RAIN OR SHINE: PARK PLACE CLAIMS FIRST U.S. OPEN POLO CHAMPIONSHIP TITLE
May 04, 2023 4:00 AM
Held over two days due to a rain postponement, the finale of the U.S. Open Polo Championship featured a clash between Park Place (Andrey Borodin, Juan Britos, Hilario Ulloa, Jason Wates) and Valiente (Bob Jornayvaz, Mariano “Peke” Gonzalez, Adolfo Cambiaso, sub. Agustin Nero, sub. Rufino Merlos) battling for American polo’s most coveted title. Gathering under stormy skies on Sunday, April 23, at the National Polo Center – Wellington (NPC), an electric sold-out stadium at U.S. Polo Assn. Field One celebrated the apex of the high-goal season. Unfortunately, what started as a light drizzle quickly turned to a deluge forcing the suspension of play at the end the first half. Resuming action on Monday, April 24 on the Isla Carroll East field, a riveting and high-scoring contest ultimately came down to the power and athleticism of the two 10-goalers, with Ulloa placing a meticulous hook on Cambiaso at the goal line in the final seconds of play to protect Park Place’s lead and deliver their first U.S. Open Polo Championship title 12-11 along with $100,000 in prize money.
“We’re always there fighting in the semifinals and finals and close to winning, but we were killing to win one of the big ones.” – Park Place's Juan Britos
“Hilario was amazing, scoring goals—man was on fire! Providing him with the space to get that done was what worked for us. He was hot and we kept him going.” – Park Place's Jason Wates
Each team undefeated in bracket play, Park Place and Valiente faced two different paths and histories leading up to the prestigious final match. Falling to Pilot in the semifinals of the previous tournament, the USPA Gold Cup, Park Place advanced to the U.S. Open final after an 11-8 semifinal victory over M A G. Two-time C.V. Whitney Cup winners (2021, 2022), Park Place has consistently maintained contender status from the inception of the Gauntlet. “We lost in the final of the U.S. Open two years ago and we lost in the final of the USPA Gold Cup last year,” shared Britos. “We’re always there fighting in the semifinals and finals and close to winning, but we were killing to win one of the big ones.” Led offensively by 10-goaler Ulloa with three U.S. Open titles to his name (2010, 2014, 2018), Park Place’s sharpshooting captain took to the field ranked third in scoring with 84 goals in the Gauntlet, trailing only Facundo Pieres and Francisco Elizalde.
“Horse-wise they’re always well mounted, they play hard, and Adolfo is number one […] The only thing you can do is focus on you and try your best to create chances.” – Park Place's Juan Britos
Valiente made a triumphant return to the high-goal season for the first time since capturing their second U.S. Open title in 2017. Making their Gauntlet debut, Valiente kicked-off the 22-goal season securing the C.V. Whitney Cup 10-9 over Pilot. Blazing their way into the U.S. Open semifinals rematch versus Pilot, an unfortunate injury sustained by 6-goaler Criado Jr. at the end of the second chukker sidelined him for the remainder of the season with Nero and Merlos entering as substitutes. Despite a commanding 5-goal performance from Facundo Pieres, Valiente ultimately stood tall in the face of adversity to claim the 11-9 victory. Seeking his tenth U.S. Open Polo Championship title (1999, 2000, 2001, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2015, 2017, 2021), Cambiaso displayed his ability to generate plays throughout the tournament entering the final ranked second in throw-ins won, accounting for a total of 70 on the season.
Feeding the ball to Ulloa early and often resulted in back-to-back goals for Park Place to open the final match. Largely reliant on Criado Jr. throughout the season to make the majority of Valiente’s penalty goals, Cambiaso took the lead and struck from distance on a successful Penalty 4. Dampening Park Place’s offense on the field, Valiente managed to hold Ulloa to just two conversions, as a three-goal effort from the field tied the match 4-all. Outscoring Park Place for a second consecutive chukker, a drive from Cambiaso followed by Gonzalez’s first penalty conversion lifted Valiente to a 6-5 lead at the half. Faced with a storm growing in ferocity drenching the field, the game was officially postponed due to weather conditions halting both teams in their tracks overnight.
