VIVA VALIENTE: Cambiaso delivers in U.S. Open Championship.

After a lackluster start to the season and serious player injuries, Valiente, led by 10-goal great Adolfo Cambiaso, persevered to win its first U.S. Open Championship on April 19 at International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida.

The Valiente team has been keeping spectators guessing for the past few years. In 2012, two Valiente teams charged onto the fields, one led by Bob Jornayvaz, the other by his son Robert. Both strong teams, they faced each other in the finals of the first two 26-goals, splitting the difference, but fell short of the Open final.

The following year, Valiente made it to the final of the Gold Cup against Zacara and won 13-12. When the two teams met in the Open final a month later, most figured it would have a similar ending, but in an upset, Valiente lost 16-13.

Valiente came out strong in 2014, taking both the C.V. Whitney and the Gold Cup. Capturing the Open seemed inevitable when it met Alegria in the final, but it was not to be. Alegria clawed its way to overtime, eventually scoring the winning goal and denying Bob Jornayvaz and Valiente its Open victory once again.

This season, Valiente was determined to change its luck, but it would have to change its line-up as well. Three of the four players on the 2014 Valiente team were raised by a goal for 2015: Jornayvaz went from 1 to 2 goals, Santi Torres went from 6 to 7 and Sapo Caset went from 9 to 10.

“That is a tough handicap situation from the beginning,” explained Jornayvaz. “We set out to continue to build a great organization and Adolfo was instrumental in helping us accomplish that goal. ... Guillermo Terrera and Alejo Taranco were known to be disciplined workers with the ability to take a man in a very consistent fashion. They both had excellent reputations and we thought we could build a great team with them.”

Jornayvaz also ensured he was prepared. “I was personally determined to get into good physical shape after being raised to 2 goals. I had suffered a torn tendon and a fraying ligament in my right arm after our season in Spain, and worked with a German doctor in the fall to help heal,” said Jornayvaz. “It was a challenge to improve my overall strength with an injured arm, but brought it back to 80-90 percent healed.”

Despite the best preparations, when the team hit the field it seemed lackluster at best. It failed to reach the final of either the C. V. Whitney or the Gold Cup and Cambiaso seemed to be struggling with injuries any time he played.

“We knew going into the season that the Valiente organization (horses, pilots, grooms, the veterinarian, farriers and players) were positioned to go the distance. However, the four of us had never played together and practice games just don’t match the reality of live competition,” said Jornayvaz. “Our injuries, [including] Adolfo’s shoulder and sciatic nerve pain and my elbow and injured tailbone, kept us from playing together, let alone becoming a cohesive team.”

In Valiente’s first U.S. Open match, Cambiaso played just 35 seconds before having to be replaced due to an injury. Ten-goaler Sapo Caset took his place. Later in the match, Alejo Taranco fell but remounted and continued on. After battling back and forth, the game went into overtime. Facundo Pieres wasted no time in scoring, giving Orchard Hill the 15-14 win.

Orchard Hill was on a roll. It had taken the C.V. Whitney final over Alegria 16-13, and just missed the Gold Cup, after losing to Audi in an exciting overtime match. The team was powered by 10-goal Facundo Pieres matched with his 9-goal cousin Polito Pieres. This dynamic duo was dazzling the crowds each game, and drawing standingroom- only crowds.

Meanwhile, preliminary games continued. Coca-Cola, led by 10-goal Pelon Stirling, was finding its stride and managed to top Las Monjitas 9-8. The entire Coca-Cola team was playing well, particularly Sugar Erskine who was on fire this season. Outfitted in his bright red boots and kneeguards, Erskine seemed to be all over the field, switching from offense to defense and back again.

Audi, fresh from its Gold Cup victory, met up with FlexJet, pitting Audi’s Marc Ganzi against his 16-year-old son, Grant, who was filling in for his mother, Melissa. In a tight match that saw the teams tied six times, Audi took the 11-10 win.

Lechuza Caracas then took on defending champion Alegria Assist Card. Trailing by a goal in three of the first four periods, Lechuza had a strong fifth period to take the lead. Costly mistakes by Lechuza put Alegria back in the game after it converted three open-goal penalties in the sixth, but Lechuza fought back to force overtime. A Penalty 2, this time in Lechuza’s favor, sealed the deal.

