Dec 06, 2021 4:09 PM
Returning for the first time since 2018, the prestigious U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship® featured six competitive teams vying for the title in one of the premier arena polo competitions in the United States. Featuring $50,000 in total prize money as part of the USPA’s Tournament Prize Money Matching Program, the 12- to 14-goal tournament was hosted by California Polo Club (Los Angeles, California) for the first time since 2011, with games played at Empire Polo Club (Indio, California).
Establishing themselves as early powerhouse favorites, BOOM! Cult (Robert McGinley, Alejandro Nordheimer, Pelon Escapite) sought to continue early domination in the final, while Dallas Polo (Vaughn Miller Jr., Will Walton, Rob Payne) looked to capture their first title by accelerating their momentum and team chemistry. Ultimately, Dallas Polo’s strategy of preventing Escapite from controlling the game saw the Texan trio ride to a 14-10 victory.
“It’s unbelievable that we have our names on the historic U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship® trophy. We assembled as a team from Dallas less than a month ago, so to be able to come together, compete and win with my teammates was an amazing accomplishment.” – Rob Payne
The semifinals were played in a round-robin format with BOOM! Cult, led by arena veteran Escapite, utilizing their experience and practices earlier in the week to take both of their respective matches over 101 Polo Club (Johann Felhaber, Jason Crowder, Dan Flaherty) and Paragon (Patrick Uretz*, Troy Crumley, Jimmy Wright*, sub. Tomas Obregon, sub. Vance Miller III) to advance into the final undefeated.
Where experience prevailed in the first round-robin match, Dallas Polo’s youthful energy and determination found themselves in heated battles between OC Polo Club (Spencer Hurtt, Jared Sheldon*, Ulysses Escapite) and Bryce Catalyst (Molly Agee-Bankhead*, Garrett Bankhead, Shane Rice). Following a 1-all three-way round robin stalemate, Dallas Polo forged ahead into the final determined by their two net-goal advantage.
Working along the wall, Escapite opened the scoring in the final matchup for BOOM! Cult. Playing a classic game of arena polo working in tight spaces, Nordheimer quickly scooped up the ball from along the boards to hit the goal in quick succession for BOOM! Cult. Recognizing the challenging task ahead, a disciplined Miller Jr. utilized quick transitions and responded with back-to-back goals for Dallas Polo.
Comprised of three top players from Dallas-Fort Worth area clubs, Prestonwood (Oak Point, Texas), Willowbend (Little Elm, Texas) and Dallas (Red Oak, Texas), the tournament allowed Walton the opportunity to reunite with his 2018 National Youth Tournament Series (NTYS) Championship® teammate Miller Jr. Leaning on their previous chemistry but with only three practices under their belt before the tournament, Dallas Polo trusted their instincts to pull them through.
“Will [Walton] and I have played so much arena polo and Rob’s a veteran,” Miller Jr. said. “We were able to come together with ideas and find the best one for our team.” Crucial to the strategy was containing Escapite, as stressed by Payne, “Pelon [Escapite] is such a strong and respected arena player. We had to focus in on him for most of the game.”
Strategically neutralizing Escapite proved effective in the second chukker as Miller Jr. tapped in a goal, followed by Walton with a successful two-pointer. As BOOM! Cult trailed for the first time in the tournament, Escapite was able to create some space on a pass from Nordheimer to find the goal. After receiving a goal on a Penalty 1, BOOM! Cult leveled the scoreboard. Continuing to play as a cohesive unit, Dallas Polo took charge of the remaining time in the half. After two quick goals in succession from Payne, Miller Jr. was able to tap in his second of the chukker. Scoring three goals within forty seconds, the offensive blitz from Dallas Polo allowed them to take a 8-4 lead into halftime.
BOOM! Cult emerged from the break with a charge as Escapite made his first two-pointer of the match, followed by another goal on a Penalty 3. Regrouping their strategy, Dallas Polo needed to prevent Escapite from taking control. “Will [Walton] and I just had to attack Pelon [Escapite],” Miller Jr. said. “He’s an 8-goaler so it took everything both of us had to slow him down. He made us better trying to match his greatness.” Despite BOOM!'s successful third chukker, Dallas Polo was able to respond with one goal in the third, as Miller Jr. scored on a well-executed pass from Payne.
Entering the final chukker with a narrow two-goal lead, Walton knew Dallas Polo could not afford to relax on either end of the play, “it was stressful because we were right down to the nitty-gritty,” Walton said. “Pelon [Escapite] had already made a great two-pointer earlier. We just bared down and tried to keep going to take him out of the game.”
The opportunity to go to goal came early in the chukker for Dallas Polo, with Payne finding the goal, followed by and a two-pointer on a brilliant backshot from Walton. Nordheimer would respond for BOOM! Cult, but Dallas Polo retaliated with back-to-back goals off the mallets of Miller Jr. and Payne. Unable to find their rhythm and catch any bounces, BOOM! Cult were awarded their second Penalty 1 goal of the game, however, with time expiring Dallas Polo’s commitment to teamwork and strategy allowed them to persevere and claim the championship 14-10.
Honoring the rich history of the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship®, Dallas Polo’s Miller Jr. was elated to join the ranks of high-goal players such as 2022 Museum of Polo Hall of Fame inductee and two-time U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship® winner Tommy Biddle, noting, “it’s history, winning this tournament goes on your career stamp.” “It’s the top polo tournament I’ve ever played in my life and it’s our first time coming here,” Walton added.
