NO PLACE LIKE HOME: USA win keeps historic trophy on U.S. soil.

A determined U.S. squad narrowly defeated an English team, 9-8, in overtime to win the historic Westchester Cup trophy at International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida, April 28.

Since its inception in 1886, the Westchester Cup, or International Cup as it was called back then—a competition played between the U.S. and Great Britain—had been played 17 times prior to this year. The U.S. had won it 10 times, while Great Britain counted seven wins. There were other unofficial contests that are not included in the count, such as a 1900 match between a group of Americans living in England and a British team (the Brits won) as well as a two-game series between a U.S. team and an Australasia team played in 1988 (the U.S. won).

Following a disappointing showing by the U.S. in the Westchester Cup match held in England last summer—its fourth consecutive loss—the USPA issued a challenge for the cup to be held on U.S. soil this season. The challenge was accepted and plans got underway to field a competitive team to face the Brits.

Organizers believed the best chance of fielding a competitive team with the best players and horses was to hold the contest around the winter high-goal season in South Florida. But, playing it while teams were still competing in the Gauntlet of Polo would be nearly impossible. If a player or horse were injured during the contest, it could adversely effect a team’s chances in the Gauntlet so most players were not willing to take the chance, or contractual obligations forbid them to. So, the contest was schedule for the week following the Gauntlet. That would allow players on both sides to have a week to practice together.

In the early days of the contest, teams would transport their strings by ship and had the luxury of focusing on the contest for weeks, if not months.

Today, with the advent of professional polo, players no longer have the luxury of such time and are limited to mere days to prepare in between tournaments they are under contract to play in. Gone are the days of playing merely for pride in your country when you have horses to feed and other bills to play.

Nowadays, the visiting team is typically at a distinct disadvantage since, unless its players already have strings in the country the contest is being played in, it is usually playing unfamiliar horses.

This year, to level the playing field a bit, the U.S. agreed to have one player on each team mounted on pooled horses similar to what is done in the FIP championships. A group of horses was put together and each horse was graded by representatives from both teams as A, B or C based on playing ability. The horses were divided among the two players, with each player getting equal numbers of A, B and C horses. The remaining players could use their own horses or lease horses on their own.

The U.S. team, outfitted by U.S. Polo Assn., consisted of Geronimo Obregon (4), Peke Gonzalez (6), Mike Azzaro (6) and Jared Zenni (6), coached by Julio Arellano. Alternates included Jeff Blake (6), Costi Caset (6) and Tommy Collingwood (5). Flannels England, outfitted by the British polo association’s Hurlingham 1875 brand, fielded a team with Henry Porter (3), Ollie Cudmore (6), Jack Richardson (7) and Tommy Beresford (6).

The pooled horses were played by Obregon and Beresford. Zenni and Gonzalez both competed in the Gauntlet and had their own horses. Gonzalez also had the pick of his father, Mariano’s string. Azzaro had brought three quality horses to Florida to sell and supplemented those with leased horses. Porter competed in the Gauntlet, so he had a string of horses in town and Matias Magrini leased the lion’s share of horses to the other two British players.

Separately, the teams were given opportunities to practice throughout the week.

On game day, the teams paraded around the field led by mounted flag-bearers. Each country’s national anthem was played before the game got underway. England started out aggressively, with Richardson running the ball to goal out of the opening throw-in.

Gonzalez got on the board with a Penalty 2 conversion followed by a run to goal on his dad’s grey mare, Geisha, for a 2-1 lead after the first seven minutes. Richardson passed to Cudmore for a tally in the second, followed by a neckshot to goal from Richardson but Azzaro, with Beresford glued to his hip, leveled the score. Porter had four incredible runs to goal only to have the ball bounce just outside the posts. Unanswered open-goal penalties in the third propelled USA to a 5-3 lead at the half.

Gonzalez, who hustled the entire match, outran the pack on a fast bay Thoroughbred to split the uprights in the fourth, doubling up England’s score, 6-3. A hard-hit backshot from Beresford bounced off Azzaro’s left hand. Tough as nails, he took a half a minute to shake it off. A minute later Beresford drew a Penalty 1 helping to get England back in the game. A well-hit Penalty 5 by Zenni headed toward the backline, but miraculously, Azzaro made a difficult backshot that spun the ball into the goal. With 20 seconds left on the clock, Richardson, with Gonzalez on his heels, brought England within two, 7-5.

Both teams were hustling and USA saw two attempts go wide before Beresford manuevered through traffic to bring England to within one, but a Penalty 2 by Gonzalez put the difference back to two to end the chukker. Cudmore missed the mark early in the sixth. USA was also having difficulty around the goal with two shots going wide and a third miraculously knocked out of the air by Beresford in front of the goal. At the halfway mark, Cudmore hit the target to bring England within one, 8-7.

USA was desperately trying to maintain its narrow lead, but with just under two minutes left, Zenni’s high hook briefly stung Richardson and gave England a Penalty 2, tying up the match. With just over a minute left, Cudmore got several lengths ahead, but Azzaro, mounted on a fast horse, made a Herculean effort to speed past a teammate and back the ball out of the goal mouth just in the nick of time. It was so close, umpires reviewed the footage to be sure the potential game-winner hadn’t crossed the goal line. As the teams jockeyed for position, regulation time ran out, forcing overtime.

In one of the most competitive games of the season, the sparse fans remaining in town were getting their money’s worth as the teams readied themselves for sudden death. A vocal English contingent let their team know they had support, and it seemed to help.

When the game got back underway, a miscued knock-in jumped the boards giving England possession at the 45-yard line. Beresford aimed for goal but it arced just wide. A minute later Cudmore got a hold of the ball and shot to goal but it too went wide. USA breathed a sigh of relief. With 4:40 left, Gonzalez, back on Geisha, made a mad dash to goal but Cudmore defended. Desperate, Gonzalez shot the ball under the belly but it just missed. England got the ball back on the other side of the field but USA regained possession. Zenni picked it up along the boards at midfield and passed to Obregon who took three shots at the bouncing ball to get it between the posts for the exciting win.

Scoring the game-winner earned Obregon MVP honors. Azzaro’s Allie, a chestnut mare he played in portions of the second, fifth and overtime, was named Best Playing Pony, while Geisha, played by Gonzalez in portions of the first, sixth and overtime, was the Retired Racehorse Project Off-the-Track Thoroughbred Best Playing Pony. England didn’t go home empty handed as Tommy Beresford was presented with the Sportsmanship Award.

Azzaro was on the committee to put together the U.S. team. “This was the first year that I was able to be a part of the organization that chose the team, and I felt these three guys were champions. To beat a team like England, [that] has beaten us several times, you have to have a champion team on the field and these guys were warriors,” Azzaro explained.

Arellano and Peke Gonzalez were on last year’s team that suffered defeat. Arellano, still recovering from a riding injury last summer, was a perfect fit as coach.

“We needed to win after having not won since 1992, especially since it was here, with a home-field advantage, there was no excuse,” Arellano said. “Hats off to the English because it could have gone either way, so I’m very proud of the guys. Everyone stepped up to the plate and they played as a team, which is all I wanted. ... I wanted them to leave it on the field and have no regrets.”

Peke Gonzalez added, “It’s an awesome feeling to win. I went last year to play in England and we lost there so to win here at home is lovely.”

A week prior, a Junior Westchester Cup was played with Olivia Uechtritz, Lucas Escobar, Bayne Bossom and Timmy Dutta playing for the U.S. while Monte Swain-Grainer, Milly Hine, Ned Hine and Will Harper mounted up for Flannels England. (See page 22)

-- By Gwen Rizzo





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