hungry and they wanted it. It was a big effort and they went out there and performed. I think they could have won by more.”

Remy Muller was honored as MVP for his outstanding defensive efforts and Bray’s Venice was Best Playing Pony. Bray also took home the Robert Skene Season MVP award. The team also received commemorative championship rings custom made by Tara Grey.

“Playing the sport you love and being able to win this tournament with friends is the absolute best,” said Muller.

Klentner admits he was on the edge of his seat the last seven minutes. “Obviously, you are nervous because we were only up by one when that chukker started,” he said. “It went back and forth and started to open up and move. When we got up by two I felt pretty good because they had only scored six goals the whole game. If we were up by two, that meant they [would need to score] half as many goals as they had scored in the whole game. I was like, I think we are OK.”

The Klentner Ranch celebration began on the field and lasted long into the night. “Geronimo Obregon is maybe one of the best barbecuers around. He played with me the last couple of years and always does these barn asados,” said Klentner. “We had our core group of grooms, polo managers, friends and went to our barn. ... We are always super appreciative of the team and we grilled until late in the night.”

Klentner said he plans to try again next year, and this time he hopes to be in the saddle, rather than on the sidelines. After that, he’d like to make a run at the U.S. Open in 2020.

“The PCO was a big deal because I started playing on the West Coast and its the best trophy to win here. I’ve been really wanting it and honestly, I didn’t think it was possible,” admitted Klentner. “I started playing arena polo and it just seemed like an insurmountable goal. Now that we have achieved it, the U.S. Open [trophy] has got to go on a mantel at some point, right?”

--By Gwen Rizzo

 

 

 

 

 
 
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