By Alejandra Ocampo
The moment the Argentine Open comes to an end the nostalgia begins to set in… we have to wait a whole year for the Triple Crown! But time flies; international seasons come and go and before you know it, the Triple Crown is just around the corner, ready to bring us 40-goal polo with the best players and horses in the world. Three months which celebrate everything that is polo: Welcome to the 2016 Argentine season!
And what a season it is set to be! With changes in teams and structure, the biggest news of the year is the new format the championship will take. These new rules were made official by the AAP in June. This year’s Open will have quarter and semifinals; the winner of each zone will qualify directly to the semifinals, while teams placed second and third will play crossed quarterfinals, just as it is done in the US Open. This means that the Open, the most important tournament in the world, will have a week more of polo. The changes, states Juan Badiola, Vice President of the AAP, were agreed on with the consensus of the players.
The Triple Crown is made up of three Open tournaments: Tortugas, Hurlingham and Palermo. The six highest handicapped teams play the first, while eight teams go on to play the next two tournament – the two additional teams qualifying after winning the Qualification tournament. But there is also the Jockey Club Open, a tournament which has grown considerably over the years; this year three of the big six will play the Jockey: La Dolfina, La Aguada and Washington. The Qualification tournament will see four teams battle it our for a chance to play Hurlingham and Palermo: Chapaleufu, La Irenita, Miramar and Las Rosas.
This year also brings many changes in terms of team lineups. Of the big six that play the Triple Crown only two remain the same as last year: La Dolfina and Ellestina (although the former will present a different team for the Jockey Open, with Lia Salvo replacing Pelon Stirling); we have two comebacks, La Aguada (with all four Novillo Astrada brothers) and El Paraiso; an Alegria team with two 10-goalers; and Washington, who debut in the Triple Crown.
LA DOLFINA: THE GREATS
What else can we say about La Dolfina? After claiming three consecutive Triple Crowns, the 40-goal team, made up of Adolfo Cambiaso, Pelon Stirling, Pablo MacDonough and Juan Martin Nero, has stormed the polo hall of fame. The biggest news regarding the champion team, which will see Milo Frenández Araujo continue as team coach, is that they will play the Jockey Open with Lia Salvo, one of the best female players in the world. This will be the first time in polo history that a woman takes part in the Argentine high-goal. Sebastian Merlos (9) will act as substitute.
Juan Martín Nero: “Doing it all again would be a dream come true”
We have high expectations and are excited to start playing again. We have spent the whole year planning and organising our horses so as to start the Triple Crown the best way we possibly can. We are going to play the three tournaments with the whole team. It is going to be a very difficult season, as is always the case. The other teams are very good. Alegria now has Sapo [Caset] and that will make the team much stronger so they will be hard to beat; the Novillo Astrada’s will be playing together again; there is Tincho Merlos’ team; and Washington, who have already been playing together for a year. It is going to be a lot of fun, with even games.
We are ready to get going. Doing it all again would be a dream come true, but right now we are focusing on getting in the best shape possible for Tortugas. We are going to try and win, and take it step by step.
In terms of horses we are going to try a few each, about six or seven good mares to play Hurlingham and Palermo. We should be well mounted, we have brought horses over from abroad and bought quite a few more. We are all improving in terms of horses, so we will be better mounted than last year.
In terms of the Jockey Open, that was Adolfito’s idea. He was talking with Lia Salvo because El Paso wanted to do something with La Dolfina. I think it will be a lot of fun playing with Lia and I like the fact that a woman will be playing with us. Female polo is growing a lot and I think it is good that it mixes with what we do. The Jockey won’t be easy because there are very good teams playing, but the idea is to play well and get ready for Tortugas.
