by John Jackson
Unlike other sports, except perhaps horse racing, champion polo players don’t just appear from nowhere. They are usually a product of a long chain of events. A top polo player requires not only talent and dedication, but also horses of commensurate quality in order to bring him to the pinnacle of the game. He needs mentors and opportunities to play at continually higher levels. It helps to have family backing. Above all, he needs an organisation. Pablo Mac Donough has had the good fortune to have had them all.
Like most top polo players, Pablo is an Argentine. Born a Pisces on 21st February 1982 in Pehuajo, Buenos Aires Province, he can trace his Irish heritage back four generations. His great-grandfather, James Mac Donough, hailed from County Sligo, arriving in Argentina in 1865. James married Jane Watson from County Clare. They settled out on the Pampas where James became known as “Don Santiago” and was considered a very capable gaucho. Starting out by managing estancias, he eventually accumulated large landholdings and was active in equine husbandry.
Pablo’s grandmother, Laura Garrahan, married into the Mac Donough clan. In doing so, she united the Mac Donoughs with a family that had a very strong polo background. Laura’s brother was the famous Tomás Antonio Garrahan, better known as Tommy. A successful polo player in his own right, attaining a 7-goal handicap, Tommy was one of the founder members of the polo club La Espadaña, established in 1938 near Abbott at the estancia “New Home”. Tommy’s family and descendants have been influential in polo ever since. His sister’s sons, Gonzalo and Alphonso, both 10-goal handicap players, played for La Espadaña, the premier polo team of the 1980s. Tommy’s son, Alex, was a winner of the Argentine Open with Indios Chapaleufú, and an accomplished 9-goal player. The Garrahan legacy is so pervasive that, in a family tournament a few years ago, called the Garrahan Cup (Copa Garrahan), 10 teams of 17 goals each were entered consisting only of blood relatives. Pablo took part in this tournament, as did his older brother Matías.
Pablo began his polo experience playing in his hometown of Pehuajo at the training centre Nueva Escocia (in English “New Scotland”), under the auspices of former 10-goaler Eduardo “Gordo” Moore, renowned for his playing skills in England and also as a trainer and horse breeder. Success came early. As part of the Nueva Escocia team, Pablo won the coveted Potrillos Cup. This tournament, which takes place every December in the Club de Polo Los Indios de San Miguel in Buenos Aires, is the most prestigious worldwide tournament for under-14s.
Pablo’s career continued to take off. He won the Chamber of Deputies Cup with his team “La Irenita” in 2001. He was joined on this team by his brother Matías, Martín Garrahan (Alex’s son and Tommy’s grandson) and Gonzalo Von Wernich. In the year 2003, the Mac Donough brothers and their cousins, Gonzalito and Facundo (sons of Gonzalo), formed the new Ellerstina team. The original Ellerstina was created by Gonzalo Pieres in the 1990s with newcomers Mariano Aguerre and Adolfo Cambiaso. This team won the Argentine Open in 1994, 1997 and 1998. Now, with two sets of brothers, a young and bold power emerged, challenging perennial favourite La Dolfina. By 2005, Ellerstina had reached the finals of the Argentine Open. They repeated this again in the year 2007. Pablo’s handicap was raised to 10 goals in that year, making this team a 39-goal team (Gonzalo and Facundo had both received their 10 goal status in 2005). In 2008, Ellerstina, having exchanged Matías Mac Donough for 9-goal handicap Juan Martín Nero, finally captured the elusive Argentine Open. They repeated this again in 2010 as a 40-goal team after Juan Martín Nero advanced to the 10-goal level.
In 2011 the polo world saw a major change. Adolfo Cambiaso released Lucas Monteverde and brother-in-law Bartolomé Castignolo and invited Pablo Mac Donough and Juan Martín Nero to play on the La Dolfina team. Ellerstina was moving towards incorporating the third Pieres brother, Nicolás, into their line-up. In doing so, Cambiaso created a 39-goal handicap team, with David Sterling rated as a 9-goaler, and they proved to be worth their rankings. La Dolfina won the 2011 Argentine Open. Ellerstina surprised them the following year in the Argentine Open final, but 2013 belonged completely to La Dolfina as they swept the three major Argentine tournaments, winning the Triple Crown.
At age 32, Pablo is still playing at his peak. He has won almost every major polo championship. In Argentina, he has been on the winning team at the Argentine Open four times, twice with Ellerstina and twice with La Dolfina. He has won at Tortugas and at Hurlingham. He has also won the Camara de Diputados and the Jockey Club Open in Argentina. In England, he has won the British Open and the Queen’s Cup. In Spain, at Sotogrande, he has won the Gold and Silver Cups. In the USA, he has won the C.V. Whitney Cup.
But those awards do not show the work and support behind the scenes. In a sport in which horses play such a vital part, Pablo is supported by his father’s breeding programme at La Irenita. His father, Jorge, was a former player and is a veterinary surgeon. This estancia is known for its top quality polo ponies and its embryo implant programme. In Argentina, the family is the most important priority in life. Pablo’s brother, Matías, is still competing at the highest level and Pablo’s wife is often seen at his side during polo tournaments. The game of polo is the lifeblood of the Mac Donough family and Pablo has been their brightest star. It goes to prove that, with a few exceptions, pedigree is an essential part of the success of a top polo player.