LA FE DEBUT IN U.S. OPEN WOMEN’S POLO CHAMPIONSHIP PEAKS WITH RUNAWAY FINAL VICTORY
May 04, 2023 4:00 AM
“This is huge for the women, and I hope it stays like this for years to come. It’s an uphill battle, but we’re here, we made it. I think we put on a great show. It means a lot for me personally, not just to play here and win here, [but also] for all of women’s polo. It shows how it’s growing and how people are taking it seriously, and I’m just proud to be a part of that.” – Pamela Flanagan, commenting on the first time the prestigious women’s competition has been played as the featured Sunday match on U.S. Polo Assn. Field One
A week of high-caliber women’s play hosted by Port Mayaca Polo Club (Okeechobee, Florida), culminated in the illustrious U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship presented by Eastern Hay. The final, which took place Sunday, March 19, at the National Polo Center - Wellington (Wellington, Florida), marked a historic moment in the elite competition. For the first time, the final was held as the featured Sunday match on the legendary U.S. Polo Assn. Field One. Despite, looming rain in the forecast, the most prestigious women’s cup in American polo pitted competition newcomer La Fe (Winifred Branscum, Pamela Flanagan, Hope Arellano*, Hazel Jackson) against returning contender Dundas (Ana de la Fuente, Erica Gandomcar-Sachs, Mia Cambiaso, Nina Clarkin) with $40,000 in prize money on the line. Relying on nonstop offensive firepower, especially from 8-goal American Arellano, La Fe launched an impressive effort that ended in a dominant 12-6 first-time victory for the team in orange. Meanwhile, on Saturday, March 18, the U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship subsidiary final took place at Port Mayaca Polo Club. San Saba defeated El Cid Fitness 8-3 to claim the bronze place position.
“It’s really kind of me and Hazel’s style to hit and run. So going into this game we were like, ‘let’s hit, let’s run, let’s spread the field.’ Playing on Field One, we really got to open it up—play our game.” – Hope Arellano
In their journey to the title match, Dundas faced an early setback when team owner Sarah Siegel-Magness suffered an injury in the first game that required a substitute in all subsequent matches. Valentina Tarzona filled in during the initial game and Ana de La Fuente took the reins for the remainder of the competition. One match under her belt, de la Fuente helped Dundas defeat a formidable BTA (Sophie Grant*, Maddie Grant, KC Krueger, Sarah Wiseman) 8-5 to qualify for the final. La Fe handily overcame San Saba 8-3 in the semifinals to claim their spot in the championship. Losing their first game in bracket play to BTA 5-6, the well-equipped team was determined to turn things around, proceeding to win their next game by eight goals and then triumph in a commanding semifinal win.
Speaking to their team’s preparation for the tournament, Flanagan shared, “Our team has been working together since the beginning of the season. We did a 6-goal together, we have done team workouts together with Chukker Wellness before and after every game, and in-between games. We’ve been having team meetings multiple times a week with Julio Arellano. We set up penalties for each other on off-days, we work together harder, I think than any other team. So, I think that’s what made the difference for us.”
Jackson added, “I’ve been here about two months roughly—basically just for today. I’ve tried hundreds of horses and looking for them left, right and center. I’ve been in the gym every single day; we’ve had India from Chukker Wellness. Yesterday, I played 10 chukkers and had an hour personal training with her to do reaction timing. In the evening we had a team meeting. You can imagine the amount of work and effort we’re putting into it. I’m so pleased that it paid off.”
“They’re all extremely well mounted, so playing against them, we knew we were going to have to get them early to cut the horse factor as much as we could.” – Hope Arellano
Discussing their team’s strategy for the final, Jackson continued, “The main thing for us was ‘initiate.’ Initiate the defense first, and then attack. Our plan was supposed to be much more disciplined with the man, and then we go on attack.” “They’re all extremely well mounted," Arellano noted, recognizing specific strengths La Fe looked out for in Dundas. "So playing against them, we knew we were going to have to get them early to cut the horse factor as much as we could.” Flanagan added, “In my opinion, they’re one of the most talented teams in the tournament. Mia and Nina are a force to be reckoned with.”
