Ten-goaler leads Lucchese in Santa Barbara series

When Lucchese Chairman John Muse struck a deal with Adolfo Cambiaso to lead his polo team in the 20-goal season at Santa Barbara Polo Club this summer, he was genuinely excited to be playing with someone most consider the best polo player in the world. His opponents weren’t quite as excited. Prior to the season, one high-goal player said, “Our team is going to kill him.” When asked how he was so confident his team would win, he joked, “No, we are really going to kill him.” And most players agreed that about the only way another team was going to win was if Cambiaso just didn’t play.

Cambiaso has always been amazing to watch. He was playing tournament polo at the age of 8. He was 2 goals by the time he was 12, and was raised a goal each year for the next two years. He won his first tournament in the U.S. with his father when he was just 15. Six months later, rated 6T, he won the USPA Rolex Gold Cup with Cellular One. Shortly after turning 16, he replaced 7- goaler Antonio Herrera on the Tramontana team, playing alongside 10-goaler Carlos Gracida in the Cowdray Gold Cup in England. The team went on to take the title. One British newspaper referred to him as the infant prodigy, while another dubbed him the Argentine Wonderboy.

Cambiaso didn’t stop there. He finished the year with wins in the Malaysia Open, the U.S. Handicap and the Camara de Diputados. His handicap was raised to 9 in the U.S. but that didn’t slow him down a bit. He won the 26-goal Prince of Wales Cup, the 26-goal International Open and the 30-goal World Cup. Both England and the U.S. raised his handicap to 10 goals for the 1993 season. He hadn’t yet turned 18.

Soon after reaching 10 goals, Cambiaso joined up with Ellerstina’s 10-goal great Gonzalo Pieres. Pieres knew talent when he saw it and didn’t waste time signing Cambiaso up to play with him. Pieres had won the Argentine Open six out of seven years from 1984-1990, but hit a dry spell from 1991- 1993. Cambiaso proved to be the magic Pieres needed to take back the prestigious trophy. With Cambiaso on board, Ellerstina won three more times.

Cambiaso formed his own team, La Dolfina, and won the Argentine Open in 2002. The team has won the title all but once since 2005. Recently, the team’s toughest opponent has been Ellerstina, a team made up of Pieres’ two sons and two nephews. Pieres made sure the team had a slew of the best horses, and it was right in contention but couldn’t seem to overcome Cambiaso. Finally, in 2008, the younger Ellerstina foursome conquered the master, and many wondered if the team may have found the right formula to take charge. But their luck was short lived, and Cambiaso and his La Dolfina team was back on the trophy stand the next year.

Polo is a tough sport and most stand-out players begin to lose their luster to younger, fitter, more fearless players after a few shining years. Cambiaso is the exception. Having just turned 35 in April doesn’t seemed to have slowed Cambiaso one bit. In fact, he continues to be at the top of his game and seems to have no trouble beating more experienced players, as well as younger players. He won just about every major tournament he played in over the past year.

After winning his eighth Argentine Open trophy in December 2009, he led Crab Orchard to one 26-goal victory after another at International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida. The team won the C.V. Whitney Cup, the USPA Piaget Gold Cup, and the U.S. Open Polo Championship. After the Florida season, Cambiaso joined the Dubai team in England, leading it to victory in the 22-goal Queen’s Cup and the 22-goal Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup. The team topped 14 teams in the first event and 20 teams in the second on its way to victory. After, Cambiaso headed to California.

The 20-goal Santa Barbara season began with the Mayors Trophy on July 7. Still early, not all players had arrived so the tournament included just four of the eight teams signed on for the remainder of the season. The Mayors Cup was played in a single-elimination format played over four days. In the final, it was 7-goal Memo Gracida who led Piocho, the only 16-goal team, to a high-scoring 20-14 victory over Mansour after beginning with four handicap goals. Gracida’s son Julio was named MVP while Matias Torres Zavaleta’s Perla was named Best Playing Pony.

By the following week, all eight teams were in place to begin the Robert Skene Trophy, with the exception of Lucchese. The team was anxiously waiting the arrival of Cambiaso who was due in the following weekend. In the meantime, 9-goal Lucas Criado took his place. The games were played on Fridays and Sundays beginning on July 16. Piocho and Mansour played a rematch of the Mayors Cup final in their first round. Piocho included 8-goal Carlos Gracida replacing the 4-goal Zavaleta, bringing the team to 20-goals, and Mansour shuffled its lineup. This time the teams were knotted at 11-11 at the end of regulation time. Martin Zegers knocked in the game winner with an open-goal penalty conversion for Mansour. In other first round games, Lucchese won 14-10 over Zacara, Grants Farm crushed Audi 16-10, and Valiente edged ERG 14-13 in overtime.

When Cambiaso made his debut the following weekend, the team was already in great shape at 2-0. Cambiaso’s appearance drew a sizable crowd as he lead Lucchese to a 13-9 victory over Piocho and secured a spot in the final. Bob Jornayvaz’s Valiente, led by 9-goal Nacho Novillo Astrada, continued its winning streak with a 13-9 defeat of Audi to take the other final spot. Zacara topped Mansour 15-11 while Grants Farm ousted ERG 10-9, giving the winners a consolation game. In the consolation Grants Farm took the 13-10 win.

What sets Cambiaso apart from other top 10-goalers is his ability to identify what his teammates do best, and utilize those talents to the fullest. And while most other 10-goal players are best at either offense or defense, Cambiaso is 10-goals in every position. He can run the length of the field to score a goal and can take the ball away from almost anyone. He can turn the ball or make a tremendous backshot. Some believed that last year’s rule clarification meant to speed up the game by eliminating holding the ball might put a damper in Cambiaso’s game, but he simply adjusted his game accordingly and continued to win.

