STORY BY PAM GLEASON
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PAM GLEASON & GARY KNOLL
Gillian Johnston’s Bendabout team came into the finals of the 2016 USPA National Copper Cup 12-goal as something of an underdog. Yes, they had Julio Arellano, at 8 goals America’s top professional. Yes, they had Gillian, a 2-goaler whose accuracy when shooting on goal is legendary. And then there was Del Walton, an aggressive and hard-driving 3-goaler; and to top it off, Julio’s daughter Hope, a precocious 13-year-old polo phenomenon, who, at -1, is definitely underrated. But Bendabout had only won a single game in match play, against Kenny Ray Personal Fitness, the only team in the tournament that did not win. Coming into the semifinals in third place, they fired on all four cylinders to beat second-place SD Farms, undefeated in match play, by an impressive 8 goals. It was a hard road to the championship match, but they certainly earned it.
Crestview Genetics, for its part, won four games in a row, relying heavily on the superior ball control, dribbling and maneuvering of its three Argentine professionals: Pedro Manion (3), Joaquin Panelo (4) and Hugo Lloret (5). Alan Meeker contributed his own competitive abilities to the mix to make the team look pretty dominant. Coming into the semifinals in first place with three wins and 10 net goals, they handily beat fourth-placed LBL Polo 14-8. Add to this the fact that a Crestview team (with a different line-up) had won the Copper Cup in 2014 and 2015, you had to consider them the favorite to win again.
But it is not easy to win the Copper Cup three years in a row. In fact, it has only happened once before, when Gary Knapp’s Kentucky-based Monticule — with three different line-ups — won in 1998, 1999 and 2000. (Gary Knapp, incidentally, was the breeder of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winning superstar Big Brown). And so, Crestview, despite its strength, had its work cut out for it.
And it was a tough game. Bendabout drew first blood with a penalty conversion by Julio Arellano, but Crestview answered with two goals from the field. Bendabout came back on another penalty by Julio, but again, Crestview scored from the field to pull back into the lead. Hope Arellano scored twice in the second chukker, once on a Penalty 2 and once from the field, but Crestview continued its offensive onslaught, with most of its goals scores by Joaquin Panelo. In the first two chukkers, it seemed that Crestview was winning with an aggressive field game, while Bendabout was simply keeping up on penalty shots.
Then came the third chukker, when Del Walton caught fire. Seeming to be everywhere at once, he shut down his opponent on defense and went on a scoring spree of his own, notching three hard-fought goals from the field to put Bendabout in the lead going into the half. Although Crestview took the lead again in the fourth chukker with a three goal effort, the couldn’t hold onto it. The last chukker ended with the scoreboard reading 9-9, and everyone got ready for overtime.
It wasn’t a long chukker, but both teams had several opportunities to score and to win. In the end, however, Julio Arellano managed to get hold of the ball and to carry it through and around a crowd of defenders for the game-winning goal, an accurate nearside shot.
Del Walton, who was responsible for five of his team’s 10 goals was named MVP. Hugo Lloret’s fifth chukker horse Rubia was the Best Playing Pony.
The USPA National Copper Cup, established in 1975, is one of the USPA’s most prestigious trophies. Played in Aiken since 2010, it is a highlight of the fall polo season, attracting teams from around the country. The Bendabout win was historic in two ways. It was the second time that the trophy has ever been won by a team that included two women (Vickie Armour, who was on different teams that won it three years in a row, played and won with Silvia Firestone in 1992 on the Southern Eagle Team). Second, Hope Arellano, at 13, was the youngest person ever to be on the winning team by several years.