At the outset of play, La Fe drew first blood, with quick field goals from Arellano and Jackson outpacing a single score from Dundas’ Cambiaso to create an early 2-1 advantage. Motivated by the deficit, Cambiaso worked to find the goal once from the field then capitalized from the penalty line twice in the second. Only one response from Arellano shifted Dundas into the lead 4-3 moving into the third.
Despite struggling at the beginning, La Fe had a clear plan they strived to achieve. “We really wanted to open it up,” Arellano commented. “It’s really kind of me and Hazel’s style to hit and run. So going into this game we were like, ‘let’s hit, let’s run, let’s spread the field.’ Playing on Field One, we really got to open it up—play our game. When we got our runs, the plan was for one of us to always stay back. We didn’t really do that so well in the first two but we got it together.”
Regrouping, La Fe’s Arellano and Jackson hammered in six combined goals between the third and fourth chukkers—shutting Dundas out completely. La Fe now firmly in the lead 9-4 heading into the fifth chukker, Dundas attempted to ignite a comeback effort late in the game, but two goals from Cambiaso were met by goals from Jackson, Arellano and Flanagan in the fifth and sixth. As time expired, La Fe’s unwavering efforts were rewarded with a commanding 12-6 win and first U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship title.
Along with the championship, La Fe earned $30,000 in prize money, while runner-up Dundas cashed in on $10,000, generously donated by title sponsor Eastern Hay with the support of the USPA Prize Money Matching Program. In the spirit of philanthrophy and in partnership with USPA Global Licensing, both finalists also received a $2,500 check to donate to a polo charity of their choice. La Fe chose to support Replay Polo, while Dundas contributed to Work To Ride.
“This is my first time on this level, and I’ve been using it to launch me into the world down here in Wellington [Florida]. It means a lot, not just to win this tournament, but it means a lot of opportunity for me. I’m proud of what I showed up and did with my team, and I’m excited for what’s to come because of it.” – Winifred Branscum
For 17-year-old Intercollegiate/Interscholastic competitor Branscum, the trophy meant more than just her first win in the prestigious competition, but also marked a successful career debut on the high-goal Florida scene. “This is my first time on this level, and I’ve been using it to launch me into the world down here in Wellington [Florida]. It means a lot, not just to win this tournament, but it means a lot of opportunity for me. I’m proud of what I showed up and did with my team, and I’m excited for what’s to come because of it.”
Hailing from St. Louis Polo Club in St. Louis, Missouri, Branscum is skilled in both arena and outdoor polo, fresh off of a win in the Central Regional Girls’ Interscholastic Championship. The young talent credits the club for her success. “I couldn’t have done it without St. Louis. St. Louis Polo Club has helped me so much, and I wouldn’t be here without them.”
Constantly looking to improve and learn through new opportunities, Branscum detailed her years-long desire to compete in the U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship, cognizant of the affect it could have on her polo career. “I was waiting for this call for a long time, I’ve known Pam for a while, and this was on our radar for when I got to this level. When I found out that I might play, it’s like, ‘okay I’m getting ready for it now.’ Like five months before! Then, when I found out I was actually going to play, it was this whole new level. I didn’t start working for this when I got to Florida a month ago, I started working for it in November/December. To be here and actually win on Field One like this, means the world to me.”
“This isn’t it for me. I want to come back, I want to play even better in just as big tournaments.” – Winifred Branscum
Flanagan remarked, “Winnie is crazy good. She’s not just good, but she’s dedicated, she’s intense, she takes direction well. We scream at her on the field like you couldn’t believe, but she takes it in a positive way. The reason we do it is because we know she can do it, if we didn’t think she could do it, we wouldn’t ask her to. We ask her because we know she’s capable. She’s grown a lot, every single game […] and the more intense the game gets, the more intense she gets. She has a quality that’s hard to find in a 17-year-old girl. We were really proud of her for that.”