Eagerly awaiting word when play could resume, Ulloa detailed the unique final delay, “It was strange going to bed yesterday and not knowing exactly what was going to happen. We’ve been at the field since 8:30 this morning and it’s been a long wait.” Wates continued, “It’s tough to stay focused that long, but it’s the end of the season and there’s nothing else we wanted. Yes, it’s a longer time to stay focused but at the same time it’s all we’ve been thinking about for months, so one day doesn’t change too much.”
“It was strange going to bed yesterday and not knowing exactly what was going to happen.” – Park Place's Hilario Ulloa
Utilizing the time to their advantage, Park Place began to strategize and adjust to Valiente’s new roster, “Today thankfully we knew who we were playing against, so last night we were having a team meeting and really put a strong plan together. The biggest take away from the meeting was attitude,” shared Wates, “No matter what we do, we do with attitude and confidence. I think that got us the win today.” “It was a lot of motivation and saying, ‘we can do this, let’s go for it,’” added Britos, “Playing with confidence, supporting each other and playing every play like it’s the last one.”
“Today thankfully we knew who we were playing against, so last night we were having a team meeting and really put a strong plan together.” – Park Place's Jason Wates
Sidelines packed with eager fans, the green light was finally given for a 1:15pm start. Britos shared his winning premonition as they took to the field once more, “We were feeling a good energy—this one felt like it was ours.” Trading goals in the fourth, the sky began to darken with another onslaught of rain soaking both players and spectators. Remaining focused throughout the downpour, Britos noted, “I didn’t even realize to be honest. It’s different when you start playing in the rain, but that wasn’t the case. It was just at the end and you’re already with the adrenaline of the game, you don’t even realize.”
Determined to declare a victor despite the weather, both Ulloa and Cambiaso drove to goal in the fifth, as Cambiaso racked up his third to give Valiente a 10-8 lead. Cambiaso working as a threat on both sides of the ball, Britos noted Valiente’s strengths, “Horse-wise they’re always well mounted, they play hard, and Adolfo is number one […] The only thing you can do is focus on you and try your best to create chances.”
“I think we have amazing horsepower, and the idea was to move the ball as quickly as we could. To use the horses, and I think in the last chukker, the horses made a huge difference.” – Park Place's Hilario Ulloa
Finding openings on the field, Park Place evened the score once more in the sixth, but a determined Cambiaso took command in the final minutes of play to boost Valiente back on top. Answering for Park Place, Ulloa hit back-to-back goals to slingshot Park Place ahead with a narrow 12-11 advantage. Left with just seconds on the clock, Cambiaso broke free from multiple defenders sprinting to the goal but the horsepower and precision of Ulloa allowed him to make the game saving hook, as Britos finished the play on a brilliant backshot. Working in tandem to shut down one of the great polo talents of the era, Park Place survived Cambiaso’s final push in the last remaining seconds to claim the U.S. Open Polo Championship 12-11.
Leading Park Place with a spectacular 10 goal performance, the only Park Place player to get on the final scoreboard, Hilario Ulloa was named Most Valuable Player. Speaking to Ulloa’s superior offensive abilities Wates shared, “Hilario was amazing, scoring goals—man was on fire! Providing him with the space to get that done was what worked for us. He was hot and we kept him going.”
Receiving a $1,500 travel credit courtesy of Fly Polo, Ulloa playfully joked that he would use his MVP award to change his airline ticket due to the postponement. Reflecting on the good luck seemingly bad weather had given him in previous victories, Ulloa shared, “I won three U.S Open’s in the rain. With Crab Orchard it rained, with Daily Racing Form it rained and this one.” Fully embracing the elements, Britos added Ulloa’s reaction to the initial suspension of play, “At halftime he was saying, ‘let’s play now, it’s raining—it’s better!’”
