Surviving a fierce single-elimination tournament which consistently produced evenly-matched games, Pilot and Las Monjitas emerged out of a field of 16 challengers to contend for the C.V. Whitney Cup Final at the International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida. Confident coming off a strong semifinal game, Pilot demonstrated a series of expertly timed plays by the Pieres brothers, capitalizing on Las Monjitas’ three-man team for a portion of the second half to easily sweep the first 22-goal title 13-6.
“I think the prize money is a good motivator and something really special added for this year. It brings the level of the tournament up because everyone wants to win the money, so I think it was a good decision. We [Pilot] want to win GAUNTLET OF POLO™ because of the prestige of the tournaments and what it means to win the C.V. Whitney Cup, the USPA Gold Cup® and the U.S. Open Polo Championship®.” – Gonzalito Pieres
Although choppy from the onset with the majority of goals scored from the penalty line, the game began evenly and showcased competitive play with $125,000 on the line. Operating as if with one mind, Facundo Pieres on a run to goal hit an unexpected tailshot perfectly placed to brother Gonzalito Pieres who was already in position to intercept the ball and run it to goal. Las Monjitas answered back with a strategic cut shot off the mallet of Hilario Ulloa to end the first 2-1 in favor of Pilot. Accurate from the penalty line, Facundo Pieres and Francisco Elizalde mirrored each other in the second and third, converting a Penalty 2 and 4 each for their teams. Both teams picking up easy goals, Pilot gained the edge with a field goal from Pieres to end the half 5-3, Pilot retaining a surmountable two-goal lead.
The game taking a sizable turn, the second half signaled Pilot’s rapid acceleration and Las Monjitas’ decline as a result of continuous fouls which cost the team in orange their highest-rated player. Dominating in the fourth chukker, Pilot’s explosive offense accumulated an impressive five unanswered goals between the Pieres brothers and Matias Gonzalez*, reading each other’s plays with expert precision. A minute and fifty-one seconds left on the clock, a second yellow flag for Ulloa put Las Monjitas at a disadvantage with their 10-goaler out for two minutes, allowing Pilot to take advantage of the vulnerable three-man team and secure a seven-goal lead. After returning to the field too early at the start of the fifth, Ulloa received a red flag and was forced to sit for the remainder of the game, a huge blow for Las Monjitas who continued to unravel without a full team to defend against Pilot’s attacks. Facundo Pieres added a couple goals to the scoreboard to increase Pilot’s considerable lead 12-3 before 8-goaler Santiago Toccalino was permitted to step on the field as a substitute.
Las Monjitas continued to fight in the sixth chukker, determined to retaliate and redeem their two previous scoreless chukkers. Fresh and ready for the challenge, Toccalino broke the silence after receiving a pass from Elizalde, striking a 100-yard shot that knocked the post and bounced inside the goal. Relentless until the end, Gonzalez hammered his second goal of the day between the posts to which Elizalde countered with two powerful shots on goal. The deficit proved too great for Las Monjitas to overcome in a single chukker however, cementing Pilot’s victory 13-6 and more importantly positioning them as the only team still in the running to win the million-dollar GAUNTLET OF POLO™ purse.
Due to a loss in the family, Curtis Pilot did not play the earlier games of the tournament, giving Mia Bray* the opportunity to play in his absence and returning for the final. “Curtis is looking forward to playing and putting in everything that he can,” Gonzalito Pieres expressed. “He’s a strong man with a strong family and he really likes polo. We wanted to win for his daughter and for him.”
Named Most Valuable Player, Pilot’s Matias Gonzalez also earned the title earlier in the season in the Butler Handicap Final. “The plan today was to create space for Facundo and Gonzalito so they could take the ball out, hit it downfield or allow myself to be an option for them to pass,” Gonzalez shared. “It’s amazing to play with them, a dream come true to be honest. They are great teammates and conduct me very well on the field.”
“He’s a great teammate” Facundo Pieres echoed. “I think he’s improving game by game and he has a very good attitude when we tell him what we’d like him to learn and improve on. We are really happy to have him on our team.”
Best Playing Pony honors were awarded to Open Pensilvania, a bay mare owned and played by repeat C.V. Whitney Cup Champion (2018 with Valiente) Facundo Pieres in the fourth chukker. “Today she was a machine,” Pieres said. “I used to play her mother, Penca, and she was great also. I first brought her here three or four years ago. I’m very happy with her and also with my grooms because they do a great job caring for the horses.”
The second tournament of GAUNTLET OF POLO™, the USPA Gold Cup®, will begin on Thursday, February 28 at 10:00am ET with Equuleus taking on Cessna in the first match of the day. Tune into the USPA Polo Network which will livestream games on uspolo.org, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to follow Pilot as they continue their journey toward becoming the inaugural GAUNTLET champion.
By United States Polo Association
PHOTOS: ©United States Polo Association/David Lominska