Long-time acquaintances, Flanagan and Branscum have known each other for several years. In 2020, the two were scheduled to compete in the U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship together alongside Nina Clarkin and Mia Cambiaso, however Clarkin announcer her third pregnancy and the team subsequently needed to shift. Ecstatic to finally be able to compete with Branscum in the elite event, Flanagan shared, “This is kind of serendipitous that she got to come back, be a part of the team and win here today.”
“I’ve been here about two months roughly—basically just for today. I’ve tried hundreds of horses and looking for them left, right and center.” – Hazel Jackson
Thanking Flanagan’s efforts in organizing the team and the La Fe organization’s continued support, Arellano commented, “Pam has put so much work into this. Since last year, she’s been working really, really hard. To win with Pam and this whole organization…to all the boys that helped out, it took a village! It all wouldn’t have been possible without the organization, so thank you to all of them.”
A massive effort, Flanagan also commended Gauntlet of Polo competitor and La Fe manager Robi Bilbao’s contributions. “The seventeen different horse providers and the horses, all of that was organized by Robi Bilbao, the manager, so he’s managing La Fe men’s team, Dazos men’s team, [and] La Fe ladies.”
Thankful that all of their hard work paid off, Jackson stated, “Today meant a lot. To be honest, it’s been a real long road to get here, and it’s been so much organization and so much work behind the scenes to get to here. So, to bring the win home today has just been phenomenal.”
“For me right now, she’s the best player in the world. I feel like she’s got much more talent than myself. I think Nina’s incredible, but I think Hope has got some things which I haven’t seen in other young girls. It’s amazing.” – Hazel Jackson
For her impressive six-goal performance, Hope Arellano was named Most Valuable Player. Praising Arellano’s skill, Jackson noted, “For me right now, she’s the best player in the world. I feel like she’s got much more talent than myself. I think Nina’s incredible, but I think Hope has got some things which I haven’t seen in other young girls. It’s amazing.”
Arellano’s second chukker spare and sixth chukker horse, 9-year-old Macumba, was presented Best Playing Pony honors. “Macumba is a mare that I purchased from Matias Magrini. He actually sent her to me to play her and sell her. I ended up falling in love with her,” said Arellano. She continued, “At the moment I bought her, she wasn’t one of my best horses, and now she’s turned into one of my top five. Every time she goes onto the field, she gives me her whole heart and more. Anything I ask her, she goes into. She never second guesses me, even probably when I should be second guessed. I love her heart, she’s won me over with her heart.”
Notably, this year also marked the first time the prestigious women’s competition has been played as the featured Sunday match on U.S. Polo Assn. Field One at the National Polo Center. A momentous accomplishment and step for women’s polo, Flanagan beamed, “This is a historic moment for women’s polo,” Flanagan beamed. “This is huge for the women, and I hope it stays like this for years to come. It’s an uphill battle, but we’re here, we made it. I think we put on a great show. It means a lot for me personally, not just to play here and win here, [but also] for all of women’s polo. It shows how it’s growing and how people are taking it seriously, and I’m just proud to be a part of that.”
Similarly, the prize money component of the tournament added to the prestige and made the event even more historic for women’s polo. Detailing what the team plans to do with the $30,000 in winnings, Flanagan lightheartedly remarked, “Funny thing is, we ended up renting horses from I think, over the course of the tournament, it was like sixteen or seventeen different horse providers. One or two horses from each one for different games, trying horses for Hazel, some for Winnie, I had a couple. So, some of that money is going to go to pay for some horse expenses, and then the rest of the money will go to the players.”
More motivated than ever, Branscum detailed how she plans to celebrate her team’s win. “Honestly, we’re going to go back home and we’re going to keep working. This isn’t it for me. I want to come back, I want to play even better in just as big tournaments. So maybe tonight we’ll kind of relax, but tomorrow morning, we wake up and we’re back on it.”
*Hope Arellano and Sophie Grant are Active Team USPA Members. 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.