The Best Playing Pony award is an achievement players and team owners strive to attain. To have your horse play their best for you and display what they are capable of on the field is a reward in itself, but to receive the coveted Best Playing Pony Award, which is judged by peers, is a true testament to a horse’s ability. Hilario Ulloa not only took home this prize with his homebred mare Lavinia Castellana in the 2018 20-goal Joe Barry Cup Final, but also received an opportunity to highlight his family’s passion and hard work towards breeding and cultivating exceptional horses.
“It’s become funny because almost everything is named Lavinia,” joked Ulloa. “Our breeding is Lavinia, our farm’s name is Lavinia, and my daughter is named Lavinia. We end up saying that ‘Lavinia is at Lavinia, watching Lavinia horses.’”
Ulloa’s devotion for his breeding is palpable as he shared the process in which he and his father (world-renowned trainer Carlos “Polito” Ulloa) start and make the horses he aspires to play in the Argentine Open. Breeding over forty mares a year, one six-year-old chestnut has proven her worth and quickly risen to the top of his string. Ulloa discussed how she made it to the U.S. and where he hopes to see her in the future.
“I have 17 horses here that I have acquired from all over and to have her, from my own breeding, win Best Playing Pony is a great satisfaction for me and my family.”
How did you feel when she was awarded Best Playing Pony in the Joe Barry Cup Final?
“It was amazing! Being competitive in all of the places that I play, I constantly have to buy top horses that are already mature enough to play at the level I’m playing. It takes a lot of money. It’s tough for my family because with 40 horses being bred each year it’s hard to justify buying new ones to be better mounted. We put so much work and effort into breeding but I still have to buy horses outside of my breeding if our own are not ready to play yet. To have Lavinia Castellana here and doing so well is an amazing feeling. I have 17 horses here that I have acquired from all over and to have her, from my own breeding, win Best Playing Pony is a great satisfaction for me and my family.”
What do you feel makes Lavinia Castellana unique?
“She’s very, very agile. You can turn to each side as much as you want and she is very light in the mouth. She wins a lot of 50/50 plays, which can change the result of a game and she has a great deal of speed. When I ride her she feels complete, even though she’s young and has room to improve, at this moment in the 20-goal she’s by far my best mare and the one I go to when I need a horse I can really rely on. She just keeps getting better every game.”
What chukker do you normally play her?
“Always the last chukker, however in the Final of the Joe Barry Memorial Cup Tournament, I played her second and last because I wanted a horse I could count on for those key chukkers. I knew she would take me to the plays I needed to get to.”
What can you tell us about her dam and sire?
“It’s interesting because both the mother and the father were started and trained at the same farm, by the same people. I purchased her mother ‘Castiza’ as a two-year-old racehorse with my father. He started her, I made her and then I played her a few years in the Argentine Open. Her sire is ‘Lavinia Naipe,’ from our breeding. He was born at the farm, my father started him, I made him and he has played for 10 years in the Argentine Open. He’s 14 or 15 now and still playing. Lavinia Castellana is following in their footsteps and doing just as well, if not better.”
Do you have more horses from the same breeding that are playing now or will be playing in the future?
“I have some younger ones in Argentina from the same mother and father. Lavinia Castellana is the only one that is six years old and playing right now. When I watch my dad working the horses, I try to make conclusions on if they will make it; if they have a good body, good confirmation, good legs, good attitude, nice position of the head. When I see my dad riding them and they move well, that’s when I know they will have a chance on making it to high-goal polo.”
“The thing I really like about her is that when the time came to put pressure in the first 20-goal tournament, she took that temperament and energy and channeled it into incredible athleticism.”
Do you have a specific memory on Lavinia Castellana when you knew she would make a top polo pony?
“Yes, the first time I rode her I felt it right away. She was very agile. I was worried that she was almost too agile, too fresh, too energized. She was always kicking and bucking. You never know if that temperament will be beneficial or detrimental. She was right on the edge but she went in the right direction. The thing I really like about her is that when the time came to put pressure in the first 20-goal tournament, she took that temperament and energy and channeled it into incredible athleticism.”
How long is your training process?
“It takes about a year for my father to get them started. At two years old he rides them for about three or four months, then turns them out so they can think about what they have learned and their bodies can keep growing. After the break, he rides them again for another four or five months. After another break we begin teaching them polo and training them the basics of the game. Lavinia Castellana did this for about three years with my polo organization, training with my pilot, trainers, and grooms in Argentina.”
How many people does it take to run your organization in Argentina?
“A bunch! 10 to 12 grooms, two pilots*, my vet, my manager. They are all based in Pilar at my place called ‘La Hache.’ Then I have even more people working at the farm caring for the breeding operation in Lincoln which includes all the broodmares, the babies, and the studs.”
Do you have a favorite playing memory?
“In the first game of the tournament, Lavinia Castellana’s first game here, we were losing in the last chukker against Colorado and she made three amazing plays that won the game. I went out of the throw-in and I mishit the ball to the left, I turned and she got there. When I tried to hit the ball, I was hooked, but then the ball was hit up again. I didn’t think she would be able to get to it, but she ran past the opposing player and I hit the ball and ended up hitting it too long. I didn’t think she could run past again, but she did. She ran so fast and took me all the way to goal. I feel like one play can be luck, but for her to get me to that many game changing plays was incredible.”
How has she handled the pressure of her first high-goal season?
“The more pressure I have put, the better she has become. The games were really good for her because they took off that edge and desire to do silly things and helped her focus. She is relaxed, quiet and only paying attention to the game. She has so much left to show, every game I feel like I can push her and she gives me a little bit more each time. I can’t see a limit on her. When someone hits a backshot, she turns first. When the play starts, she’s first. When everyone needs to stop, she stops first. She is very natural, none of the things I am asking of her are pushing her beyond her limit. I never feel like I am asking her to give me more than she’s capable of.”
Where would you like to see her in five years?
“In Argentina, playing the Open. That’s my dream. My father was really sad when I brought her here because he wanted to see her play in Argentina. But I really like how polo is played here for the younger horses. In Argentina, the polo is so fast and so open, we are racing constantly. Our focus is beating the players on the long runs and that can be too much for some young horses. Here in Wellington, [Florida,] we have a little more time to slow down with the ball. The young horses really learn to stop and turn, and slow down and speed up when needed, instead of going fast all the time. That’s why I decided to bring her here. I can give her one or two seasons here and then she will be mature and ready to go back to Argentina.”
*A “pilot” is a secondary rider for a professional player, who trains and exercises the horses when he or she is not available.