ELLERSTINA: GOING FOR THE REMATCH
Ellerstina will see a full Pieres lineup for a second consecutive year as the three brothers, Gonzalito (10), Facundo (10), and Nicolás (9) join ranks with cousin Polito (10) again. After playing the 2015 Jockey Open, Ellerstina presented this new lineup in last year’s Triple Crown. Ellerstina worked well throughout the season, improving steadily and reaching all the major finals (it is worth remembering their excellent performance in the finals of Hurlingham and Palermo). Polito played at one while Facu shone at Back. This year Ellerstina will look to work better as a team and defeat their arch rivals, La Dolfina.
Facundo Pieres: “We want to win tournaments, not just get to the finals”
We are all feeling good, excited to start and sorting everything out in terms of horses, which ones will start, which ones to save for later, practices, and general organisation. The team is doing well, last year we started off OK but then improved, and I think it was good overall considering it was the first time we played together. There are always things to work on and improve and that is what we are going to focus on this season. There are aspects of the team that we can work on, and we are going to sort that all out in the practices. We know that last year we had some weaker games, but also some good ones; it was a year of transition and we were playing new positions. I had never played at Back before, but Gonzalito maintained his number 2 position. It was the first time we played with our cousin Polito and we had a lot of new horses, too. We are going to try and improve this season, and obviously the objective is to win tournaments. If we started off by winning Tortugas it would be amazing. We want to win tournaments, getting to the finals is not enough.
LA AGUADA: FOUR BROTHERS
This is sure to be the most emotional comeback of the Triple Crown. La Aguada returns as La Aguada Las Monjitas with a lineup of four Novillo Astrada brothers. The new team sees the integration of youngest brother Alejandro (8), who will play alongside Eduardo (9), Ignacio (9) and Miguel (9), the latter who returns to the Triple Crown after a break in 2015.
As of 2012, the five Novillo Astrada brothers competed in two teams, La Aguada and La Aguada Las Monjitas, involving Camilo Bautista’s organisation in the best polo in the world. Today, the four remaining brothers comeback to play in one team, starting off with the Jockey Open and following the wishes of their late brother, Javier.
Ignacio Novillo Astrada: “We will be five on the field”
The fact that all four of us will be playing together means a lot to me. It makes me very happy, also because it is the first time I will be playing with Negro [Alejandro Novillo Astrada]. I am very excited, especially because all four of us want to enjoy the season, and that helps us achieve better results. We will be five on the field this year. The season is going to be incredibly difficult, but we want to enjoy it. We are going to start off with the Jockey, with Negro playing at 1, and then try to see what positions work best for us. In terms of the other teams, it is going to be really tough. Alegria has improved; El Paraiso is a great team with experienced players; Washington, after only a year, have shown to be a competitive team. And we already know that La Dolfina and Ellerstina are on another level. I think we will have a lot of great, even games.
We are doing really well in terms of horses, thanks to Las Monjitas who have helped us a lot. We are going to be well mounted; between our own string and the horses we get from Las Monjitas we each have about six new horses this year.
ALEGRIA: 10 GOALS x2
2015 was a year of transition for Fred Mannix’s (8) team. They bust into the final of Palermo in 2013, surprising everyone, but the team began to plateau after the departure of Polito Pieres. Hilario Ulloa joined the team and reached a deserved 10-goals. This year, Mannix is going all out, joining Lucas Monteverde’s (9) experience with Hilario’s talent. But another great name joins the lineup, Guillermo Caset, who has also been put up to 10. Now boasting two 10-goalers, Alegria is sure to be a force to be reckoned with.
Fred Mannix: “Our aim is to play the finals”
I am anxiously awaiting the start of the season, probably more than ever! It is not everyday you get the opportunity of putting together a team with two 10-goal players. We are anxious and concentrated, and our aim is to play the important finals. We are going to give it everything we have to reach the finals, where anything can happen. We have a really tough first game against Washington, a team that has shown what they are worth. They are young guys who are hungry to win and want to prove themselves. We know that La Dolfina and Ellerstina are a step above everyone else. And the other teams are all really competitive. There won’t be any easy games, but our team has a good chance having two ten goal players like Hilario [Ulloa] and Sapo [Caset].