The final of the Skene had Cambiaso wasting no time in starting the scoring. He also had his teammates playing their best. Teammate Jason Crowder received a pass and followed with a goal. Kris Kampsen put Valiente on the board with a Penalty 2 conversion but Lucchese’s Andres Weisz responded. Weisz tallied a pair in the second while Nacho Astrada was held to one for Valiente. Cambiaso scored two in the third but Kampsen matched him. Valiente missed a Penalty 2 in the closing seconds, ending the first half with Lucchese ahead 7-4.

After scoring two open-goal penalties in the fourth, Cambiaso scored a pair of goals from the field while Valiente was unable to get close to its opponent’s goal. Trailing by seven, Valiente matched Lucchese in the fifth but they were silenced in the sixth, giving Lucchese the 16-7 win. Adolfo Cambiaso, scoring a game-high 10 goals, was named Most Valuable Player and his bay mare, Mika, was Best Playing Pony.

The Lucchese America Cup got underway the following week. As expected, the Lucchese team kept its momentum and as the only team to finish without a loss, reserved its spot in the final. Piocho finished 2-1, along with two other teams, but advanced to the final on net goals. Zacara and Valiente played for the consolation, which Zacara took 15-13.

In the final, Lucchese once again jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first chukker. Piocho matched goals with it in the second and third, ending the half with a respectable 7-5 score. But like the Skene final, Cambiaso scored four goals in the fourth, including two penalty conversions, giving Lucchese a sizable lead. He went on to score two goals in each of the next two periods while Piocho was held to four goals total in the second half. Lucchese took the 15-10 victory. Cambiaso was named MVP and Carlos Gracida’s Ducati took Best Playing Pony.

The season highlight was the Pacific Coast Open, which began on August 15. The tournament was sponsored this year by Bombardier. Cambiaso adjusted the team lineup by moving Jason Crowder from Back to No. 2 and Andres Weisz from No. 2 to No. 3. Cambiaso, who had been playing No. 3, moved to Back.

The changes just strengthened the team. Lucchese once again finished the playoff rounds without a loss. Scott Wood’s ERG team seemed to peak in the tournament and topped its bracket without a loss, the only other team to do so. Grants Farm’s only loss was to Lucchese, earning it a spot in the semifinals. Zacara took the last semifinal position with a 1-2 record after accumulating the most net goals.

ERG took on Grants Farm in the first semifinal match. While ERG had a strong start, Grants Farm struggled to find the goal. Grants Farm managed just one goal from the field in the first half and two 40-yard penalty conversions. Trailing 3-7 at the half, Grants Farm scored three goals in the fourth, including two more Penalty 2s while holding ERG to a goal and cutting its deficit to two. But that was the closest it would come. While Grants Farm was shut down the last two periods, ERG went on to score four more to take the 12-6 win.

Lucchese met Zacara in the other semifinal. It was a closer game with Lucchese holding a narrow 6-5 lead over Zacara at the half. Zacara was led by Cambiaso’s U.S. Open teammate 9-goal Hilario Ulloa, and 8-goal Jeff Hall who went on to score all but one of his team’s goals. Cambiaso led the scoring for his team as it went on to beat Zacara 12-10.

The final was set for Sunday, August 29. Attendees from the USPA annual meetings helped to increase the size of the crowd to its largest all season. The crowd was waiting to be dazzled and once again, Cambiaso didn’t let it down. Cambiaso put on the No. 3 jersey for the final, and moved Weisz to the No. 4 position.

Lucchese jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first chukker. Jason Crowder sandwiched goals around a Penalty 2 conversion by Paco de Narvaez, and Cambiaso sunk a Penalty 4. Just two minutes into the second, de Narvaez aggravated a leg injury that had been bothering him and was replaced by Hilario Ulloa. Cambiaso scored a field goal soon after but Ulloa responded. Crowder scored the last goal of the chukker with Lucchese leading 5-2. ERG controlled the third, with Ulloa and 7-goal Silvestre Donavon scoring the only goals, and coming within a goal at the half.

Cambiaso and Crowder traded goals with Ulloa and 4-goal Santi Torres in the fourth. In this close match-up, tensions began to mount. In the fifth chukker Santi Torres was given a technical with just over four minutes left. A Penalty 2 from Cambiaso and a field goal from Crowder increased Lucchese’s cushion but a Penalty 2 from Donavan kept ERG in the game. With under a minute left in the chukker, Cambiaso got a technical.

Crowder scored in the final chukker to give Lucchese a three-goal advantage. ERG kept fighting and Ulloa scored to bring the team within range, but time was not on its side and Lucchese hung on for the win. Despite the loss, ERG put up a good fight. When Cambiaso is playing, some consider runner-up almost as good as a win.

Californian Jason Crowder stepped up his game playing alongside Cambiaso and was awarded Most Valuable Player for his efforts. Cambiaso’s Dolfina Noruega, a 9- year-old chestnut mare, took Best Playing Pony honors, one of many accolades the mare has won. Cambiaso was also honored with the prestigious Robert Skene Award for season MVP.

Only time will tell how long Cambiaso will be able to keep this winning pace. Following the California season, Cambiaso headed back to Argentine to prepare his La Dolfina team for the Triple Crown. With Mariano Aguerre moving to another team, David Stirling is expected to step in to take his place. What remains to be seen is if Cambiaso’s team can be just as effective with a new line up. He appears to have no problem adjusting seamlessly in the U.S.

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