VALIENTE SPEARHEADS GAUNTLET CRUSADE WITH C.V. WHITNEY CUP VICTORY
Feb 27, 2023 9:10 PM
On Sunday, February 26, the first leg of the Gauntlet of Polo came to a conclusion with the C.V. Whitney Cup Final. The elite competition pitted 2022 USPA Gold Cup and U.S. Open Polo Championship victors Pilot (Curtis Pilot, Lucas Escobar*, Matias Torres Zavaleta, Facundo Pieres) against four-time C.V. Whitney Cup winners Valiente (Robert “Bob” Jornayvaz, Lucas “Luckitas” Criado Jr., Mariano “Peke” Gonzalez Jr., Adolfo Cambiaso). A match decided primarily from the penalty line, a breakout second chukker for Valiente combined with a successful late drive from Gonzalez provided the edge for a narrow 10-9 victory over Pilot and $50,000 in prize money.
Both Pilot and Valiente were undefeated entering the final, however their paths to the title match were strenuous, particularly for Pilot. Prior to the C.V. Whitney Cup, Matias “Colo” Gonzalez sustained a hand injury and was substituted by Escobar, altering the team structure before the competition began. All of their games decided by a one-goal margin, Pilot defeated Scone in the opening match 13-12, and performed similarly against Dazos 10-9. Pilot one-upped Shack Attack in the semifinal 12-11 to narrowly earn their place in the final. Valiente’s wins over La Elina and Aspen were much more decided in bracket play, however Park Place presented a formidable semifinal battle, with Valiente only outscoring the team in yellow 12-10. Cambiaso was noticeably absent in the semifinals due to a family emergency and his nephew Camilo “Jeta” Castagnola played in his place.
Pilot’s Pieres catapulted his team to a quick start at the outset of final play, converting two penalties and driving to goal once from the field. Gonzalez and Criado answered with a field goal each to end the chukker and shift the game in Valiente’s favor. Continuing their forward momentum Valiente’s efforts resulted in a second chukker shutout for Pilot, Criado scoring all three goals, including two penalties, to give Valiente the advantage 5-3. An even third chukker, maintained the gap—Valiente on top 6-4 at the half.
The penalty conversions kept coming after the break, with only three total field goals scored by any team versus six penalty conversions. An even fourth chukker maintained the gap, but a field goal from Escobar in the fifth, his first of the game, brought Pilot withing one moving into the final chukker. Pieres’ tied the game 9-all early in the final chukker, but a dexterous goal from Gonzalez propelled Valiente back into the lead. Pilot battled fiercely but could not find their way to goal. As time expired, Valiente held firmly to their 10-9 lead and emerge with a fifth C.V. Whitney Cup title.
Thrilled to be winning alongside Valiente again, Cambiaso commented on how Valiente faced the challenge of meeting an accomplished Pilot team. “Obviously they have Facundo [Pieres] - they’re already strong with that. We believe in our system, we’ve been playing pretty good the last two or three games. We believe in our game. We were more thinking about what we were going to do than [what] to expect about them. I think the first half we did pretty good, and in the second half they did better. They came back, we made some mistakes—we were lucky to end up winning.”
Jornayvaz, who returns to high-goal polo after a couple years out of the game, was elated to just be able to compete again. “The fun part is getting to play against one of your best friends in life—Curtis [Pilot]. […] I can’t say enough good things about the Pilot organization.”
Though this is Valiente’s first victory in the C.V. Whitney Cup since it became part of the Gauntlet of Polo series, the team is very well acquainted with all three trophies. Jornayvaz added, “The USPA Gold Cup is something we’ve won five times, so we’re looking forward to playing in that next. I can’t thank these guys enough for working as hard as they do so I can have a good time.”
For his impressive performance and game-winning goal, Peke Gonzalez was awarded Most Valuable Player. Carpacho, Gonzalez’s 10-year-old Argentine bay gelding was presented Best Playing Pony honors. He was bred by Lucas Monteverde (Alcaparra x Dolfina Cuarteto). Gonzalez played Carpacho in the second chukker and then again in the sixth chukker, during which he scored his game-winning goal. Gonzalez shared, “I know if I play him a little in the beginning, he plays well and for the second half, he’s way better.”
A staple in Gonzalez’s string, Carpacho has long been a standout but had never been awarded the coveted prize. “He’s been my best horse for the last three years. He had an amazing season in 2021 playing with me. He was my best horse. Then last year, I got injured and I didn’t play him. I passed him to Poroto [Cambiaso] to play in the entire Gauntlet and he did really well. He keeps on doing it, so I’m really happy that he finally got a blanket and I think he really deserved it. I have a lot of confidence on him, I know he’s always the same, he never lets you down—I love him.”
Describing him further, Gonzalez lightheartedly shared, “He’s not good looking. You look at him and it’s like ‘wow, it’s not a typical polo type horse.’ Once he starts playing, he gives me all that I’m asking. He goes everywhere, he has a good mouth, good movement sideways. I think he’s really complete, I know him well, so I think we get along really well.”
Gonzalez will also add to his string for the two remaining Gauntlet competitions. “I brought four from Argentina that didn’t play this tournament. My goal is to play them in the USPA Gold Cup and the U.S. Open Polo Championship.”
Similarly pleased with his whole string’s performance, Cambiaso earmarked two horses to look out for as Valiente continues this season. “A little black mare called [J5 Argentina] Cherokee Bay [Dolfina Guitarerro x Fax Cherokee]. I think she’s growing every time, it’s her first season here, but she’s amazing. She’s small, but she feels like she’s big, and I believe everyday she’s doing better. Another mare that I call [Taita] Carmesi [Open Iluminado x Polo Purpura]. I played them twice, in the first half and in the end when I needed them. Those are the two horses that I really feel like I’m comfortable with.”
In addition to the title, Valiente received $50,000 in prize money. This year's Gauntlet of Polo in partnership with USPA Global Licensing also embraced the spirit of giving with non-profit charities chosen by the finalists receiving a donation. Valiente chose to support the Museum of Polo & Hall of Fame with a $2,500 donation while Pilot contributed $2,500 to the Polo Players Support Group (PPSG).
For Valiente, this is just the start of their Gauntlet crusade. Equipped with the skill, teamwork and horsepower to sustain the competition, the team stands a chance at capturing all three jewels in order to emerge as the first Gauntlet champions since Pilot in 2019.
*Lucas Escobar is an Active Team USPA Member. Team USPA is a USPA program designed to enhance and grow the sport of polo in the United States by identifying young, talented American players and providing mentored training and playing opportunities leading to a pool of higher rated amateur and pro players and the resultant giveback to the sport of polo.
All photos courtesy of ©David Lominska.