ON THE ROAD: Polo takes David Stirling around the world.

Meet David “Pelón” Stirling, the newest member of the Coca-Cola team, competing in this year’s 26-goal season in Florida. The 10-goal Uruguayan has made a name for himself in several polo playing countries. Most recently, he was named MVP of the Argentine Open, playing for the La Dolfina team as it competed against Ellerstina. Not only did La Dolfina win the Open, it notched back-to-back Triple Crown victories. Alice Gipps sat down with Pelón in England this summer to learn more about his life on the polo road.

Where are the main polo seasons you play professionally?

Argentina, U.S., England and sometimes Spain. The season in the States starts in January and runs until April 20, then I have 15 days holiday with my family before heading to the U.K.

In the 15 days off, we go to Argentina, where we have a house, or to Chile, as my wife José is Chilean. The English season finishes the middle of July. Some years we head straight to Spain or Santa Barbara for August, but out of those two, mainly Spain, as I have family there and both the seasons are on at the same time. Then, I head back to Argentina for the main season there.

In which location abroad have you spent the most time?

In the U.K., where I have been playing the most. I finished school and started university at Oxford Brooks in October 2000.

Palermo’s MVP

By Ernesto Rodriguez • Photos by Sergio Llamera

On December 6, David Stirling had just completed a grand final match in Palermo, contributing to the 14-12 triumph of La Dolfina Hope Funds against Ellerstina Piaget to lift the most coveted crown on the planet, and complete the second consecutive Triple Crown. But, the afternoon had a nice surprise for the Uruguayan, who turned 40 on January 4: he was chosen MVP of the match.

The incredulous look on his face the moment he was named MVP, made it clear he was surprised. “I could not believe it. There were so many great players on that field. It could not be a joke, but I thought the announcer was wrong! I never imagined I could get this prize on such an important and historic day for the polo world. It is an honor and I am thankful to my organization and the people who are behind me all year, Especially my cousin Jejo and my groom Justo,” explained Pelón.

"In 2014, I played in Dubai, Palm Beach, then I went to Argentina, traveled to England, then I went through Sotogrande and back to Argentina. Now I have to rest. We will be with my family for some time in Young, the Uruguayan city where I was born, which is about 200 miles from the capital Montevideo. We are also going to Chile, where my wife María José is from. I want to enjoy my children, Vicente (2 years old) and Amalia (1), for a while,” said the player who joined the team from Cañuelas in 2009. I sat down with Pelón, shortly after his win.

What is your feeling after winning the final match?

I know we did not offer the best possible match because Ellerstina tried to [change the flow of the game]. From the outside, you should not have enjoyed it. But, it was a final and we had to win anyway. We could not [come up] short, [it is] just a step of the glory. That’s why it was celebrated so much. At the Tortugas and Hurlingham finals, we played much better. But after Palermo, we happily went home with the cup.

Were you surprised with the amount of Uruguayan flags in Palermo?

I’m getting used to that part of the Dorregos tribune (seating area in Palermo), it seems like Uruguay’s embassy! While in my country, polo is not very popular, so my fellow Uruguayans travel to the Open final weekend to enjoy the game. It makes me feel good, Before and after the game, they ask for photos. It makes me feel as famous as the football players Diego Forlán and Luis Suárez. Luckily, my achievements allow Uruguayan polo to be better recognized, and some [players are trying to get a team] to play the 2015 Coronation Cup. It would be an honor to lead the Celeste (light blue) shirt in England.

How do you process this moment of success?

What is happening is unthinkable. I dreamed I would get to play in Palermo. When I arrived, I wanted to play a final. And when I could play one, win. But what I have done is beyond expectations. I have been very lucky and took my chances when they were presented to me. If you asked me this 10 years ago, I could not have imagined.

What is the secret to La Dolfina’s triumphs?

We have known each other in and out of the field over time. So, we got better slowly, overcoming errors and making the team a bit stronger every time.

Besides having a lot of talent, my teammates trust their life with Milo Fernandez Araujo, La Dolfina’s coach. Milo got into our heads that losing was forbidden. He is the fifth player on the team, and all season is plugged in 100 percent. Many victories are also his merit. That is why this team has not yet reached our ceiling, we want to play and keep adding wins. The hard part will be not getting a triumph, but we will keep trying to win. We already validated our seasonal wins by adding the Jockey Club Open. Now we are thinking about the 2015 Triple Crown.

What does it mean to you to be next to Adolfo Cambiaso?

Adolfito is everything to me. In 2007, we met playing in Palm Beach and he opened his arms to me. He took me around the world and helped me grow. The guy is enviable. He has nothing more to gain because he won everything, but he is still more eager than a beginner. He does not think about his huge talent, he is trying to be the best, as I imagine Roger Federer and Lionel Messi are. He is the No. 1 in the sport and I try to learn in every situation that I share with him. I feel privileged.

He has also helped me with the horses. It makes me very happy to help the team he founded, being a little bit bigger. That is my way of thanking him for all he gave me in life.

 

I brought my first few horses in the season of 2001, which was the [same year as the outbreak of] foot and mouth disease. I remember it well. I stayed with my horses at Beaufort with the Tomlinsons and played medium goal with them. Since then, I have come to England every year.

In 2002, the Geebung team offered me to play the Gold Cup in the U.K., and in 2003 I started the high goal in Spain. Sotogrande is like my second home. I moved there when I was 6 years old, as my father ran the polo there for a long time, so I have many school friends. After England, which is more polo concentrated, in Spain there is more to do. The weather is great, you have the beach, which Jose and the kids enjoy, and a house with a swimming pool. The rest of my family are also normally there that time of the year so it’s a big gathering. We went for the 2014 season and always have a lot of fun during that month.

