Cambiaso-led team wins soggy U.S. Open
By Gwen Rizzo

Adolfo Cambiaso didn’t disappoint his many fans as he wrapped up the U.S. Open with a 13-8 upset of Audi, led by the 20-goals of Gonzalito and Facundo Pieres, to take the U.S. Open Polo Championship held at International Polo Club Palm Beach on a damp, grey April 18.

Cambiaso and the Pieres brothers have been rivals for sometime. While Cambiaso is considered by most to be the best player in the world, Facundo Pieres has been described as a younger version of him. Gonzalito is also a very strong player, and he and Facundo, having grown up playing together, have very good chemistry on the field. That chemistry worked well for them last year when they came from a 5-1 deficit to take the U.S. Open 9-8 over Las Monjitas. Neither Crab Orchard, nor Cambiaso, competed last year, however, they dominated both the 2007 and 2008 U.S. Opens.

The rivalry began in Argentina with Cambiaso’s La Dolfina team meeting the Pieres brothers’ Ellerstina team in the Argentine Open final, first in 2005, and again in each of the last three years. While La Dolfina was hoisting the world’s most sought after Argentine Open trophy year after year, the young brothers were busy building their strings, improving their skills and trying to find a way to stop the momentum of Cambiaso’s team.

Their father, Gonzalo Pieres, a former 10-goal player and polo Hall of Famer, had won the Argentine Open nine times and the boys were hungry to continue the tradition. But each time, just when they thought they had a shot, La Dolfina denied them. That is, until 2008 when they put the first ball through the goal in sudden death overtime to edge La Dolfina 13-12. It was the team’s third Argentine Open final that went into sudden death, but the first time it went in its favor. With such narrow losses polo fans knew it was a matter of time before Ellerstina would manage to tilt the scales in its favor and its time had finally come. This led some to believe that Cambiaso, after ruling Argentine polo for nearly a decade, had finally met his match and the Pieres brothers were ready to take over his position as polo king. But Cambiaso wasn’t ready to step down, and this past year proved he still had what it takes when he once again downed Ellerstina in the Argentine Open final.

A few months later, attention switched to the U.S. Open but the discussion was still about if Cambiaso could overcome the two Pieres. The Argentine Open is different in that there are no patrons on the field, and both teams have four 10-goalers. The U.S. Open, in contrast, has three professionals and a patron. Cambiaso was the only 10-goaler on his team. Meanwhile, the Pieres’ led Marc Ganzi’s Audi team, which dominated the high goal season last year. The team played impressively, but again Cambiaso didn’t compete. When George Rawling’s Crab Orchard team, led by Cambiaso, won the two years before, the Pieres brothers weren’t competing on the same team. With the two Pieres brothers anchoring the Audi team, it had a pretty good shot. Both players were capable of marking Cambiaso, leaving the other to control the play. At least that was the idea.

Drug Testing

The new USPA drugs and medications testing, which began with the U.S. Open semifinal teams, got off to a great start. It was well-organized and the teams were very cooperative. The idea behind the testing is not so much to punish individuals but to educate players that some substances may be harmful to their horses if they are given to them while they play. The United States Equestrian Federation, which has an established drugs and medications testing program used by other associations, is administering the testing. It uses its own veterinarians to draw blood and its own testing lab to do the tests. The USPA decides which drugs and medications are restricted and which are prohibited. Here is how the testing works:

  1. Officials gather at the game to organize and discuss the testing procedure.
  2. As soon as the last whistle blows, officials make their way to the trailers.
  3. Officials randomly point out which horses they plan to test and notify the owner or his representative.
  4. An official stays with each horse, which has been randomly chosen, while other horses are tested.
  5. The owner or team representative gives the horse’s information and signs that he has witnessed the entire procedure.
  6. The official USEF veterinarian draws the horse’s blood in front of the owner or representative.
  7. The vials of blood are sealed with
    tamper-proof tops, which is witnessed by
    the owner or his representative.
  8. The vials are then covered with an adhesive label, also witnessed by the owner or representative.
  9. The sealed vials are then put in a plastic bag along with the horses information, which is then sealed in front of the owner or representative.

Cambiaso may not have had another 10-goaler but he sure knows how to pick a team. And he elevates the playing ability of every member of the team. A relatively unknown 8-goal Hilario Ulloa was a worker bee the entire season. He hit well, defended well and did whatever he needed to do. A well-known 8-goal Julio Arellano had the best season of his life. And George Rawlings also had a great season.

Nine teams filled the roster, which was divided into two brackets. Bracket I had four teams, while Bracket II had five teams. The teams played each of the other teams in their bracket, with the top two teams in each bracket advancing to the semifinal round. As luck would have it, Audi and Crab Orchard, the two favorites, drew the same bracket. They would play each other on the second day of play, the result of which led some to believe Cambiaso may not be able to hold off the one-two punch of the Pieres brothers. Excitement for the start of the Open, and especially this match up, a likely virtual final, had cars arriving early and by game time, were parked two deep along the side of the field. The game got off to a good start but Cambiaso was injured in the second chukker and came off his horse. He remounted and the play continued with the teams knotted 6-6 at the half. But tension on the field was mounting and Cambiaso was clearly not himself. The game was getting bogged down and the majority of goals were coming from the 30-yard penalty line.

