Las Monjitas shows no mercy in U.S. Open
Camilo Bautista’s Las Monjitas team showed what they were made of in their bid for the 26-goal Stanford U.S. Open Championship at International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida. They were the top seeded team throughout the three-week event, culminating as victors in a lackluster April 23 final against the sixthseeded Orchard Hill.
The U.S. Open championships are the
highlight of the 26-goal season, which
begins with the Hall of Fame Cup, then the
C.V. Whitney and finally the Open.
The season was all about timing. The key to any long, hard season is peaking at just the right moment. That is what made White Birch’s victories in all three high-goal events last year so remarkable. It is almost impossible to keep a string of horses fresh over three events. Even with one of the largest and best strings of horses and under the best management it is still extremely difficult to do and just about impossible to repeat, as White Birch found out this year.
The season got underway with 13 teams entering the Hall of Fame Cup, including defending champs White Birch. Being the start of a new season, it’s always interesting to see how teams come together. Inevitably there is usually at least one new member on each team because of handicap changes or the team’s lack of success the prior year. The one team everyone was talking about was Russ McCall’s New Bridge/La Dolfina team with Adolfo Cambiaso. Cambiaso, widely recognized as the best player in the world today, hasn’t played in high-goal tournament polo in the United States for several years. He joined McCall, playing in his first highgoal season at International; Matias Magrini; and Nicolas Roldan. Anyone who doubted Cambiaso’s status as the best player in the world was surely convinced after watching him in this tournament. Coming off a win in the 22-goal Ylvisaker Cup, the team went undefeated in the preliminaries and trounced Isla Carroll 13-5 in the final. Cambiaso, who was named MVP, controlled the game throughout. Isla Carroll’s 9-goal Eduardo Heguy said: “They played better than us. Adolfito was unstoppable. This was our third game in six days and our horses were a bit flat. To play against Adolfito, your horses have to be 100 percent and you have to have your best day.”
Aside from having Cambiaso, New Bridge/La Dolfina’s advantage was having only one tournament to prepare for while most other teams were looking at another two months of tough polo (although Magrini continued on with the ERG team for the remaining tournaments). “Our horses were the best,” said the 9-goal Magrini. “They improved game by game. Their horses are just starting to get in shape.”
When the C.V. Whitney started, the other teams breathed a sigh of relief knowing Cambiaso was headed back to Argentina— his team would not be competing for the remainder of the season. But 22-year-old Torsten Koch was making his debut season at International competing with his Jedi team, and they had been showing fairly well. Kelly Beal’s BTA team, also making its debut, joined in for the C.V. Whitney, as did Scott Wood’s ERG team. With 14 teams rounding out the tournament and Cambiaso in another country, it was anyone’s game.
Jedi, with 9-goaler Pablo MacDonough, and 8-goalers Juan Martin Nero and Alex Agote, made their way to the final without a loss. In an exciting come-from-behind match, they topped Lechuza Caracas 8-6 for the win.
Jedi scored three goals in a span of just over a minute and a half in the final period to rally past Lechuza. Jedi played so strongly, teams were once again counting their blessings that Jedi had no plans to continue on in the Open. Certainly the fact that they didn’t have to conserve horses for the grand finale factored into their success against equally talented teams. “This feels excellent,” said Koch. “[Jedi is] a wonderful organization. All we wanted was to win.”
With Jedi out, the U.S. Open roster included 13 teams, which were divided into three divisions. Division 1 had five teams, which played each other within the bracket. Division II and III had four teams each and played the teams in the opposite division, giving each team four games. The top eight teams, despite the bracket they came from, advanced to the quarterfinal round.
