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Greenwich-based White Birch, Airstream Make Final Four

Mariano Aguerre of White Birch playing earlier in the season at the Greenwich Polo Club. (John Ferris Robben photo)
Mariano Aguerre of White Birch playing earlier in the season at the Greenwich Polo Club. (John Ferris Robben photo)

By Liz Leamy
Sentinel Correspondent

Last week, two Greenwich-based teams, White Birch and Airstream, knocked out a series of critical wins in the preliminary round of the 2016 East Coast Open Perry Cup Tournament to advance to the final-four semifinals of this prestigious annual high-goal polo showdown, one of the biggest events in the sport.

Last week, eight teams, representing clubs all along the East Coast, faced off against one another in a series of preliminary-round matches in hopes of advancing toward the top tier of this tournament, of which the finals are scheduled to be broadcast in an hour-long taped broadcast on NBC Universal Sports Saturday, Sept. 17 at 3 p.m. (All of the East Coast Open matches are also being streamed live on ChukkerTV.com, an independent media company based in Wellington, Fla.)

The preliminary-round matches were held at venues all over the New York metropolitan area including the Greenwich Polo Club, Bethpage Polo Grounds in Long Island, Two Trees, home of the Bridgehampton Polo Club, also on Long Island, and the Mashomack Polo Club, located in New York’s Hudson Valley.

White Birch, reputed to be one of the best teams in high-goal polo today and which for several decades has represented the Greenwich Polo Club, went undefeated in the preliminary round, scoring three solid victories.

Airstream, another prominent high-goal polo contingent based out of the Greenwich Polo Club, racked up two victories and one loss on its way to earning a spot in the semifinals.

Audi, the defending East Coast Open titlists representing the Grand Champions Polo Club in Wellington, Fla., went undefeated winning three consecutive matches in the preliminary round—just like White Birch, the team they defeated in sudden death overtime during the finals of this tournament last summer.

Goose Creek, the fierce high-goal team representing the Virginia Polo Club, clinched a semi-final position with two wins and one loss.

These four semifinalists, slated to face off against one another this week at the Greenwich Polo Club, are all superior in their own right, as they each bring a unique and smart playing style to the East Coast Open table.

According to the players, this is probably the most exciting aspect of the tournament.

“All of the teams have been really good, and we played hard out there,” said Marcos Garcia del Rio, the Argentinian four-goaler whose team, Goose Creek, edged out Faraway Polo, 6-5, this past Sunday to earn a semifinal spot. “It’s a great tournament.”

His brother, Tomas Garcia del Rio, the dynamic Argentinian eight-goaler, agreed.

“This has been a very competitive tournament and [Faraway] was an extremely good team, they were spread out all over [the field],” said Garcia del Rio. “We’ve been training very hard all week and all we were thinking about was this game.”

Tomas Garcia del Rio said following Sunday’s match that his team was planning to resume training the next day in preparation for the semifinals.

Garcia del Rio’s dedication, along with that of all of the other players participating in this event, is exactly the reason why they’ve consistently put on so many show-stopping performances that have enraptured and drawn in so many fans these past few weeks.

At practically any given match, all of the players and horses have shown up with their A game, flying up and down the expansive fields at speeds of up to 35 miles an hour and higher, while expertly maneuvering and chasing the elusive white ball with the skills and aptitude of professional hockey skaters.

“The quality of the game is amazing,” said Alejandro Flores of Greenwich, who was attending last Sunday’s match with his wife, Alexandra, and their three children, Alexa, Martina and Nicholas.

Invariably, the primary reason these players have reached a world-class level is due to their dedication to the sport.

As a whole, these athletes are said to spend anywhere from five to eight hours, six to seven days a week playing out on the field honing and strengthening their game.

In addition, they also undergo regular workout routines in which they generally spend an hour or more daily working on increasing their strength and endurance.

“It is a lot of work, but it’s great,” said Tomas Garcia del Rio. “This is what we do.”

This coming week, Garcia del Rio said he is looking forward to playing in the semifinals, where he will rally against some of the sport’s most highly decorated players and ponies, all of who are hoping to clinch the coveted East Coast Open Perry Cup Trophy.

Specifically, the White Birch roster features its famous patron, Peter Brant, founder of the Greenwich Polo Club, in addition to its two star Argentinian nine goalers, Mariano Aguerre and Hilario Ulloa.

Audi, the fierce and formidable team helmed by its patron Marc Ganzi, a high-energy and lightning-quick player, lists a strong roster that includes nine-goaler Sebastian Merlos and eight-goaler Nic Roldan. 

Airstream, a team that for many years was captained by Peter Orthwein, is another strong faction in the semi-final round.

Its roster features Matias Magrini, the esteemed Argentinian eight-goaler (whose son, Santino, plays for White Birch) and Kris Kampsen and Guille Aguero, both of whom are notable six-goalers.

Goose Creek, meanwhile, ought to put up good fight with the superior expertise of the Garcia del Rio brothers and Mariano Gonzalez, a solid seven-goaler who was voted the Most Valuable Player in last Sunday’s match.

“This should be a great semi-final playoff series,” said Dr. Horace A. Laffaye, a renowned polo historian and author who has been attending matches at the Greenwich Polo Club since the late 1980s.

Laffaye said the final match, slated for Sunday, Sept. 11 at 3 p.m. at the Greenwich Polo Club, ought to be a memorable one.

“This is one of the top clubs in the U.S., and these are some of the finest players in the sport,” said Dr. Laffaye. “It’s a wonderful facility and these are top notch polo grounds in every respect. The crowd also seems to be very excited by everything, which makes it all just terrific.”

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