Tempers continued to flair. Cambiaso came off his horse again and after he remounted, missed a Penalty 2. Then the umpires pulled red flags from their trousers, signaling a technical foul, the fourth of the game. The first went to Marc Ganzi in the first period. Facundo Pieres got the second in the fourth period and both Gonzalito Pieres and Cambiaso got one in the fifth. This certainly wasn’t the game fans were waiting for.

By the end of the sixth chukker of this lackluster game, the teams were tied a 13-13. Less than a minute into overtime, Cambiaso received his second and third red flags, while Audi was awarded a Penalty 2. Facundo Pieres easily steered the ball through the uprights for the Audi win. This was the second win for Audi. It had defeated Pony Express 14-7 in its first outing.

Cambiaso would have no more chances with technical fouls. Earning three in this game, one more in the tournament would force him to sit out a game and could be a death sentence for Crab Orchard. Was the pressure getting to Cambiaso, and if so would he be able to control his temper for the remainder of the tournament?

Cambiaso rebounded for his next game as Crab Orchard gave Pony Express an 11-3 beating. The same day, pitting husband against wife, Marc Ganzi’s Audi team topped Melissa Ganzi’s Piaget team 11-10. Both teams were successful again the following week when Audi topped Orchard Hill 16-12 and Crab Orchard edged Piaget 15- 13. Audi would earn the top spot in the semifinal with a 4-0 record. Crab Orchard finished its playoffs with a 13-10 defeat of Orchard Hill. With a 3-1 record it would take second place in the bracket.

Meanwhile in Bracket I Bob Jornayvaz’s Valiente team took the top spot with a 3-0 record and Victor Vargas’ Lechuza took second place with a 2-1 record, its only loss to Valiente.

The first semi between Valiente and Crab Orchard had the teams fairly evenly matched in the first half. Crab Orchard trailed 4-3 at the half but Cambiaso and teammate Julio Arellano combined for three unanswered goals in the fourth period to take a 6-4 lead. Crab Orchard outscored Valiente 4-3 in the next two periods to hold on to the lead and advance to the final.

As soon as the last whistle blew, a team of veterinarians and USPA officials made their way to the trailers to officially kick off the USPA drugs and medications testing. Officials randomly picked three horses from each team to be tested. Results, which can take weeks, are discussed with the horse owners if restricted or prohibited substances are found this year. In the future, once penalties and or fines have been established, horse owners will be subject to those penalties and fines if their horses test positive for restricted or prohibited substances. The testing was also performed on the teams’ horses in the second semifinal match and in the 8-goal President’s Cup final.

In the second semifinal, Audi silenced Lechuza 5-0 in the first half. Nine-goal Sapo Caset got Lechuza back in the game in the fourth period with three Penalty 2 conversions. Audi scored two penalty conversions in the last two periods, while Lechuza attempted a comeback in the last chukker. The team managed three goals to come within one but with just seconds left, an attempt to tie the match went just wide of the posts, ensuring Audi a spot in the final.

Weather forecasts for the next few days were not promising. Heavy rains were expected over the weekend, particularly on Sunday when the final was scheduled. And on Sunday morning, as predicted, intermittent rain threatened to postpone the match but the field was still in good shape. Rather than the beautiful hats normally seen at the open, women’s heads were covered by umbrellas and their colorful dresses were covered with raincoats. Still, the diehard polo fans weren’t going to miss this match.

The game got off to a rough start for Audi when Marc Ganzi was knocked off his horse in the opening throw-in after his No. 4 inadvertently bumped him. He remounted and the umpires threw the ball back in. Facundo Pieres scored the first goal, a Penalty 4 conversion but a Penalty 2 by Julio Arellano tied the score. Cambiaso followed with a two-in-a-row to take a 3-1 lead. Facundo scored another penalty early in the second but Arellano and Cambiaso each followed with goals. Two more Crab Orchard goals to Audi’s one in the third gave Crab Orchard a comfortable 7-3 lead at the half.

As the teams settled into their tents for a 10-minute break and the spectators made their way onto the field for the soggy champagne divot stomp, the darkening skies began to open up even more. Spectators ran for cover. After the break, the umpires rode out on the field to check the conditions. The field was holding up fine, so they whistled for the teams to mount up. The rain was still coming down, heavy at times.

Arellano knocked in a Penalty 2, while Facundo added two more penalty conversions. The teams traded goals in the fifth with Crab Orchard leading 10-7. It was clear Crab Orchard was controlling the game. Ulloa, Crab Orchard’s 8-goal No. 1 was working hard and keeping one of the Pieres busy most of the time. This left either Arellano or Cambiaso to stay with the other Pieres and whoever was free, to make plays. It was working well and Audi was clearly having trouble keeping up. Facundo showed moments of brilliance, but overall seemed to be struggling to defend plays rather than make them.

In the final period 5-goal Inaki Laprida scored for Audi but Arellano wrapped up the match with a trio of goals. Crab Orchard had the win, and Cambiaso left no doubt that he is still very much the best player in the world. Ulloa was named Most Valuable Player and Julio Arellano’s True was named Best Playing Pony. Both Ulloa and Arellano have been raised to 9-goals beginning June 1.

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