In Valiente’s second match, this one against Las Monjitas, Caset was again taking Cambiaso’s spot. Cambiaso was still struggling with leg pain, forcing him to watch from the sidelines. Then, in the third period, a collision gashed Jornayvaz’s tailbone and he had to be replaced by Tommy Beresford. The team soldiered on, coming from a 12-9 deficit in the last chukker to force overtime and finally win the match 13-12.

Whether or not Cambiaso plays, Valiente can never be counted out. Jornayvaz explained, “Adolfo and [team manager] Robertito Zedda have built our organization to have the depth to enable all our players to be well-mounted. We all know that horses are a huge part of the game and it is the one variable that we can control to always be competitive.”

Jornayvaz’s injury was more serious than first expected when doctors discovered he had actually fractured his tailbone. The injury would have him joining Cambiaso on the sidelines for at least the next 10 days.

Alegria came on strong in its next game, this time against FlexJet. It hammered in six goals in the first two periods while holding FlexJet to a Penalty 2 conversion. But it suddenly lost all its steam. It found the goal only two times in the next three periods, while FlexJet methodically chipped away at the difference. By the end of the fifth, the teams were tied 8-8. They matched goals in the sixth to send the game into overtime. Alegria had its chances but was unable to reach the goal. Finally, more than halfway through the period, Nic Roldan slammed the ball through the goal to give FlexJet the 11-10 win.

Audi put on another great performance against Lechuza. Down 6-5 at the half, it tied the score at 7-7 at the end of the fourth. Audi then shut out Lechuza the rest of the game while tallying three times for the 10-7 win.

Jornayvaz and Cambiaso sat out Valiente’s next game, against a hungry Coca Cola team. It was a battle from the start and the teams were knotted in four of the six chukkers. Coca Cola led by a goal in the remaining two chukkers. Tied 11-11 at the end of the sixth, the game went into overtime. The game was decided in less than two minutes when Julio Arellano nailed a Penalty 3 for Coca Cola. Erskine again put in an MVP performance.

The Orchard Hill-Las Monjitas matchup drew a large crowd hoping for a fast, fluid game. Instead it was riddled with fouls. Fifteen of the 27 goals were scored from the penalty line. The choppy match stymied the synergy between Orchard Hill’s Pieres cousins, and maybe that was Las Monjitas’ intention. If so, it worked. Las Monjitas slipped past the favored Orchard Hill 14-13.

While some blame the umpires when games are riddled with fouls, polo instructor Mike Harris pointed out players can improve the flow of the game. “Good professional players can control the tempo of a game. They can choose to hit short and play a possession game or they can hit away, open it up and have good, running polo,” he said. “It is the responsibility of the umpires to call ‘shading’ on the defending players or ‘walking’ into the player with the ball. This helps improve the flow of the game.”

Players will often slow down the play when they don’t have the number or quality of horses as their opponents. If they allow the play to open up, they will likely be beaten to the ball.

The last round of playoff games had Orchard Hill pitted against Coca Cola in the morning. Coke knew it had to strike early and it did, leading 4-2 after the first seven minutes. Orchard cut the difference to one in the second, but Coke maintained the difference through the first half to end 6-5. Orchard jumped ahead 7-6 in the fourth and led 9-8 going into the final period.

Polito Pieres extended the lead to two early in the sixth but Erskine cut it back to one. Facundo scored putting Orchard ahead by two with just two minutes left. Tension was building as Stirling split the uprights for Coke with just over a minute left. Coke won the ensuing throw-in and headed to goal, closely defended by the Orchard Hill players. The umpires’ whistles suddenly stopped the action and with under 30 seconds left, the ball was placed at the 30-yard line in favor of Coca-Cola.

Spectators were preparing for the inevitable overtime period, pondering who might win. The winner would get a pass to the semifinal, while the loser would have to earn a spot by winning a quarterfinal match.

Julio Arellano lined up to take the penalty, but after he swung at the ball, the crowd went silent. His mallet head hit the ground pushing the ball only a few feet, ending the match with Orchard Hill on top 11-10.

The Alegria vs. Audi game was as anticlimactic as expected. The outcome would make no difference. Audi topped its bracket and had already earned a spot in the semifinal. Alegria, on the other hand, already had two losses. A win would put it in a three-way tie with a 1-2 record, but the other 1-2 teams had both beaten Alegria, so its fate was already determined.

Audi had its most important game still to come, so you can not blame it if it was preserving its best horse power. Alegria led 4-1 at the half and went on to a 10-5 victory.

