COMEBACK KIDS.
A young Audi team comes from behind to take Open victory.

Marc Ganzi knows how to put together a winning team. This past summer his Audi team went 12-0 in the Santa Barbara Polo Club 20-goal season, and in most of those games, the team was never seriously challenged. His Audi team in California was centered on Gonzalito Pieres, an exceptional player rated at 9-goals in the United States, and rated 10 in the remainder of the polo-playing world.

The Pieres family has a long track record of famous polo players, however none could measure up to the high standards set by Gonzalo Pieres, the father of Gonzalito and his 10-goal brother, Facundo. Yet, for all the world-class tournament wins secured by the elder Pieres, no member of the renowned family had captured the U.S. Open Championship, the United States Polo Association’s (USPA) most prestigious event.

In 2009, Gonzalito, Facundo and younger brother Nicolas earned the right to permanently inscribe the Pieres name, not once, but three times, onto the storied Open trophy. However, it was not as smooth a ride to the Open final for Audi as compared to the Santa Barbara campaign.

Audi is known for its high-performance automobiles, and Ganzi fielded a highperformance Audi team with, pardon the pun, a lot of horsepower. The Audi teams for the California and Florida campaigns were well selected, superbly mounted and meticulously organized. Sometimes, having well-organized, top players on great horses is all you need to win any tournament. Sometimes it takes more than that to win the U.S. Open Championship.

This season was a testimony to a lot of hard work and organization,” explained Ganzi. “It was a team almost three years in the making. [My wife] Melissa, Gonzalo, Sr., Juan Bollini and I started planning this team in April 2006 while we were in Argentina. [The vision was to] carefully build up the team, horses and organization to put the three brothers on the field to fulfill a dream of Gonzalo’s. After all the planning, the final ingredient was a bit of luck.”

The C.V. Whitney Cup, the Piaget Gold Cup and the U.S. Open Championship form the “Big Three” of high-goal polo in the United States. The three 26-goal USPA events, drew eight solid teams to the beautiful International Polo Club-Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida. Audi was the favored team to sweep the Big Three, however that was not to happen. After Audi narrowly defeated Lechuza Caracas to take the C.V. Whitney Cup, Juan Martin Nero led Lechuza to a one-goal, upset victory over Audi to take the Gold Cup. For most observers, the U.S. Open Championship was to be the rubber-match between these two well-matched teams. However, that anticipated showdown was not to happen.

The U.S. Open Championship teams were divided by lot into two divisions and by sheer coincidence, were the same divisions as in the Gold Cup. It seemed Audi and Lechuza would have to take the same road through the divisional rivals to reach the Open final. Unfortunately, fate and tragic circumstances prevented the anticipated rematch as Lechuza was forced to withdraw from the U.S. Open Championship after the death of 21 horses before the last of the playoff matches (See story page 24).

Before the start of the South Florida high-goal season, there was much speculation over who would emerge as the odd-on favorite team, particularly when Adolfo Cambiaso decided not to compete after winning the U.S. Open the past two years. It seems any team with Cambiaso is the team to beat but this year his La Dolphina team was defeated in the Argentine Open at Palermo, upset by a new generation of 10-goal players, led by Facundo and Gonzalito Pieres. Would the brothers Pieres finally emerge as contenders for the titles in the United States, or would it be the British Open Most Valuable Player Juan Martin Nero, playing for Lechuza, or Pablo MacDonough, Sotogrande, Spain’s Most Valuable Player, leading Orchard Hill? Nero and MacDonough were the Pieres brothers’ teammates in their Argentine Open victory. No one was overlooking White Birch who had perennial all-star Mariano Aguerre joining forces with last year’s U.S. Open Most Valuable Player Jeff Blake.

After three weeks of playoff rounds, the undefeated Audi team, and second place Orchard Hill advanced to the semifinal round in Division II. Division I wasn’t so cut and dry. Lechuza was 1-1, Las Monjitas and White Birch were 2-1, while Black Watch was 0-2. The last game between Black Watch and Lechuza would determine who would advance to the semifinal round. Lechuza held the tie-breaker so a win would allow them to advance. But before the game began disaster struck for Lechuza, and the team was forced to withdraw. White Birch and Las Monjitas thereby advanced to the semifinal round.

