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PILOT SOARS BACK ONTO THE PODIUM IN USPA GOLD CUP OVERTIME VICTORY

Mar 28, 2022 3:16 PM

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2022 USPA Gold Cup® Champions: Pilot - Curtis Pilot, Mackenzie Weisz, Matias Torres Zavaleta, Facundo Pieres.
2022 USPA Gold Cup Champions: Pilot - Curtis Pilot, Mackenzie Weisz, Matias Torres Zavaleta, Facundo Pieres.

An electric and eager crowd of spectators filled the prestigious U.S. Polo Assn. Field 1 at International Polo Club Palm Beach (IPC) in Wellington, Florida, to witness the thrilling conclusion of the USPA Gold Cup between Pilot (Curtis Pilot, Mackenzie Weisz, Matias Torres Zavaleta, Facundo Pieres) and Park Place (Josh Hyde, Juan Britos, Hilario Ulloa, Cody Ellis*).

Both entering the final undefeated in bracket play, Park Place’s only defeat in the 2022 GAUNTLET OF POLO came at the hands of Pilot in their first of two matchups in the C.V. Whitney Cup, where Park Place subsequently turned the tables to knock Pilot out of finals contention. Moving on to raise the C.V. Whitney Cup and make a run for the 2022 GAUNTLET OF POLO, Pilot found themselves engaged once again with the herculean task of besting a championship caliber team in Park Place. The only team to successfully complete the monumental task of becoming GAUNTLET champions in 2019, Pilot came prepared with the horsepower, strategy and motivation required to take on Park Place’s number one rated offense.

Curtis Pilot reaches for the ball ahead of Park Place's Hilario Ulloa.
Curtis Pilot reaches for the ball ahead of Park Place's Hilario Ulloa.

Leading his team with sixty goals on the season entering the USPA Gold Cup final, Pilot’s 10-goaler Pieres elevated his play as a leader and offensive powerhouse, accounting for all of Pilot’s offensive contributions in the final. Leading from the onset of play, Pieres’ ability to guide his team on both sides of the ball led to an incredible ten-goal effort through six chukkers of contested action. Unable to slow down the athletic efforts of Pieres, Park Place focused on strong team play and ball circulation, with the potent duo of Britos and leading GAUNTLET scorer Ulloa combining for nine goals to keep Park Place neck-in-neck with their challengers.

Unable to settle the score in regulation, the offensive forces of the two teams combined for twenty goals, as both sides attempted in overtime to seize the title as their own. A successful hook on Britos from Zavaleta thwarted Park Place’s initial opportunity allowing Pieres to create space between the defenders and escort the ball across the line. Treating spectators to a riveting 11-10 victory, Pilot returned to the podium, simultaneously extinguishing Park Place’s dreams of capturing the 2022 GAUNTLET.

“I’m always confident when I have Facundo [Pieres] on my side.”  – Curtis Pilot on Pilot’s overtime advantage.

Following their 2019 dream season as GAUNTLET champions, Pilot took a surprising and unexpected step back. Unable to make a single final in the 2021 three tournament series at IPC, Pilot quickly shifted their strategy to not only compete the following season, but to win. “Facundo called me in May [2021], he wanted me to play, and we made an early plan with the horses,” said Zavaleta. “He invited me with a lot of time, and we brought horses from Argentina. We got organized the best we could, I think that made the difference.”

Familiar with both Pieres and Weisz playing with them in tournaments including the Tortugas Open, the Hurlingham Open and the Jockey Open in Argentina, Zavaleta continued, “we’ve known each other from before the season and he’s [Facundo Pieres] a super partner.” Team owner Pilot also stated, “we weren’t happy about our results last year. We went back to the drawing board and brought our whole team to Argentina in the fall [2021] to work and practice, so we were prepared.”

Park Place's Josh Hyde scored his second goal of the tournament in the final and fourth of the GAUNTLET.
Park Place's Josh Hyde scored his second goal of the tournament in the final and fourth of the GAUNTLET.

Awarding one goal on handicap to Pilot, the match started with an unfortunate and accidental collision between Park Place’s Ellis and Pilot’s Zavaleta. Issuing a double yellow card and two-minute penalty to Ellis, Pieres took advantage of Pilot’s one-man advantage on a Penalty 2 followed by another from the field. With Ellis back in play, he raced from the penalty box to aid a drive from Britos to Hyde, posting Park Place’s first goal.