White Birch, who had won all three events the previous year, had come up empty thus far and was hopeful for at least another Open win. Leading the team was 10-goal Mariano Aguerre, who was joined by 4-goal patron Peter Brant, 9-goal Lucas Criado and 3-goal Miguelito Torres. Torres replaced Julio Gracida, who was raised from 3 to 5 goals for 2006. Aguerre said, “Since we are almost the same team that won it last year, I think that we are one of the teams to beat. …”
By the time the last round of games was played there were several teams that had enough wins under their belt that even a loss would place them in the quarterfinal. Unfortunately, there were also several teams that were teetering on their net goals and the outcome of other games could make or break them. For example, if one team didn’t need the win and decided to “canter around and save their horses” in the last round, that result might put one team in the quarterfinal over another team. This caused quite a bit of mumbling on the sidelines about so-called “fixed” games, and many people, players and spectators, wondered if next year the club or the USPA could devise a solution to this interesting problem.
This type of game manipulation is not new. The Argentine Polo Association has tried to come up with a tournament format for the Argentine Open so that each and every game counts. They eliminated the quarter- and semifinal rounds, which helps but doesn’t completely solve the problem. In England, the Hurlingham Polo Association is dealing with it by including a rule that both teams must try to win. Though they are making a point, this rule seems almost impossible to enforce. The U.S. Open tournament committee is discussing the issue and is looking for ways to retain competitiveness throughout the event.
Some players maintain you can’t blame someone who doesn’t want to hurt a horse
right before the playoff rounds begin. But if the score is being manipulated to allow a team to qualify or another team to be pushed out, is that the true spirit of competition? Patrons, corporate sponsors and spectators must also be considered. For those who want polo to be recognized as a truly national sport, all games must be competitive. Otherwise, finding spectators and corporate sponsorship will prove increasingly difficult. The top eight teams advanced to the quarterfinal rounds while the remaining five teams were eliminated. After the final round of games seventh-ranked Skeeterville had swapped positions with ninth-ranked Isla Carroll. Skeeterville was sent packing along with BTA, Black Watch, ERG, Lechuza Caracas and San Saba.
In the first quarterfinal game, Pony Express took on Isla Carroll. Isla Carroll, with Eduardo and Pepe Heguy, Sugar Erskine and John Goodman, led the first half. Pony Express, with Bob Daniels, Pancho Bensadon, Piki Alberdi and Bautista Heguy, tied the match at 7 in the fourth, before Isla Carroll jumped up by three in the fifth. In the final chukker, Bensadon caught fire, scoring four goals, while Alberdi added one, to take the win and advance to the semifinals.
At the same time, Mokarow Farms took on Bendabout. Mokarow, with Kevin Mokarow, who was replaced by 15-year-old Carlitos Gracida in the second half of most of the matches; Memo and Carlos Gracida; and Temmy Willington, got off to a good start and led 4-1 after two periods. Bendabout’s Gillian Johnston, Negro and Miguel Novillo Astrada and Luis Escobar fought back to tie the match at 5 at the half. Bendabout took a 9-8 lead in the fifth but a pair of unanswered goals by Carlos Gracida in the sixth gave Mokarow the win.
Next, Orchard Hill’s Steve Van Andel, Hector Galindo, Jeff Hall and Paco de Narvaez met powerhouse White Birch. Trailing 3-4 after two periods, de Narvaez and Galindo combined for four unanswered goals to put them ahead by three. Orchard Hill held a three-goal lead again in the fifth. White Birch came back with a pair of goals in the sixth, but it was too little, too late. As White Birch rode off the field, reality began to sink in that their chances for another Open would have to wait for another year.
Finally, top-ranked Las Monjitas met up with the eighth-ranked ERG. ERG had to change their lineup when, in just their second game, 9-goal Matias Magrini broke his leg in a fall. Marcos Di Paola was flown in from Argentina to replace him. Las Monjitas took control, shutting out ERG in the first and leading by at least three goals throughout the match, which they won 12-5.
The semifinal matches were held three days later when Las Monjitas took to the field against Mokarow Farms. The first two periods were close, with Las Monjitas holding a narrow 1-goal lead. But just a few minutes into the third, patron Kevin Mokarow collided with his No. 1, Temmy Willington, in what has been described as one of the worst wrecks in years. Both players were catapulted through the air and neither was seriously hurt. Unfortunately, both horses apparently suffered serious injuries. Willington continued playing while Mokarow was replaced by Carlitos Gracida. A Penalty 1 was called against Mokarow for the incident. When Memo Gracida missed a Penalty 2 in the next period, it was evident the Mokarow team was struggling. Things didn’t improve when in the fifth Memo Gracida was thrown out of the match for allegedly grabbing Eduardo Novillo Astrada by the collar and pushing and pulling him. The team continued with just three players. In the sixth Julio Gracida jumped in to play in the fourth spot, but it wasn’t enough to hold off Las Monjitas, who advanced to the final with an 8-4 score. It was a disappointing game in many ways, and most were glad it was over.
