Ellerstina Breaks their Open Curse.

With the final game of the coveted 115th Argentine Open Championship tied between La Dolfina Peugeot and Ellerstina Etiqueta Negra, Ellerstina’s Gonzalo Pieres, Jr. found a stray ball in the La Dolfina defensive zone. Ellerstina was just one shot away from a victory that had thus far eluded it. For most players, the pressure would make the shot all the more difficult, but for a 10-goal player like Pieres, it was a beautiful challenge. If the ball split the uprights, not only would Ellerstina win the game, but it would break the curse that kept it from victory in both 2005 and 2007, when the team lost against the same opponent both times in sudden-death overtime.

Ellerstina’s No. 2 decided to try for the shot. He tightened the reins of his galloping horse and when he was about 50 yards from the goal, he launched it. His father, the legendary Gonzalo Pieres, felt like his heart momentarily stopped, as did the majority of the 14,000 spectators in Palermo’s coveted field one, the Cathedral. The ball flew low towards the goal and finally hit the middle of the target giving Ellerstina its sweetest victory, 13-12, and ending a decade drought for the team. This was the last play of a three-month-long highgoal season in Argentina.

From the start, there was a missing component that shocked fans, perhaps causing the lack of attendance. It was the first tournament since 1983, not including its absence in 1989, in which Indios Chapaleufú I, the most charismatic team in recent times, won six titles, reached six more finals and did not enter. After Gonzalo Heguy’s untimely death due to a car accident, the team’s swan song was winning the 2001 championship. After a few dismal seasons, Horacito decided to step aside. This year, Bautista formed a team around himself called Black Watch and Marcos joined the Merlos brothers’ Pilará Piaget team that surprisingly reached the Hurlingham final after eliminating the favored La Dolfina team.

At the start of the Open on November 15, Adolfito Cambiaso’s team came to the field with its newly handicapped players combining for 40 goals, something that hasn’t happened since 1996. The quartet from Cañuelas left no doubts about their abilities against newcomer El Paraíso when they held a resounding 17-5 lead at the end of the seventh chukker. Saving their horses for the final, La Dolfina scored one more time in the last chukker and allowed its opponent four goals for a final score of 18- 9. Cambiaso contributed 10 goals for La Dolfina. The same day, Pilará had to battle to overcome Indios Chapaleufú II Jumeirah, 14-13. Agustin Merlos led the match with eight goals for Pilará.

The following day, Ellerstina regrouped. Talks between the elder Gonzalo, new coach Alejandro Agote and the players led to a position shuffling; the teammates each moved up a position. Facundo Pieres was moved to the more forward No. 1 position, brother Gonzalo took the No. 2 spot, cousin Pablo Mac Donough wore the No. 3 shirt and their Back would be well covered by the newest face on the team, Juan Martin Nero. Nero replaced Matias Mac Donough (playing No. 1 last year) on the team. Despite the change, the team initially had a tough debut in Zone B against the willful Trenque Lauquen Air France team.

Midway through the third period, the teams remained tied 5-5. However, Ellerstina found its stride and managed to outscore Trenque, 4-1 in the next period. Ellerstina won 20-10. Later, Black Watch took advantage of La Aguada Arelauquen’s player injuries, defeating them 13-12. La Aguada’s Eduardo Novillo Astrada left in the first chukker with a torn abductor and his brother Javier left in the sixth after a strong pain in his right shoulder. Guillermo Caset replaced Black Watch’s Nacho Figueras who had played the first two installments of the Triple Crown (the Hurlingham and Tortugas).

On the second day of play, La Dolfina was unforgiving in its 17-12 defeat of Indios Chapaleufú II. Leading 6-2 after two periods, La Dolfina, played as a team and made it clear that it had what was takes to win its fourth consecutive championship. Pilará worked hard in its defeat of El Paraíso, 16-9. Agustin Merlos had another stellar day, single-handedly scoring nine goals.

In the other division, Ellerstina took full advantage of the patched La Aguada team that was forced to play with two substitutes. Eight goalers, Silvestre Donovan and Marcos di Paola, replaced the still-injured Eduardo and Javier Novillo Astrada. Ellerstina took the 15-9 win, barely breaking a sweat. Black Watch had a harder time with Trenque Lauquen, edging it 11-10 on a Bautista Heguy penalty conversion in overtime.

In the next round of games, Indios Chapaleufú II took a 24-12 win over El Paraíso with a storm of goals comparable to the torrential rain that was unleashed as soon as the game ended, forcing the remaining games to be postponed a week. When the sun returned, La Dolfina won a ticket to the final by overcoming Pilará, 17- 13. In the fourth chukker, after being tied 5-5, La Dolfina brought out the big guns — a brilliant quartet of horses: Cambiaso on Bruma, Lucas Monteverde on Juanda Turca, Mariano Aguerrre on Jazz and Bartolomé “Lolo” Castagnola on Toro. The team outscored their opponents 5-2 in those seven minutes and changed the momentum of the game.

