By Liz Leamy
The polo match on Sept. 9 was one for the books in all regards, as Audi and Iconica, two premier international high-goal teams from Wellington, Florida, went head-to-head against one another at the Greenwich Polo Club in fierce pursuit of the coveted East Coast Open Perry Cup, one of the most sought-after trophies of the sport.
In the end, Audi, the firecracker 20-goal contingent, triumphed over Iconica, also a 20-goal team, winding up on top of the leaderboard, 11-9, which designated them as the 2018 champions of the East Coast Open, reputed to be one of the most prestigious polo tournaments in the U.S.
“It felt great to win,” said Chris Brant, the amicable and ultra-focused captain of Audi, whose father, Peter Brant, the famous business mogul and longtime patron of the multiple-decade dominant White Birch team and founder of the GPC back in 1981. “We’ve all been working very hard.” This victory also represented a benchmark moment for Chris Brant, as it marked the first time he had clinched an East Coast Open title.
The talented and fiery four-member Audi faction put up quite a fight against the Teflon-tough Iconica team, which made for an unforgettable six-chukker match that kept the 3,000-plus spectators on the edge of their seats throughout the entire afternoon. The GPC had sold more than 5,000 tickets for the final, but some individuals had refrained from attending the match due to the overcast weather that day.
“We fought hard in every play and [Iconica] was tough. The whole match was so high charged and it was incredible to be out there,” said Joaquin Panelo, the dynamic Argentinian six-goaler who was named Most Valuable Player of the match and whose gorgeous charge, Penelope, whom he owns and played in the first and last chukkers, was awarded the Best Playing Pony citation. “I’m a lucky man,” he said.
His teammates agreed that it was good afternoon in all respects.
“I think we played really well. I knew it was going to be a tough game, and it was very nice winning,” said Toro Ruiz, the talented 20 year-old Argentinian six-goaler who scored five of Audi’s eleven points and who is also said to be one of the hottest rising stars in the sport today. “We have a great team,” he commented.
Mariano Aguerre, the decorated Argentinian eight-goaler, who helped lead the White Birch faction to dozens of championship titles during its astonishing three-decade long-plus run right through to their remarkable East Coast Open victory back in 2016, concurred.
“It’s great to win. This is the jewel [event] of the season and to have a final like this is awesome,” said Aguerre, who was also inducted into the Museum of Polo Hall of Fame in 2017. “I knew our team had the raw talent to do this, and I think we played really well.”
Right from the outset all the way through to the final seconds of the last chukker, Audi played at optimal level, which was key, since both teams who qualified for this final had done so by achieving a series of first round and semi-final victories among a pool of four total entries comprising this years’ East Coast Open roster (which also included Work to Ride of Philadelphia and Postage Stamp Farm of Wellington) over the past three weeks.
Iconica, like Audi, had an impressive playing roster that featured such esteemed athletes as Matias Magrini and Mariano Gonzalez, the star Argentinian seven goalers, Peke Gonzalez, the up-and-coming five goaler (who is also the son of Mariano Gonzalez) and Maureen Brennan, the team’s electric number-one player.
Throughout the match, this faction executed a series of terrific offensive and defensive plays against Audi, and every one of its players, including Mariano Gonzalez and Matias Magrini, played with great speed, power and technical acumen.
“It was a phenomenal game, and both teams were incredible,” said Eusi Skeete, Barbados Vice Consul and Senior Business Development Officer of the Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc., whose presence at the GPC this season was a major spectator draw at all of the matches.
“It was intense out there, and the energy was great,” said the amiable Skeete, who presented the MVP award to Panelo, which included several bottles of Mount Gay Extra Old Rum from Barbados, with Mount Gay Distilleries Ltd, said to be the oldest commercial rum distillery in the liquor industry, having been founded in 1703. “The people here are amazing. They’re so involved in the game and so supportive of the players and their horses. It’s such a great atmosphere, and we love being here,” Skeete said.
GPC is a golden place
The GPC, reputed to be a main summer U.S. capital for high-goal polo, is also known to be one of the most beautiful outdoor warm-weather sport venues on the East Coast, which is why, for nearly four decades, it has attracted thousands of spectators from around the world, along with so many premier high-goal players and horses as well as big-name business partners and vendors.
“I love Greenwich for summer [polo]. It’s one of my one of my favorite places,” said Joaquin Panelo, 24, who has been playing at the GPC for several seasons now and has also played in Aspen, Wellington and Argentina, among other well-known domestic and international polo destinations. “I feel like I come home when I play here.”
Panelo’s sentiments echo those of so many others who have been a part of the GPC over the years, including the players, their friends, family, workers, management, the vendors and business partners of the GPC, media members and, of course, the spectators.
Of course, the players, along with their horses, are the main draw for this famous high-goal polo destination and set the perfect stage amidst the staggeringly beautiful pastoral backdrop of Conyers Farm.
The terrific energy of these world-class matches is brought to an even greater level with the presence of the thousands of spectators who show up every Sunday at the summer matches.
Collectively, this contingent is potent, as they are always engaged and so supportive of the players and their ponies.
This aspect of the matches, coupled with the machinations of the GPC management and staff, along with the presence of so many heavy-hitting business sponsors and vendors, make for an experience that is one of a kind.
“The sport is amazing, the players are so talented and accomplished, the horses are stunning and the grounds are beautiful. I’m in awe every time I come up here,” said Louise Joseph, proprietor of the popular Dough Girls Mobile Wood Fired Pizza Truck. “I love the whole atmosphere here. Everyone always seems to be having such a good time and [I also love] how everyone is dressed up. It’s an incredible experience.”
Toro Ruiz agreed.
“I love the atmosphere here. Everyone is great,” said Ruiz, who, like Panelo, has been part of the GPC high-goal rosters for several seasons now.
Others concurred. “This facility is exceptional in every way. The field is top notch, along with everything else, and it’s been a lot of fun to be here,” said Ally Dencker, 22, whose family has owned and operated the Gardnertown Farm in Newburgh, NY, since 1979, a prominent horse facility that has hosted U.S. Equestrian Federation shows for more than 30 years.
Dencker said she plays arena polo regularly and that the popularity of the sport seems to be growing in the Newburgh, NY, area.
“This was a nice opportunity for the players to come out and see the players and horses,” said Dencker, adding this was also her first time attending a GPC high-goal match. “It’s awesome seeing polo at this level. I love seeing the athleticism of the players and horses.”
No doubt, the friendliness and energy of the crowd, along with the world-class standard of the players and horses, seemed to have an infectious effect upon practically everyone at the match, regardless of the gray weather.
At the conclusion of the awards ceremony, most of the players who competed in the East Coast Open tournament, along with those individuals who helped make it happen, could be seen lining up to enjoy the ever-popular asado, an Argentinian open-fire barbeque.
“Everything here is fantastic,” said Eusi Skeete, Vice Consul of the Barbados. “We always have a great time and the people are wonderful.”