The last game between Lechuza Caracas and FlexJet offered more action. Both teams qualified for the quarterfinal, but the outcome of the game would determine placing and thus which team it would face in the quarters, Coca Cola or Valiente. FlexJet narrowly led through the fifth period. Lechuza tied it early in the sixth before FlexJet took a two-goal lead. Lechuza kept fighting and managed to tie the score to force overtime. It maintained that momentum when Nico Pieres scored the game winner.

That set the stage for the quarter finals. Lechuza would face Valiente, while FlexJet would take on Coke. The winners would advance to the semis against Audi and Orchard Hill.

The season was remarkable in that no one team was dominating the tournament. In fact, 10 of the dozen playoff games were determined by a single goal, and six of those went into overtime.

USPA CEO Peter Rizzo remarked, “The 2015 U.S. Open Polo Championship was one of the most competitive in the long history of the USPA’s most prestigious events. It was a credit to the USPA’s handicapping system, and to the team owners who assembled solid teams, that helped even the playing field for all to have a viable chance of winning the legendary trophy.”

It was also the first year instant replay was used in a U.S. Open Championship. Each team was given one challenge per half, and another in overtime if necessary. Some fans blamed instant replay with slowing the game, however officials countered that teams were given 15 seconds to challenge a call and reviewing plays once challenged averaged 35 seconds. It often took less time than when a team took a penalty shot.

Instant replay was used this year because the teams voted to use it once the technology was available.

The first quarter-final match pitted Valiente against Lechuza. Adolfo Cambiaso and Bob Jornayvaz climbed back into the saddles, and though Jornayvaz admits neither one was 100 percent, they both tried to work through their injuries.

Lechuza took an early 5-3 lead but Valiente edged ahead 7-6 at the half. Fans were glad to see Cambiaso back, but it wasn’t the running game they had hoped for. All of Valiente’s six second-half goals came from the penalty line, while four of Lechuza’s six were penalty conversions. When the final horn sounded, Valiente held the 13-12 lead to advance.

In the next game, Coca Cola jumped out to a 5-2 lead over FlexJet and extended it to 8-4 at the half. FlexJet kept pace in the second half, but the damage was already done and Coca Cola advanced with a 15-10 win.

Spectators began lining up for the semifinal matches over an hour early to secure a good spot. The first match had Orchard Hill taking on Coca Cola. The crowds had hoped for a game as exciting as the last time the teams met, but it was not to be. Orchard Hill narrowly lead through the first four periods and took complete control in the fifth, scoring four unanswered goals to take an 11-5 lead into the final chukker. A pair of penalties and a field goal by Arellano in the sixth made it respectable, but Orchard Hill closed out the game with a 12-8 score. The next game offered all the excitement everyone had hoped for when Valiente took on Audi.

Gonzalito Pieres, who was playing at the top of his game this season, struck three times in the first period. Valiente kept it close with a pair of goals. The teams battled back and forth in the first half, finishing tied 6-6. They were tied 7- 7 in the fourth before Valiente edged ahead 9-8 at the end of the fifth. Pieres wrapped goals around one from Cambiaso to tie the match at 10 and force overtime. Cambiaso seemed no worse for wear and scored all but one goal.

Jornayvaz said, “In the Whitney and Gold Cups, Valiente was always competitive, but never overwhelming. It was discouraging, but Cambiaso and Robertito Zedda were the emotional glue that kept us together and believing in ourselves. We definitely had doubts about getting through Lechuza and Audi, but once again, confidence in our organization enabled us to remain positive.”

In the overtime period, Valiente was whistled on a play. The foul likely would win the game for Audi. However, Valiente challenged it and after a review, officials reversed the call. The game continued until Alejo Taranco found an opening and shot to goal for the 11-10 Valiente win. It was a heartbreaker for Audi, but Valiente was ecstatic to have another chance at the trophy.

Audi’s Marc Ganzi was instrumental in helping set up instant replay in polo. It was first experimented with at his Grand Champions Polo Club and his company, ChukkerTV, helped develop the technology for it to be used in polo. The irony that instant replay overturned a decisive call wasn’t lost on him. He said he still thinks it should be used, even though it likely cost him a chance to compete in the final.

