McLaren Triumphs In East Coast Semis at Greenwich Polo Club

The Greenwich Polo Club hosted the East Coast Opens semifinals Sunday, as McLaren beat Turkish Airlines. (John Ferris Robben photo)

The Greenwich Polo Club hosted the East Coast Opens semifinals Sunday, as McLaren beat Turkish Airlines. (John Ferris Robben photo)

By Liz Leamy
Sports Correspondent

Nearly 3,000 spectators watched McLaren Greenwich scrape past Turkish Airlines, 12-11, in the drama-filled pre-semifinal round of the 2015 East Coast Open high-goal polo championships at Conyers Farm on Sunday.

The players pulled out all the stops in making it one of the closest and most dramatic showdowns so far in this prestigious annual event, which was originated back in 1905 and is being hosted for the first time this year by the Greenwich Polo Club, in tandem with the U.S. Polo Association.

“This was a hard-fought match—the teams were evenly matched,” said Christine Vermes, chief marketing officer for the U.S. Polo Association, who has been attending matches since the tournament kicked off two weeks ago. “It was exciting from the moment it started right through to the end.”

Right from the outset, it was apparent both teams were determined to win this match and advance to the finals, which will held at Conyers Farm on Sept. 6 and broadcast by NBC Sports on Sept. 13.

Throughout the entire first half, Turkish Airlines, whose number-two player, Joaquin Panelo, was awarded the Most Valuable Player citation, lead the match in scoring. During the second half, however, McLaren Greenwich made a comeback, evening the score to 11-11.

The team claimed victory during in the last two minutes of the sixth and final chukker, when Tommy Biddle, the powerhouse U.S. veteran six-goaler for McLaren Greenwich, knocked in the winning goal for his team, at which the crowd sent up deafening applause.

McLaren Greenwich gets the better of Turkish Airlines during the East Coast Opens semifials. (John Ferris Robben photo)

McLaren Greenwich gets the better of Turkish Airlines during the East Coast Opens semifials. (John Ferris Robben photo)

“Nick [Manifold, the Australian five-goaler for McLaren Greenwich] and I had to dig deep and turn the game around after halftime,” said a visibly elated Biddle at the end of the match, whose birthday also fell on this day. “This is what I love to do, and I pride myself on doing the best I can.”

Biddle attributed the playing by his colleagues, particularly Manifold—who helped manage the Greenwich Polo Club for more than two decades and establish it as one of the most important high-goal communities in the U.S.—as the main reason for his team’s heart-stopping victory. Manifold, whose gorgeous charge, Machitos Clo Clo, was awarded the Best Playing Pony citation, said the victory did not come easily.

“We were a bit asleep during the first half,” said Manifold. “This tournament is never easy, but we fought out there and it was worth it.”

The Turkish Airlines players agreed the match was a fierce challenge.

“We played better than we have all week, and that was good, but I think we should’ve won it,” said Tomas Garcia del Rio, the team’s electric eight-goaler, who added that his team “looks forward to playing McLaren again in another match later this week.”

White Birch Bests Audi 

Meanwhile, White Birch, the Conyers Farm home team, beat Audi USA, 13-9, which had been undefeated in the preliminary and semifinal rounds until this match, earning the top seed among the six high-goal entries in the tournament heading into the final series of matches this week.

White Birch staged a fantastic show as Mariano Aguerre, the team’s esteemed Argentinian nine-goaler, led the high-voltage brigade, which includes Peter Brant, its patron and the Greenwich Polo Club founder, Hilario Ulloa, another prominent Argentinian nine-goaler, and Santino Magrini to a decisive victory.

“I think we played one of the toughest teams in the tournament today and it was intense, but that’s part of the game,” said Aguerre, who is ranked among the world’s top ten players. “We had a good last chukker, and I’m happy with the way we played and the way we moved the horses.”

Throughout the game, Aguerre, said to be one of the smartest players in the sport, consistently hit superb center and back shots in tandem with Ulloa, with whom he has played for nearly three years, effectively offsetting Nic Roldan, Audi USA’s rising star eight-goaler, and his team.

No doubt Aguerre’s chemistry with Ulloa seems to be a key component in White Birch’s success so far in this tournament.

“Mariano and I work well together,” said Ulloa, who scored the majority of goals for White Birch. “We complement each other and that is good, especially in a match like this one.”

Another reason for White Birch’s success is the fact that for the last year or so, the entire team has been working intensively with Beto Imas, a prominent trainer and physical coach in the high-goal polo community, on building their overall strength and playing skills.

Every day of the week, White Birch spends a minimum of 45 minutes working with Imas on physical training and strengthening exercises, ball and stick skills, and various playing strategies, among other things. According to Aguerre, training with Imas has been extremely beneficial for the team. The affable Imas, who shows up to the matches on a cool-looking motorcycle, said he is happy with the efforts of the players.

“This is a great group, they’re all very hard working and dedicated to what they do,” he said. “It’s all about make them strong so they excel in their playing.”

In the end, the brass ring for all of these high-goal players and teams is to ride away with the Perry Cup Trophy in the final match.

“I just want to play my best and win,” said Ulloa, who has earned international high-goal status over the past several years for his powerful and aggressive playing style. “All of the players and teams are strong in this tournament and it is hard, but that’s what makes it great.”

“It’s great to be playing in this event, it’s something special,” said Biddle, adding that he loves playing at the Greenwich Polo Club.

The decision to hold the tournament at Conyers Farm came after the former longtime site, Two Trees Farm in Bridgehampton, N.Y., was sold last year. So far, this decision has worked out superbly for everyone involved, including the players, ponies, sponsors, coordinators, spectators, media, volunteers and other helpers.

“You couldn’t ask for a better place to hold this tournament,” said Manifold. “Conyers Farm is one of the most beautiful polo clubs around—the fields are amazing and the people are wonderful.”

Michael J. Carroll, associate publisher of advertising for Town & Country Magazine, a co-host (along with the U.S. Polo Association and Lancome) of this year’s East Coast Open, also said this location has been ideal for the tournament.

“We’ve been associated with polo and this tournament for many years and have loved being here, it’s just beautiful,” said Carroll during a Town & Country tent event Sunday that drew more than 300 attendees. “This is a unique environment because it involves the mix of the natural beauty [of Conyers Farm] with the action and excitement of this incredible high-goal polo tournament.”

The spectators echoed Carroll’s sentiments.

“This is a fantastic venue and I love coming here,” said Sable Roesch of Darien, a Greenwich Polo Club devotee. “The combination of sportsmanship, athleticism and glamour here is extraordinary, and it’s an experience that is one of a kind in every way. The tournament only helps to make everything all the more exciting.”

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