The Pony Express vs. Orchard Hill semifinal proved to be much more competitive. Orchard Hill lead 3-2, 6-5 and 8- 6 in the first half. The battle continued in the fourth with Orchard Hill maintaining the lead 10-9. Pony Express tied the match at 11 at the end of the fifth, so it was anyone’s game. Alberdi was the first to score for Pony Express, but de Narvaez quickly had the answer with a Penalty 2 conversion. Galindo put Orchard Hill on top with a field goal, and de Narvaez put the icing on the cake with one of his own, sending Orchard Hill to the final with a 14-12 score.
Everyone was looking forward to a great final match with two likeable teams. Van Andel’s Orchard Hill team had reached the final of both the 2001 and 2002 U.S. Opens, but remarkably, until this year’s Open, hadn’t won an Open game since 2002. Las Monjitas, meaning “the nuns,” was named for Camilo Bautista’s wife’s family farm outside of Bogota, Columbia. It originates back to the 1900s when the main house was used as a convent. The team has played in the Open for the past few years, but this was their first time reaching the final.
Bautista attributes their success this year to several things. “First of all, Las Monjitas is an organization which has been maturing with the years. It is the fourth season in the U.S. and obviously we have learned a lot in all respects, including the preparation and of course the horses. Also, Adam managed to mix very well with Eduardo and Nacho. From the start of the Open, the four of us began to concentrate fully, and this resulted in the team playing fantastic polo throughout the tournament. And finally, luck was on our side.”
Fans couldn’t decide which team to root for. Bendabout patron Gillian Johnston and friend Kim McCall dressed as nuns, but under their habits they wore white slips with “Orchard Hill” written on them.
Las Monjitas got rolling with a 4-1 lead in the first chukker. That was increased to 9-3 at the half. The Las Monjitas team played like a finely tuned machine, while Orchard Hill was looking tired and disorganized. The teams matched goals at 3-3 in the second half, but it wasn’t a true picture of the match. Las Monjitas was always in control and eventually took the 12-6 lead. Ignacio “Nacho” Novillo Astrada, 8 goals, led all scorers with six goals, his brother Eduardo Novillo Astrada, 9 goals, was named most valuable player. And 9-goaler Adam Snow’s Amy, a 13-year-old thoroughbred bay mare, was honored as best playing pony.
“This is the greatest moment for a polo sponsor,” said Bautista, who scored a goal on a difficult 40-yard neckshot that gave Las Monjitas a 2-1 lead. “The U.S. Open is the most important polo tournament outside of Argentina. In the pro-am circuit it is the first tournament in the world. ...”
Snow was also ecstatic. “It feels great. I’m floating up there,” he said, pointing to the sky. “I’d rather be [a] 9-goaler and play with a team like this, that has a chance to win, rather than be a 10-goaler and not play on a winning team.”
Astrada’s strategy was fairly simple. “I saw all the teams underestimated Orchard Hill,” said Eduardo Novillo Astrada. “They were playing hard right from the beginning and that’s how they were winning. We gave them a little bit of the same style, only better.”
Snow added: “We knew they got here by being aggressive. We knew we had to pressure them and we would get chances. I think that Eduardo’s idea was spot on. We played with attitude and strength and power.”
“It feels incredible,” said Eduardo Novillo Astrada. “I have now won all three major tournaments and that’s fantastic. Maybe I can get to 10 goals.”
Las Monjitas’ prayers were finally answered as they took the Stanford U.S. Open polo championship. Bautista says, “Every year there are better horses, and the competition is tough.” That’s why before the last trailers were headed out of South Florida, the team shuffle had already begun for next year.