Rain delayed the semifinals a day, but nothing could completely wash away Lechuza’s loss and the sadness shared by the polo community, both locally and throughout the world of polo and equestrian sports. Nothing could prepare anyone for the magnitude of the loss and nothing will erase the memory of those noble horses. There was some discussion if the U.S. Open Championship should continue under that dire cloud of grief, but after a heartfelt discussion with the event participants, club management and USPA officials, it was decided that polo should continue to honor the memory of those irreplaceable horses. A touching memorial service was held after the semifinal matches.

In the first semifinal, Orchard Hill hung on to a 9-8 lead in the final period, only to have Las Monjitas score four goals to Orchard Hill’s one for the 12-10 victory. In the other semifinal, after a slow start, Audi motored to a 5-3 halftime lead. White Birch narrowed the gap to 7-5 at the end of the fourth, but was unable to gain any ground. Audi raced to the 11-9 finish, never looking back. The heavily-favored, undefeated and youthful Audi team would face an ever-improving and veteran Las Monjitas team.

The final week of the U.S. Open Championship is usually a special time of celebration and acknowledgement for the sport of polo. Each year, the USPA holds their semi-annual meetings in conjunction with the Open. This year, the celebration and the hearty fellowship of the games and meetings were muted and somber as everyone tried to come to terms with the grief and the loss of the Lechuza horses.

Meanwhile, Audi was coming up with their plan of attack. “We hadn’t faced [Las Monjitas] all season until the last game, so we didn’t know what to expect,” said Marc Ganzi. “They were a very balanced team on handicap and they played a very hard-nosed, defensive-minded game that would exploit the counter attack utilizing Adam Snow and his speedy mounts.

The night before the final, Facundo told me to expect a very hard final and to be mentally prepared to deal with a team playing their best polo of the season. He was right. They came into the final peaking and we had to adapt to their style of play.”

Prior to the start of the final, a moment of silence was punctuated by the sound of a bell rung 21 times in honor of the fallen mounts. Ganzi said, “The game is definitely a tribute to Victor [Vargas], and he is a friend. I am very confident that team will regroup and be back here next year.”

The teams lined up at midfield, the ball was thrown in, and perhaps one of the best games of the year was witnessed by those assembled–a very fitting tribute to the sport and those horses lost, but not forgotten.

It was apparent from the beginning that each team was playing a style of polo in unanticipated ways. The usually quick and speedy Audi team was playing a sloweddown, tight-knit game, keeping the ball close to the players, particularly between Facundo and Gonzalito, and hitting few long passes to open up the match, that previously exploited their exceptional pony power.

On the other hand, Las Monjitas, usually employing a more ball-controlled offense, backed by a physical style of defense led by the Astrada brothers, played more open, setting up Adam Snow to move downfield on offense. Las Monjitas, who struggled in the C.V. Whitney and improved in the Gold Cup, showed from the first period, they intended to win.

Snow and Eduardo Astrada scored the only goals of the first and Las Monjitas got three more goals in the second after a lone field goal by Gonzalito Pieres, making the score a surprising 5-1. In the third, there appeared to be a shift in the momentum as Facundo scored the next two goals from the field, along with a lone tally by his brother Gonzalito, to tighten the margin to 5-4 in favor of Las Monjitas. Las Monjitas took some chances on offense, though Audi really had not returned to the type of high-speed polo that got them to the final.

“We found out very quickly that trying to run around their line of defense was not going to work. Once we accepted their pace of play and displayed patience, we were able to exploit certain match-ups and claw our way back into the game,” said Ganzi.

Snow sandwiched goals around a Facundo Pieres Penalty 2 conversion. Snow was dazzling the crowds, especially on one particular play when, from behind the pack, he passed to Eduardo Astrada by the boards. Astrada distracted the opponents while Snow raced ahead of the pack to await a pass in front of the goal. It was a picture-perfect play that helped the orange-clad Monjitas hold a 7-5 halftime advantage.

