USA ALL DAY!: Brits fall in arena showcase events

Townsend Cup highlights International Arena Showcase at International Polo Club Palm Beach.

U.S. teams celebrated victories in all three International Arena Showcase events hosted by the U.S. Polo Association on Jan. 26.

The action got underway with the Churchill-Roosevelt Cup, a battle between military players from the U.S. and England. The cup honors President Theodore Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, both of whom were military officers and avid polo players. The last time the cup was played, the British emerged victorious. This time around, the Americans were determined the result would be the opposite!

Players and fans woke to heavy rains surrounding the area and a washout seemed all but assured. All polo on the grass was canceled, however the sand and felt arena footing easily handled the water. By game time, intermittent rain blanketed the area scaring off all but die-hard polo fans, who huddled under tents to stay dry.

The U.S. team (Paul Knapp, Zack Grob, Jake Flournoy, Joe Meyer, Mark Gillespie), all former or current military officers, rotated players in and out of the game. England (Michael Zurawski, Capt. George Walker, Lt. Hiro Suzuki) originally had Royal Army Capt. Michael Amoore, but he was unable to play. Fortunately, Zurawski, one of the intercollegiate players, is a Royal Army Trooper so he was able to step in.

The match was a thriller with the American squad coming out strong in the first chukker, gaining a commanding 8-3 lead. Meyer rotated in for Grob in the second and the British team, led by Lt. Suzuki’s brilliant attacks, began to turn the tide. The Brits all but stopped the American offense, outscoring USA 2-1, and narrowing the deficit to 9-5 at the half.

Gillespie, who also coached the team, came in for Flournoy in the third, but the Brits continued to pour on the steam. The team not only tied the score, but pulled ahead by a goal heading into the final chukker, much to the delight of its fans. The Americans regrouped, putting Grob and Flournoy back in their saddles, and plotted a comeback. The furious action see-sawed back and forth indecisively for the first three minutes. Finally, thanks to excellent teamwork and Flournoy’s hard-charging attacks, the Americans regained the lead and then some to win, 15-12.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Karl Hilberg, cochair of the Armed Forces Committee, presented the trophies. Flournoy was named MVP and Dardo Iglesias’ Tordo, a grey gelding played by Flournoy and Suzuki, was Best Playing Pony.

Next, college students competed in the International Intercollegiate Challenge Cup, an annual competition between the USPA Intercollegiate/Interscholastic Program and Britain’s Schools & Universities Polo Association. Now in its seventh year, the competition venue alternates between the U.S. and Britain.

Feeling at home in the light drizzle, Britain (Robyn Evans, Michael Zurawski, James Glew, Jamie Grayson) jumped out front early with four goals by Glew. USA (Fiona McBride-Luman, Demitra Hajimihalis, Christian Aycinena, Liam Lott) got on the board early in the second, thanks to a neck shot by Lott. Grayson answered for Britain with three in a row. Aycinena, who sat out the first chukker, ended the second chukker with a goal, for a 7-2 Britain halftime lead.

When Grayson started out the third with his fourth goal, it looked like Britain would continue to dominate. But, USA rallied and Lott answered with back-to-back goals. Aycinena turned up the heat, tallying three times, including a two-pointer. Britain was held to two more, allowing USA to cut the deficit to 10-8 going into the final chukker.

Starting out the last seven minutes, Lott cleared the ball from the line-up as Aycinena followed with goals to knot the score, 10-10. Hajimihalis jumped into action, taking the ball off the wall on her nearside before sending a two-pointer into the goal with a single swing. She added a security goal a minute later to ensure the victory, 13-11. This was the fifth win for the U.S. team since the competition began. (See more coverage on page 24).

Organizers prepped the arena, leveling out the footing for the start of the Townsend Cup. The trophy was named for John R. Townsend, a prominent figure in New York society, a longtime horseman and a fan of arena polo, who provided the trophy for the competition. The trophy was first used for the Class A Championship in 1921, before Townsend offered it for an international arena competition between the U.S. and England in 1923. The trophy also continued to be awarded to the winners of the Class A Championship, which became the Senior Championship in 1934, and was played until 1957. At some point, the trophy now played for replaced the original trophy, which has not been found.