I am feeling really fit, I trained all summer and we had a good season in Calgary. I have new horses that will be playing in the Triple Crown, daughters of a mare called Sasha. I am really happy with my string, how it is developing, and the horses I will be playing in the first games of the season, with this strong team. I am very optimistic and I have high hopes for the season.
WASHINGTON: WELCOME TO THE TRIPLE CROWN
It only took Washington a year to make the leap to the Triple Crown. Facundo Sola (8), Diego Cavanagh (8), Ezequiel Martinez Ferrario (8) and Alfredo Cappella (9) really proved themselves in last year’s Qualification tournament, and later on in Hurlingham (defeating La Aguada) and Palermo (defeating Chapaleufu). Martinez Ferrario and Cappella both went up in handicap, giving Washington a direct ticket to the Triple Crown. They will start the season playing the Jockey Open (but with Guillermo Terrera (8) replacing Martinez Ferrario). Talent, youth, determination and confidence, Washington is ready to burst into the most prestigious polo series in the world.
Facundo Sola: “We need to go out and play as equals, aiming not only to play well, but to win”
Our expectations are good, we are in good shape and very happy. We have spent the whole year preparing for the Triple Crown. We hope to play well and win our matches. We know that La Dolfina and Ellerstina are incredibly tough teams but we have to go out there and try to win. If we lose, then it is normal, but if we win, that would really knock them! We need to go out and play as equals. We are part of the big six and we have a great team.
We have improved our strings since last year, and now we can save some for later on in the season. We have been lent new mares to play this year, so in that respect we are doing well. We all get on very well and we know what Washington is about. We are very happy knowing that we are going to play Tortugas, Hurlingham, and Palermo – it’s priceless. It’s amazing that Washington is one of the six starting teams!
EL PARAISO: THE COMEBACK
This year’s Triple Crown will see a new team join the ranks, as Agustín Merlos (9), Ignacio Heguy (9), Santiago Toccalino (8) and Ignacio Toccalino (9) come together in El Paraiso, an organisation that has passed through many phases throughout the years. El Paraiso last played the Triple Crown in 2009 with Guillermo Caset, Cubi Toccalino, Mariano Gonzalez and Alejandro Novillo Astrada. They played Hurlingham and Palermo after beating Trenque Lauquen and qualifying. Cubi has since played with La Aguada Las Monjitas, but this year returns to play the Triple Crown with his brother Santiago for the first time. Agustín Merlos is a known name in El Paraiso, having first played for the team in 2006 with his two brothers, Pite and Sebastián, alongside Paco de Narvaez. This season the team will lean on the experience of Nachi Heguy, who left Indios Chapaleufu II in 2012 before joining Ellerstina.
Agustín Merlos: “Our expectations are high, we are hoping to do the best we can, which is win”
I played with El Paraiso in 2005, which was when I was put up to 10 goals. I continued playing with the team in 2006 and 2007. We made it to the final of the Jockey with Sapo Caset, Martin and Paco de Narvaez. Sebastian replaced me in that final in 2006. That year I scored a record number of goals in one match at Palermo. In 2007 we lost the final of Tortugas in extra time.
I like the team and we get on really well. Our expectations are always high and we are hoping to do the best we can, which is win. We wouldn’t be playing otherwise. We have to play well, beat everyone we have to beat and position ourselves well throughout the season. That means winning the first league games in Tortugas and Hurlingham. And with Palermo’s new format, while our objective is to qualify for the semifinals directly, we know we have a shot with the quarterfinals.
The team is doing well, we are all on the same wave length and we are hoping to choose a coach soon. In terms of horses and organisation we are all doing well, but we have to make a good plan for the horses so as to start the season in the best shape possible. We will have time to organise all that when we start playing practices and really get to know each other on the field. We already know each other well off the field.
Overall, we are really happy and excited. I love the Argentine season and I had a good season with La Aguada last year. I am really grateful for the season we had together, they are great teammates. I think we can do well with this team and I am really excited about the project we are building.