America is also very nice, but I go there on and off. The first year I went was in 2007 with Crab Orchard and Adolfo [Cambiaso], then two years in a row I was part of the Pony Express team. I had a couple of years without going, then I was invited back to play with Valiente for a couple of seasons. This season I will play with Gillian Johnston’s Coca-Cola team.

How do you like living abroad?

We like it because you move to a place for two-and-a-half months at a time. You get used to a base and settle in. That is the good thing about polo. It is not like tennis or golf where you do one week here, one week there. There is time to get the kids into school. Everyone treats you well. We always have a nice place to stay. That helps a lot.

What do you do in down time?

Our life revolves mainly around the stables and polo. Occasionally, we go to the beach and also do some shopping. When we are in Florida, I will take the family to Disney or Miami for an outing.

In the U.K. it is a very similar schedule. Most days are spent at the barn or at polo. This year, we were in Cowdray, which is quieter with more countryside. I like it. Manor farm is very nice.

It is further from London for Jose so she probably prefers the Windsor area, but I really enjoy it as we get more time as a family. This season we have been to Portsmouth, and the animal farms are a favorite with the kids. Especially when the sun is out. It is a great country. I started school in the U.K. in ‘98 but I never went to polo! I only played in Sotogrande when I went for holidays.

How do you manage to build up a good string of horses in each country?

That is probably the most difficult thing about playing abroad. I started my own breeding program very late, so the oldest youngsters are only just 5 years old and just starting to play young-horse chukkers now. So far, I’ve always had to buy horses to get organized in those three places. It is very difficult to be well mounted, but I try the best I can by traveling a lot to find really good horses. Everywhere I have a set of horses, but my main bases now are in Argentina and England. I will always ship two or three ponies to play in America every year that I go.

Do you take horses from Argentina to America?

I prefer to take them from England, as it is the same hemisphere. The horses travel very well. From Argentina it is more difficult for them to get settled in.

I’ve done seasons when I’ve taken horses and then shipped them back after but I try to leave a base in the U.S. because if you start traveling with them a lot, you exhaust them.

Do you take the good ones home to breed?

I’ve been doing that for the last few years. My mares that get injured or are too old to play, I take to Argentina, where I now have a very nice bunch of broodmares to take embryos from.

I also take one or two of the better ones I find abroad back to Argentina to play as well. Finally, last year I was very well organized for the Argentine season. I took three from England and three from the U.S. to play the Open and all six of the new horses played amazingly well. From the U.K. I took Jive from Ben Eely, Renato from Luke Tomlinson and Secret from Henry Brett. From the States, I took two mares from Memo Gracida that I had originally bought in Argentina and took to play in the U.S. and another mare I bought from Adolfo, an American Thoroughbred.

How many foals do you have per year?

I am breeding around 40 fillies per year. We have the embryos sexed, and all are out of mares that play the Open or are retired mares.

Quite a few of the stallions I use are from Cambiaso and I’ve bought a percentage of them at auctions. I take a bit of everything and mix it around to see if I manage to get one good one! The breeding program operates from a rented farm in San Antonio De Areco, which is not that far from our house in Cañuelas.

Do you have a manager?

My cousin Jejo, who works in Spain, has always been with me throughout my career, helping me out and organizing everything. My other main guy is Justo, my groom. He started with me when I first played in England. For the last three years, he has stayed in Argentina with all the breeding and takes care of the horses during the Argentine season. He has had a very important role in my career.

The same grooms have worked with me for a long time. I have four or five guys that already know me, my habits and how I like the horses to perform. They go two months before the season starts to each location to get the horses ready, and then I normally take someone with me to help with the riding and playing chukkers. The last few years this has been Tomi Ruiz Guinazu.

What does your wife José think of traveling around to all the different countries?

She enjoys it. Everyone is always very good to us and her friends are in the same places [we go]—Juan Martin’s wife, Adolfo’s wife, Pablo’s wife. With all the children in once place together, we have a good time. She copes well. She is also a good rider but now I keep her busy with the babies, so I don’t have to buy her horses!

Do you return to Uruguay at all?

Since I married José, we return to Uruguay less and less. Every time we have some holidays we go to Chile. She is following me around the whole year so we go and spend some time with her family. They also come and visit us abroad. The farm in Uruguay is really close, only a three-and-a-half hour drive from Buenos Aires, so if it rains during the season we get in the car and go for a couple of days.

What set-up do you have at La Dolfina?

We have a house, a polo field and the stables. It has all just been finished and we lived in the house for the first time last season, so that was great to finally move into our own place.

How do you keep fit for playing abroad?

I travel with my trainer Alejo Menchon. We call him ‘Petiso.’ He travels with us all year round. He is a great guy, a good person to have around and he tries to keep me fit. I give him a hard time but once in a while the hard work pays off! After every practice and game he stretches me and we train every day.

What are your plans for the next couple of years?

Hopefully, I will keep on playing with La Dolfina. We are having a great time with the team and organization. I have been based in La Dolfina since 2008. I like the area in Cañuelas because it is quiet, not as crowded as Pilar. The idea is to keep playing there, having fun, but be as successful as possible. I will continue to play competitive polo both in England and the States. It is very difficult as you always have to be improving your set of horses, but I enjoy it a lot. I’ve done it now for a while and I don’t get tired of the traveling as I’m with my family and we all enjoy the polo.

Photos and words by Alice Gipps

 
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