Orchard Hill began its quest for polo’s Triple Crown at the Engel & Völkers Field Sunday at International Polo Club Palm Beach. Trailing Audi for most of the game, the defending champions rallied for an 11-9 victory to win the C.V. Whitney Cup, the first leg of U.S. polo’s Triple Crown.
It was Orchard Hill’s second 26-goal tournament win in the club’s 13-year history. Orchard Hill (Steve Van Andel, Polito Pieres, Facundo Pieres, Julian de Lussareta), the defending champion, finished the tournament undefeated at 3-0. Audi finished at 2-1.
Audi (Marc Ganzi, Rodrigo Andrade, Gonzalito Pieres, Freddie Mannix) led 6-2 until early in the fourth chukka when Orchard Hill started moving the ball more and forcing mistakes to reel them in. Still, Audi maintained a 9-8 lead until the final minutes of the game.
Orchard Hill 10-goaler Facundo Pieres tied the game (9-9) on a penalty shot with 5:44 left. De Lussareta then scored back-to-back goals at 2:36 and 59-second mark to clinch the win.
“We let them play their wide open game in the first half,” de Lussareta said. “We didn’t let them play that way in the second half. We never gave up and played good polo. I just kept saying score and don’t foul.”
Audi was the underdog going into the game. But after playing wide open polo, defending 10-goaler Facundo Pieres well and playing stingy defense, Audi dominated the first half for a three-goal lead (5-2) and four-goal lead (6-2) early in the fourth chukka.
Orchard Hill patron Steve Van Andel, a longtime IPC player, said defending the title was a challenge this year because of so many balanced teams including Audi. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” Van Andel said. “The whole game is different now than when I first started playing. It’s so competitive. On any given day, any one of these teams can win.”
It was only Orchard Hill’s second 26-goal tournament win in more than 20 years. Orchard Hill started playing high goal in the early 1990s and reached the 2014 C.V. Whitney finals and three U.S. Open finals, the last time in 2006. After an eight-year absence, Orchard Hill returned to the U.S. Open final last season only to lose to Valiente.
“It’s always nicer when you win but it doesn’t make it any more fun,” Van Andel said. “It feels great. Until the game was over, I wasn’t celebrating.” In past seasons Orchard Hill was ahead by two goals with two minutes left and lost. There were also games where there was a four-goal spread and they were on the losing end. “I learned my lesson,” Van Andel said. “Until the last bell rings, don’t stop playing.”
Pieres added four goals for Orchard Hill. His older brother Gonzalito Pieres led Audi scoring with four goals. Andrade added three and Mannix had two including an incredible goal after a 150-yard run.
The game stats were fairly even. Orchard Hill converted 7-of-11 field shot conversions and Audi hit 6-of-10. Orchard Hill had 4-of-6 penalty conversions and Audi had 3-of-4. Audi led in fouls, 12-11. Audi won the throw-ins, 14-13. “We wanted to win for Steve,” Facundo Pieres said. “We want to win everything.”
Orchard Hill 6-goaler de Lussareta was named Most Valuable Player after leading with six goals including the winning and insurance goals in the final three minutes of the game. Norma, owned by Van Andel and ridden by de Lussareta, was named Best Playing Pony. Esterina, ridden by Brazilian Rodrigo Andrade of Audi, was named Mare of the Tournament.
Audi advanced into the final with a 9-8 upset win over White Birch. Orchard Hill advanced with a 12-7 victory over top-seed Lucchese. In the Les Armour Cup subsidiary final, Valiente defeated Valiente II, 10-9, on Alejo Taranco’s winning goal late in the sixth chukker. Facundo Sola of Valiente was named MVP. Ankary, owned by Valiente and played by the world’s top player, Adolfo Cambiaso, was selected Best Playing Pony.
The C.V. Whitney is the first of three 26-goal tournaments at IPC. The USPA Gold Cup, the second 26-goal tournament of the season, begins Thursday with four games.
The tournament features eight teams including Flexjet, making its 2016 season debut headed by Melissa Ganzi of Wellington, one of only two women competing in the high goal season. Other teams are Orchard Hill, Lucchese, Dubai, White Birch, Coca-Cola, Valiente and defending champion Audi.
The tournament opening games on Thursday are: Valiente vs. Flexjet, 10 a.m.; Dubai vs. White Birch, 12:30 p.m.; Audi vs. Coca-Cola, 3 p.m. and Orchard Hill vs. Lucchese, 4 p.m. The final is 27 March 2016.