The next day, La Aguada, still playing without two of the brothers, got off to a poor start against Trenque Lauquen, but managed to slip it 11-8. Later, in a game that defined Group B, Ellerstina settled in its match up with Black Watch, taking a 6-1 lead at the end of the second chukker. Even though they saved their best horses for the final, they preserved the 16-11 lead to advance to the final.

The following Saturday, December 13, was a showdown for Ellerstina and La Dolfina. The two teams had met in three of the last four finals. La Dolfina won the last two finals despite Ellerstina being the fan favorite. This time, it was La Dolfina who was favored in the informal betting, proving it wasn’t totally reliant on Cambiaso’s incredible solo skills. Ellerstina had studied the script well and the addition of Juan Martin Nero increased its chances.

A strong Nero hobbled Cambiaso while MacDonough seemed to be everywhere on the field, making it appear as if there were more than four players in black Ellerstina shirts. Nearly five and a half minutes into the fourth chukker, Ellerstina held a twogoal advantage. Cambiaso and Nero were marking each other closely, struggling for position, when Cambiaso was unintentionally hit on the right foot. Later, Cambiaso dismounted and doubled over in pain with an injured thumb. He mounted back up and returned to the game after receiving medical attention. Meanwhile, the younger Ellerstina players were beginning to lose their tempers as the more experienced La Dolfina team, with Castagnola dazzling the crowds, began to take charge. At the start of the eighth chukker, Monteverde evened the score at 11. The teams battled back and forth but with just 30 seconds left on the clock, it looked like Ellerstina would soon be celebrating when Nero found the uprights.

However, Cambiaso can never be counted out of the game and as the teams gathered back for the throw-in, he took hold of the ball, escaped his rivals and drove towards the goal. A few yards from the mouth of the goal, an Ellerstina player made a desperate attempt to stop him, but was whistled on the play. With just nine seconds left on the clock, Cambiaso converted a penalty shot, forcing sudden death overtime — for the third time in three years! The Ellerstina team surely was amazed.

The stands were buzzing with spectators wondering if La Dolfina had stolen the momentum and if they would deny Ellerstina yet again. The teams came back out to the field with their best, most reliable horses and with the clock barely completing its first minute, Pieres found his opportunity and hit to goal. “It was my ninth Open. It was many years of waiting. When I saw the ball entering the goal, I couldn’t stop the tears coming,” confessed a still-shocked Pieres. Ellerstina has won the title three times previously in 1994, 1997 and 1998 with Gonzalo Pieres, Sr. Interestingly enough, the elder Pieres took those victories with the majority of La Dolfina players. In 1994 he won with Cambiaso, Aguerre and Carlos Gracida, while in 1997 and 1998 it was with Cambiaso, Aguerre and Castagnola.

Four days after the final, the Argentine Polo Association decided to raise Nero’s handicap to 10 goals. Nero joins a select group of 10-goalers including Cambiaso, Facundo Pieres and Pablo MacDonough, who hold the ultimate handicap in Argentina, the United States and Great Britain. “It’s a dream come true,” says 27- year-old Nero. The handicap increase pushes the Ellerstina team to 40 goals. If the team stays together to reach the final next year and meets up with La Dolfina again, it will be the first time two 40-goal teams take to the field in the tournament — a real milestone in Argentinean Polo.

Ellerstina Etiqueta 39
Facundo Pieres 10
Gonzalo Pieres 10
Pablo Mac Donough 10
Juan Martin Nero 9
La Dolfina Peugeot 40
Adolfo Cambiaso 10
Lucas Monteverde 10
Mariano Aguerre 10
Bartolomé Castagnola 10
La Aguada 37
Javier Novillo Astrada 9
Eduardo N. Astrada 9
Miguel N. Astrada 10
Ignacio N. Astrada 9
El Paraíso 29
Julio Novillo Astrada 8
Ignacio Toccalino 7
Guillermo Willington 7
Alejandro N. Astrada 7
Indios Chapaleufú II 37
Alberto Heguy 9
Ignacio Heguy 10
Juan Ignacio Merlos 9
Eduardo Heguy 9
Pilará Piaget 37
Agustin Merlos 10
Santiago Chavanne 8
Sebastián Merlos 9
Marcos Heguy 10
Black Watch 36
Matías MacDonough 9
Guillermo Caset 8
Bautista Heguy 10
Francisco de Narváez 9
Trenque Lauquen 30
Juan A. García Grossi 7
Hilario Ulloa 7
Pablo Jauretche 8
Jaime García Huidobro 8


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