With a 3-1 Pilot lead, the teams traded goals in the second chukker, as Pieres struck once again from the line and field, while Britos kick-started his successful first half with two in open play. Increasing the offensive contributions from both sides, a total of six combined goals crossed the goal line in the third chukker. The powerful duo of Ulloa and Britos teamed-up once again to contribute three for Park Place, as Pieres continued his dominance to end the half with seven goals, giving Pilot a narrow 8-6 advantage.

Taking the upper hand after the first three chukkers of play, Pilot entered the break feeling confident in their talent and horsepower. Planning to use the C.V. Whitney Cup as a warmup for the season, Pilot tailored their string for success in the USPA Gold Cup and U.S. Open Polo Championship. “Our horses changed a lot from the C.V. Whitney Cup, there were five horses from each of us that didn’t play in the C.V. Whitney Cup, that we played in the USPA Gold Cup, and will play in the U.S. Open Polo Championship,” noted Zavaleta. “Facundo [Pieres] brought more horses from Argentina [for the] USPA Gold Cup and U.S. Open. By the time they arrived, he could give some to us. I played half of mine and half from Facundo.” Sharing horses with his teammates, Pieres demonstrated his selfless leadership, as stated further by Zavaleta, “he gives from his horses, and that helps a lot. This team works well [on and off] the field.”

Pilot's Mackenzie Weisz prepares for a backhand shot with Juan Britos defending.
Pilot's Mackenzie Weisz prepares for a backshot with Park Place's Juan Britos reaching to make a play on the ball.

Also utilizing Pieres’ horses was Weisz, who began borrowing from Pieres at the beginning of the USPA Gold Cup, “These horses are amazing,” shared Weisz. “Facundo passed me Open Katia and Open Serenity.” Speaking to the importance of having a well mounted team, Pieres stated, “we tried to have our best horses on the field. I gave some horses to the boys to help them, and it’s been working the last two or three games since we’ve been doing that—Mackenzie especially started improving a lot.” Pieres continued, “To win tournaments you need everybody to be on top. I know the horses and with my group of people, we’ve been talking and thinking about which horse would work for whom.”

“We knew we had to try and slow down as much as we could and not to run with the ball, but to give passes to our players and make the ball run.”  – Facundo Pieres

Unified and relying on the strength of their string, Pilot prepared themselves for a challenging second half. Speaking to the strengths of Park Place, Pieres expressed, “we’ve seen them, and they are a very strong team. They like to apply a lot of pressure. We weren’t going to win by two or three goals, we knew it was going to be tough.”

Receiving encouragement from Coach Julio Arellano, Park Place emerged from the break to overtake the chukker. Led by the overwhelming talents of Ulloa and Britos, the two leaders accounted for three goals and despite a response from Pieres, Park Place managed to turn the momentum and tie the match 9-all. Noting Park Place’s comeback success, Zavaleta was quick to give their opponents praise, “they’re very well mounted. It’s an organization that’s very big in the United States and England. They have a lot of good horses and are very well organized. The team is very good, with very good players. They are very tough.”

Approaching the final fifteen minutes of regulation, Pieres relayed Pilot’s strategy, “we knew we had to try and slow down as much as we could and not to run with the ball, but to give passes to our players and make the ball run. Zavaleta similarly expressed, “we were focusing on marking and passing the ball to each other. The idea is to be good on defense and when we had the ball, pass to each other.”

Continuing with the back-and-forth scoring that dominated the match, Britos struck first in the fifth chukker, while Zavaleta made a brilliant pass to an unmanned Pieres, taking the ball on a breakaway run to keep the game deadlocked 10-10. With time quickly expiring, both sides attempted shots at the goal, and with only thirteen combined penalties in the game, the open style of play made for multiple nail-biting close calls. As the final horn in regulation sounded, the 10-all score stood, as the third battle of the season between Park Place and Pilot required an extra chukker to determine the ultimate victors of the championship.

Pilot's Facundo Pieres takes the ball downfield alongside Park Place's Hilario Ulloa.
Pilot's Facundo Pieres takes the ball downfield Park Place's Hilario Ulloa hustling to defend.

Plunging into overtime, Pilot had no fears facing sudden death elimination, simply stating, “I’m always confident when I have Facundo [Pieres] on my side, I think we have the advantage with him.” Scoring all of Pilot’s 10 goals, including five from the field, it would be Pieres who once again scored for Pilot.