Valiente prepared itself for the final. Jornayvaz explained the team’s strategy. “Discipline, discipline, discipline ... we each knew we had a specific job assigned by Adolfo and it was our goal to execute each of our very specific tasks well. Adolfo has a unique ability to identify strengths and weaknesses and to develop a strategy to capitalize on those strengths and minimize weaknesses. We had to create separation between Facundo and Polito.”

The team brought about 12 horses for each player to ensure their strings were equal to, if not stronger than, Orchard Hill.

The largest crowd of the season began to gather, anticipating an exceptional match pitting rivals Facundo Pieres against Cambiaso in brilliant displays of athleticism. It wasn’t quite that grand. Orchard Hill took an early 3-1 lead and held a narrow 5-4 lead at the half. All of Valiente’s goals were made from the penalty line, including three Penalty 2s and a Penalty 1.

Jornayvaz admits he was having his doubts at this point in the game. “I did, but Adolfo did not! He has won so many major events coming from behind. He continually offered amazing encouragement at the right time and reminded us to remain disciplined in our specific tasks. ... We had a unique strategy for each team. We played different positions in the throw-ins and handled each team’s knock-ins differently than a previous game. The idea was to simply change what the other team had seen us do previously.

Jornayvaz, in particular, was effectively slowing down Polito Pieres. Cambiaso turned on the charm in the fourth, landing three goals in a row that went unanswered, and taking a 7-5 lead. Facundo and Polito bounced back in the fifth, combining for three and taking the 8-7 lead into the sixth.

Jornayvaz admits he was concerned but not entirely. “Having lost to Alegria in the 2014 final, after going ahead in the sixth in that final, gave us encouragement that leads can change quickly.”

The final chukker had Orchard Hill increase the lead to two midway through the chukker. Then with just over two minutes remaining, Valiente was awarded a Penalty 1. Moments later, Valiente capitalized on the ensuing throw-in 15 yards from the goal to level the score at 9-9. This changed the momentum of the game in Valiente’s favor. A Penalty 2 for Valiente added salt to Orchard Hill’s wounds at the minute mark. Cambiaso added one more for good measure just as the horn sounded.

Six of Valiente’s 11 goals were scored from the penalty line. Jornayvaz attributed the limited number of field goals to Orchard Hill’s defense. “Facundo Pieres had an amazing defensive game. He did his job very well.”

So did the Valiente players. Jornayvaz said the team’s strong points throughout the game were discipline and perseverance. “We stayed on our game plan,” he remarked.

Taranco was honored as MVP, while Cambiaso’s 7-year-old bay mare, Romana, was named Best Playing Pony. She was playing her first season of high goal after coming to the United States from the United Kingdom last year.

For Jornayvaz, he was delighted to finally get the chance to hold up the U.S. Open trophy, the only major trophy to allude him so far.

“Dreams can come true,” he said. “We created a long-term comprehensive strategy and built and organization that enabled us to execute it well. We have so many wonderful people associated with Valiente that helped accomplish this dream.”

His next goal is to win the Triple Crown. According to Jornayvaz, Cambiaso is already on board for next season, and Valiente emerged without any handicap changes this time around.

                   
 

Alegria Assist Card
Julian Mannix
Hilario Ulloa
Mariano Aguerre
Sterling Giannico

26
4
9
9
4

 

FlexJet
Melissa Ganzi
Magoo Laprida
Miguel Novillo Astrada
Nic Roldan

26
A
9
9
8

 

Orchard Hill
Steve Van Andel
Facundo Pieres
Polito Pieres
Ezequiel Martinez Ferrario

 

26
A
10
9
7

 
Audi
Marc Ganzi
Rodrigo Andrade
Gonzalito Pieres
Freddie Mannix
25
1
9
9
6
Lechuza Caracas
Victor Vargas
Nico Pieres
Juan Martin Nero
Agustin Garcia Grossi
26
1
8
10
7
Valiente
Bob Jornayvaz
Alt. T. Beresford
Alejo Taranco
Guillermo Terrera
Adolfo Cambiaso
Alt. Sapo Caset

 

26
2
2
6
8
10
10
Coca Cola
Gillian Johnston
Pelon Sterling
Julio Arellano
Sugar Erskine
26
2
10
8
6
Las Monjitas
Camilo Bautista
Facundo Sola
Sebastian Merlos
Eduardo Astrada
26
A
8T
9
9
   
                   

By Gwen Rizzo • Photos by Alex Pacheco

 
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