Crediting the Park Place organization for their tireless dedication Britos expressed, “It’s been a lot of years with Andrey leading this whole operation with horses, the team, grooms, vets, and trainers. It’s a lot of people that have been fighting for this title and after all these years it finally came. We’re very happy for Andrey and the whole team.” Pointing to a jubilant Park Place celebrating in the background, Britos added, “Every single person behind me deserves this U.S. Open.”
The Willis Hartman U.S. Open Polo Championship Best Playing Pony and Best Argentine Bred were presented to Ulloa’s Latia Kavaska (Ellerstina Picaro x Future La Karateka). A standout in the competition, Latia Kavaska was also the recipient of two other U.S. Open Polo Championship’s Best Playing Pony awards, the first in Game 12 against Aspen and the other in Park Place’s quarterfinal victory against La Elina. Played in the third and sixth chukkers, Ulloa described the 11-year-old mare, “She’s a freak. She’s a machine, so complete.” Ulloa continued, “She has the power and the long runs, I think in the U.S. Open she got better game after game.” Playing his string the entirety of the Gauntlet, Ulloa detailed the importance of horse management, “The idea was to play a long list without putting lot of pressure on the horses to have them fresh and ready for the U.S. Open. They were 80-90% during the season and in the U.S. Open they were 101%!”
Ulloa Claimed Best Playing Pony a total of five times throughout the tournament, taking home the prestigious honor each time Park Place played, with Lavinia Irupe (Loyal Force x Lavinia Irónica) joining Latia Kavaska earning the ribbon in Game 6 against Two Trees by Jefferies and their semifinal win versus M A G. Crediting much of Park Place’s success in the final to their elite strings, Ulloa added, “I think we really played as a team and used all our players. I think we have amazing horsepower, and the idea was to move the ball as quickly as we could. To use the horses, and I think in the last chukker, the horses made a huge difference.
Clenching the U.S. Open Polo Championship for the first time, Britos reflected, “I’ve been dreaming about this moment for a very, very long time. It’s hard to put into words […] It means so much to me, my family and everyone that’s been a part of my journey, I couldn’t be happier.”
“Every single person behind me deserves this U.S. Open” – Park Place's Juan Britos
A U.S. citizen, having spent more than half of his career in the states, Jamaican born Wates honed his passion from a young age at Kingston Polo Club (Kingston, Jamaica). Feeling the support from a large contingent of supporters, many of whom made the journey from the island and also Colorado to watch in person, Wates commented, “The energy on the sidelines both days here in the rain, everyone still showed up,” continued Wates, “People were supposed to leave this morning and changed flights to be here an extra day.” Hearing the impressive gathering of friends and family roar throughout the game, Wates added, “Jamaicans are always making themselves heard […] having that extra passion and support always helps.”
Earning his U.S. Open title in his Gauntlet debut, Wates reflected on the process of becoming a champion, “A lifetime of work has gone into getting me here and winning the Open is the biggest thing you can win. It makes all that work and time worth it. This season, the entirety of it has meant so much, being a part of a great organization. Andrey has put together a great group of people, so being a part of that group for this whole season has been a pleasure. We felt like we were so close to getting there from the beginning, so finally being able to get it done at the end with the biggest tournament, makes everything feel great!”
“We felt like we were so close to getting there from the beginning, so finally being able to get it done at the end with the biggest tournament, makes everything feel great!” – Park Place's Jason Wates
Capping off the season riding the ultimate high Borodin noted, “It was a tough journey for several years to achieve this, it means a lot. Everyone gave everything they could, and the result is this.” Sharing Park Place’s plans for a celebration after braving the elements, Borodin playfully added, “It will be a long party, and everyone will be wet! I think we deserve to celebrate.”
All photos courtesy of ©David Lominska.