“All I was thinking was score,” said Pieres. Selecting Mega Espia (Mega Cabernet x Spuky) for the challenge, Pieres added, “We were lucky because they had a shot they could have run to goal, but they missed. I wanted to hit the ball as long as possible I knew that mare [Mega Espia] could run a lot.” Utilizing strength and speed, Pieres outran a defending Ellis to take the ball across the line for the final time in the match, delivering his team the hard-fought, exhilarating 11-10 golden goal to re-capture the USPA Gold Cup title.

Back on top for their second USPA Gold Cup victory in four years, an elated Pilot expressed, “This was an amazing win! Park Place was probably ranked number one overall coming in, and to beat them was pretty special.” Pilot continued to credit his exceptional teammates, “Facundo, Matias and Mackenzie all help me. I’m the weakest of the bunch, there’s not a lot of teams that have zero goal patrons. They stick-and-ball with me every day. They make me better and I can’t thank them enough. They gave it their all and I’m thankful for that.”

Mackenzie Weisz celebrates with his father Andres Weisz following his first USPA Gold Cup® victory.
Mackenzie Weisz celebrates with his father Andres Weisz following his first USPA Gold Cup® victory.

Winning the 2020 C.V. Whitney Cup with Las Monjitas, this was Weisz’s first USPA Gold Cup celebration, “this win means a lot to me, and this team and these horses are amazing!” shared Weisz. “Playing with some of the best players in the world, you learn a lot from them,” Weisz continued, “there are a lot of people behind the scenes that don’t get the credit they deserve, so it’s nice to recognize the grooms, my family, and everybody behind the Pilot organization. I’m sure it means a lot to them as well.”

Zavaleta, earning his second USPA Gold Cup championship (Valiente 2017) spoke to the hard-fought success of the Pilot organization, “we have a good time outside the field and in the barn. Gonzalito [de la Fuente], the manager, works well for the organization along with the grooms. You try to play as well as you can and have a good time.”

Most Valuable Player and Pilot's leading scorer in the USPA Gold Cup®, Facundo Pieres.
Most Valuable Player and Pilot's leading scorer in the USPA Gold Cup®, Facundo Pieres, on a breakaway riding One Magnifica.

Receiving his third USPA Gold Cup title (Valiente 2018, Pilot 2019) only further cemented Pieres’ place as an invaluable leader to the success of Pilot. For his spectacular offensive contributions, including the overtime golden goal, Facundo Pieres was named Most Valuable Player. Facilitating the addition of horses for his teammates, Pilot also revealed that without a designated coach on the team, “Facundo [Pieres] does much of the coaching.”

Capping off an incredible final, Pieres’ 13-year-old bay mare Open Azarenka (Sportivo x Rusita) was awarded both Best Playing Pony and Best Argentine Bred Pony. The first horse bred by Pieres’ fitness trainer Pablo Erbin, Pieres purchased her a couple years ago and played her in the fourth and sixth chukkers. “I brought her [to the United States] this year, she’s from our breed,” Pieres shared. “She’s complete—she runs, she stops, she turns, she does everything.”

Best Playing Pony and Best Argentine Bred Pony was presented to Open Azarenka (Sportivo x Rusita), played and owned by Facundo Pieres. Pictured with Jesse Coppola, Maureen Brennan, Tomas Garbarini, Facundo Burgos, Santiago Buigues, Javier Fiel, Beto, Sandro Diaz, Pablo Erbin, Leoncio Godoy.
Best Playing Pony and Best Argentine Bred Pony was presented to Open Azarenka, played and owned by Facundo Pieres. Presented by Jesse Coppola and Maureen Brennan, pictured with Tomas Garbarini, Facundo Burgos, Santiago Buigues, Javier Fiel, Beto, Sandro Diaz, Pablo Erbin, Leoncio Godoy.

With little time to celebrate, both Pilot and Park Place will begin their bid for the U.S. Open Polo Championship alongside 18 other teams. With $100,000 dollars on the line, Pilot and Weisz are carrying their momentum into the final phase of the season and are ready for the challenge, “with this win, we’re super confident.” Pilot also echoed Weisz’s confidence, “with twenty teams, anything can happen. We’re going to do our best, but we have great horses and I think we’re going to be pushing for the top. We’re ready.”

Final Stats.
Pilot- Final Stats.
Park Place- Final Stats.

*Cody Ellis is Team USPA alumnus. 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 ©David Lominska.

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