Sons of Dallas Fort-Worth area polo players Bill Walton, Vaughn Miller Sr. and Rob Payne Sr., the young men of Dallas Polo shared their pride representing their lineage, while growing their polo careers. “We were three players coming together, sacrificing and doing whatever was best for the team,” Walton expressed.
Breaking the stigma that often surrounds arena polo, high-level arena tournaments are especially important to growing the sport. “I think there’s a bit of a tide trending towards arena polo and how useful and competitive it can be,” said Rice, 2007 U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship® champion and Bryce Catalyst captain.
Contributing five goals and providing invaluable defensive play throughout the final, Rob Payne was named Professional Most Valuable Player sponsored by Performance Polo. “It’s unbelievable that we have our names on this historic trophy,” Payne said. “We assembled as a team from Dallas less than a month ago so to be able to come together, compete and win with my teammates was an amazing accomplishment.”
Making a strong impression in the semifinals, Molly Agee-Bankhead was named the Amateur Most Valuable Player sponsored by Performance Polo and Woucheaway. The only woman competing in the tournament, Agee-Bankhead shared her thoughts on the level of camaraderie throughout both days. “I’m honored to play amongst so many incredible players,” Agee-Bankhead shared. Playing for the first time at this level of arena polo Agee-Bankhead continued, “it wasn’t as nerve-wracking as I thought it would be. My teammates including my husband Garrett [Bankhead] really helped lift me up and encouraged me to keep going.”
Celebrating the importance of fostering healthy competition, the Sportsmanship Award was presented to Ulysses Escapite for his continued positive attitude, fairness and support for his peers both on and off the field.
Best Playing Pony honors (sponsored by Woucheaway) were awarded to 12-year-old Godiva (Teo x Esperanza), owned by Ramiro Gonzalez and played by Pelon Escapite in the first half of both the first and fourth chukkers. Hailing from an Argentine mare, Godiva has been playing polo since she was 5-years-old. Thrilled to receive the honor, Gonzalez reflected, “Godiva’s very natural. She has a lot of potential and a lot of skill also on grass.”
Staying in California for the winter to compete with Bush League Polo, Escapite normally brings his own horses, however, his string needed a rest after completing a busy season in Aiken, South Carolina. Working with Gonzalez for a rental in the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship® proved to be a winning combination. “I know the mare so it makes it easier to do what I need to on her,” Escapite said. “She has everything, she has speed, handle and I can play her outdoors.”
The strength of the horse strings for Dallas Polo were also critical to their U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship® success. Both Miller Jr. and Walton brought their own horses from Texas which gave them the advantage of familiarity. “I thought about renting but I brought my best arena string,” Miller Jr. said. “Being on your own horse is the difference between winning and losing.”
Walton described the journey from Texas to California as, “the easiest trip I’ve ever made. We drove nine hours from Dallas to El Paso, Texas. The Felhaber’s are very generous and let us stay at their place. We played a few practice chukkers there and the next morning we got the trailers and drove the rest of the way.” Payne rented his horses from George Dill and couldn’t have been happier with the result, “I didn’t have a single chukker I was worried about. The horses went great, it really was our day.”
An Interscholastic national champion with Prestonwood (Oak Point, Texas) in 2018, Miller Jr. joked, “I’ve won the National Youth Tournament Series Championship®, the Open National Interscholastic Championship, and the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship® before the National Intercollegiate Championship. I did it out of order!”
Currently enrolled at University of North Texas (UNT), Miller Jr. still has three years of eligibility remaining and hopes to capture an intercollegiate title. With a 2-goal outdoor handicap, Walton is currently taking some time off from college and is currently looking for opportunities to play and further his polo career.
Adding to the prestige of winning the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship®, the lure of $50,000 in total prize money was crucial when constructing the Dallas Polo team. “The money was the only reason it was possible to come out here,” Miller Jr. said. “We put together a team that [was] going to either win or get second or third.” Taking the $25,000 first place prize to Texas, Miller Jr. will be reinvesting his share, “horses, horses, horses! It’s the name of the game. You’ve got to keep upgrading your string. I think everyone in this tournament is going to get a horse after this!”
*Patrick Uretz, Jimmy Wright, Jared Sheldon and Molly Agee-Bankhead are Team USPA alumni. Team USPA is a USPA program designed to enhance and grow the sport of polo in the United States by identifying young, talented American players and providing mentored training and playing opportunities leading to a pool of higher rated amateur and pro players and the resultant giveback to the sport of polo.
All photos courtesy of ©Kerri Kerley.
Effective Date: Saturday, May 16, 2020
The suspension of USPA Tournaments and Events will be lifted for USPA Member Clubs in locales where hosting polo matches and tournaments is permitted under applicable state and local laws, executive orders and similar decrees. The USPA Member Clubs in these locales are encouraged to follow all such requirements of their state and local authorities with respect to polo operations. In addition, we also encourage all USPA Member Clubs to take the precautions recommended by the CDC. We are preparing a detailed list of best practices for USPA Member Clubs as they return to hosting USPA Tournaments and Events and plan to circulate these guidelines within the next week. We will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation closely and will notify you if we determine a different course of action is necessary.Read More