After the initial Townsend Cup competition, it wasn’t played again for 71 years, until 1994. It was played for a third time in 2004 and again in 2008 and 2011. Since then it has been played every other year. In 2013, it was the first and only time England prevailed.

This year, England was made up of 8-goal Jonny Good, 7-goal Sebastian Dawnay and 6-goal Ed Banner-Eve, coached by 7-goal Adolfo Casabal. Representing the U.S. was 9-goal Tommy Biddle, 8-goal Pelon Escapite and 6-goal Steve Krueger.

The visitors were anxious to bring the trophy back home to British soil, while the U.S. contingent liked their chances competing on their own horses. In 2011 and 2013 the event was held in Indio, California; the 2015 edition was held in U.K.; and the 2017 match was played in Scottsdale, Arizona, making it necessary for the participants to rent horses. All three U.S. players in this year’s event had horses in Wellington fit and ready to play.

“It is just unfortunate when you travel and have to play horses you don’t know that well,” explained Biddle. “I helped organize the horses for the English team. I mounted one of the English guys myself. Having our own horses and the other horses we got [for the English players], the quality was a lot better than in the past. Even [the English] said the horses were much better than they have ever been.”

Biddle was as confident with his team was he was with his horses. “Pelon is a scrapper. He can get hooked and come out with the ball. He’s got an amazing ability to be anywhere on a horse and he’s a great teammate because he opens up a lot of holes for me. He’ll get hooked and flip a little back shot to me. And Krueger, it’s the second time we played the Townsend Cup together. The first time we played, I knew he played in college so I was like OK, let’s get him [on the team]. He’s more a straight up-and-down guy in the arena. He’s very good with the stick on short plays but when he goes, he opens up and blasts through.”

The rain continued to fall on and off throughout the game, but that didn’t seem to negatively effect the match. In fact, Biddle thought it made the surface better.

“Down here, with the white sand, you need a lot of water on it and it held really well. The footing ended up being great that day,” he said.

The players were ready with yellow dish gloves in case the reins got slippery and Krueger ended up using them the entire game.

England began with a two-goal handicap and Good added to it with a Penalty 4 conversion early in the first chukker. Escapite got USA in the game with a two-pointer and Krueger followed with a goal to tie the score 3-3. Banner-Eve gave the edge back to England at the chukker’s halfway mark. After a courtesy horse change for all players, Biddle slammed in a pair of two-pointers to jump ahead, 7-4. Krueger added another early in the second, but Good countered with a Penalty 2 conversion. rueger got the last word, ending the half with USA ahead 9-5. Biddle dominated the first few minutes of the third chukker, sinking a two-pointer and finding the mark with a Penalty 4. Overall, play started getting a bit sticky. England fought back with Good adding two in a row to cut the deficit to five, 12-7.

England had its work cut out for it but a couple of two-pointers could easily put them right back in the game. Escapite increased the lead early in the fourth and another two-pointer by Biddle made it harder for an English comeback. Good found the goal, but missed on a Penalty 3 opportunity. Ninety seconds later he used a half shot on a Penalty 2, but that too went wide. He made up for it with a two-pointer in the final 30 seconds but time ran out and USA had the 15-10 win.

Biddle, who scored eight of his team’s 15 goals, was MVP and Escapite’s Ruby, a 12-year-old chestnut mare he played in portions of the second and fourth chukkers, was Best Playing Pony.

“It was a lot of fun. The arena is so big we were able to run so it was really open. I’m good friends with Steve and Pelon so to be able to play with them was simple. We didn’t have to sit down and have team meetings and go crazy,” explained Biddle. “When we practiced, we talked about what we were going to do and boom, it all worked. Everybody played well. We all fight and nobody’s going to give up or quit.”

“I’ve played with Tommy a lot, so it was easy, but this was the first time I’ve played with Steve. All of us tried to do [our] work and nobody wanted any glory, we just wanted to win,” echoed Escapite.

Biddle wore a band off his daughter, Lauren’s polo helmet during the match. Lauren, 22, unexpectedly passed away in October. “I felt like Lauren was with me, so it was a good feeling,” Biddle said.

-- By Gwen Rizzo • Photos by David Lominska/Polographics

-- Mark Gillespie contributed to this report





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