“Adam Snow was the best player on the field that day,” said Ganzi. “He turned back the clock and played 10-goal polo. Adam was everywhere, winning many of the 50-50 plays, scoring goals and working hard for the team—he simply rose to the occasion. This wasn’t a surprise. He progressed through the 26-goal season, getting better every game, as did his horses. He began to really gel with Eduardo in the last game against White Birch that carried through to the semifinal. I am very happy for him on a personal level. He played with my father for years and Melissa and I watched him rise from 6- to 9- goals while playing with my father.”

While the capacity crowd of spectators flocked to the field to partake in champagne and ice cream bars provided by the club, the Audi team discussed tactical adjustments with the Pieres patriarch. Ganzi said, “We changed a little bit. We moved me to back and said, ‘Listen, we gotta go one goal at a time.’ We got lucky.” Little did Ganzi and his teammates know how luck may have played a pivotal role, late in the match.

The polo field cleared of the divot stompers to begin the second half of an intriguing contest, once again ready for the drama of determined players mounted on wonderful horses who were focused on the USPA’s top prize. The fourth period was a defensive struggle as neither team could score a field goal, yet Audi inched closer by virtue of a Penalty 4 conversion by Facundo Pieres. The fifth period is often when most matches are decided, and many felt the Audi horsepower would kick into high gear, yet Las Monjitas easily kept pace. In fact, there was but one field goal scored in the fifth, by Eduardo Astrada, later countered by a Penalty 2 conversion by Facundo Pieres, keeping Audi close in the race to the end.

The sixth period was once again a defensive battle between an Audi team seemingly trying to hold the ball between the fewest players on the team, as opposed to Las Monjitas looking to spread out and keep the ball moving. Both Gonzalito Pieres and Eduardo Astrada were brilliant as they kept their respective teams organized, while Adam Snow and Facundo Pieres looked for every opportunity to break loose from the tight defense to score. Facundo Pieres found the opportunity and saved the day for Audi, scoring the tying goal, and propelling the match, Las Monjitas and the Florida highgoal season into overtime.

Both teams were well prepared and capable of winning the Championship. For Las Monjitas, they played well enough to win, and no one can doubt their will to succeed, or their strategy to beat Audi at their own game plan of running with the ball and playing tough defense.

For Audi, they were the team to beat for good reason as they eventually, and pragmatically, broke the upset spell cast by Las Monjitas. As luck would have it, a miss-played Las Monjitas backshot left the ball to Facundo Pieres about 50-yards from the Las Monjitas goal. With a few strokes Facundo found the goal for a hard-fought, 9-8 victory.

“We felt a bit lucky to win the final, as we didn’t play our best polo that day, truth be told,” said Ganzi. “Our poor play had mostly to do with the excellent game plan and execution of Las Monjitas. They caught us by surprise and imposed their will on us from the beginning, forcing us to play a style and pace of game that didn’t suit us at all. We had to change our mentality and we fought our way back into the game. We took the approach that we would have to come back one goal at a time. We talked a lot before the sixth chukker about trying to find an equalizer—if we could find a way to get equal, we could find a way to win. I was very confident that after all of the adversity of the first six periods, we would find a way to win in the extra period.” Ganzi stressed the win was in no small part thanks to his wife, Melissa who runs the organization, team and horses.

Congratulations to Audi for winning the tournament and to all the teams of horses, players, officials and the host-club staff who made this particular event so memorable. Eduardo Astrada and Adam Snow were named “co-winners” of the USPA Most Valuable Player Award for their heroic efforts and Eduardo Astrada’s magnificent speckled gray, Flecha Arrow was honored as the USPA Willis Hartman Best Playing Pony.

Gonzalito Pieres was thrilled to finally hold the U.S. Open trophy. “Winning the U.S. Open is a dream come true. It was really exciting to see our whole family so happy. It is the most important tournament in the U.S. and one of the most important worldwide. On a personal level, it was important because I got a chance to win it with my two brothers and Marc. It was the only year that we could do it because of handicaps, so we knew we only had one chance to win it—the three brothers together and we did it. The hardest part throughout the tournament was knowing we only had one chance and we couldn’t lose.”

Facundo Pieres was equally pleased. “After winning the Argentine Open last year with Gonza, winning the U.S. Open was my biggest win ever.”

 
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