Article courtesy of Grand Champions Polo Club
On a perfect day for polo at Grand Champions Polo Club in Wellington, Florida, the Navy knocked off the Army and Grand Champions to win the Power Horse Invitational during the USPA Military Polo Experience, which took place April 26.
While there is always an intense rivalry when the Army and Navy get together, it was more fun than battle among the three teams in a spirited round-robin tournament.
Navy (Karl Hilberg, Melissa Ganzi, Paul Knapp, Alejandro Novillo Astrada) defeated Grand Champions (Lolly Stanhope-White, Tommy Graff, Markus Graff, Pablo Dorignac), 2-1, and Army (Mark Gillespie, Terrence Donahue, Jesse Bray, Juan Bollini), 3-1. In the other two-chukker game, Army defeated Grand Champions 3-2.
Ganzi, Bray and Stanhope-White, making her final U.S. appearance for the season before returning to Great Britain, each scored three goals. Knapp, a U.S. Army veteran and coach of the Michigan State University polo team along with his wife Sarah, was named Most Valuable Player. Knapp has been playing polo for more than 30 years.
“I don’t think there is anything that compares in the equestrian world to polo,” said Knapp, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division, was part of the 1983 Grenada Invasion and had 32 jumps.
“This was great fun and great hospitality from Melissa Ganzi, and she scored goals to help us win,” Knapp said. “Today’s game was very competitive but friendly and a lot of fun. We had a lot of laughs out there.”
Knapp grew up riding and showing horses. He went to Oregon State University where he went out for the polo team and has been playing ever since. “I do love polo,” Knapp said. “I don’t know what I would do without polo.”
Knapp was joined by other military veterans Karl Hilberg, Terrence Donahue and Mark Gillespie. Hilberg is chairman of the Armed Forces Committee for the USPA. The mission of the committee is to recognize the great history and connection between polo and the Armed Forces. It hopes to create opportunities to support and bridge the Armed Forces and polo communities through the promotion of events such as Grand Champions’ USPA Military Polo Experience and to increase military participation in polo.
Hilberg retired from the Navy 18 months ago after serving for 28 years. He first started playing arena polo in Newport, Rhode Island with the Navy War College Polo Club. He started playing field polo in Egypt, where he was stationed for three years. Now living in Texas, he plays both arena and field polo.
“I had an awesome time today,” Hilberg said. “This was all due to the generosity of Melissa. This is the highest goal polo I have played outside of arena polo.”
Donahue grew up riding horses and started playing polo at age 11 in California. He played Interscholastic polo and played 20-goal practice games in Santa Barbara. When he was young he groomed for Adam Snow, Kris Kampsen and Jason Crowder. “My mom played polo, so I have been playing almost my whole life,” Donahue said. “I love it. I never stopped playing. It’s great.”
Donahue finished six years of active duty in the Army where he also served in the 82nd Airborne Division. He returned from Iraq last year and now owns his own security firm in Hollywood, California. Because of his job, he plays polo once every two weeks.
“Today was fantastic,” Donahue said. “Sunny day in Florida on a horse playing polo is great. Anything on a horse and I am happy. Getting to play with these guys and against an 8-goaler is even better. Do I mind losing to the Navy? A little bit, yeah, a little bit. This was better than I normally play. I could go up for passes. It was different from low goal polo which I normally play and is always fun. We changed our strategy halfway through the game and it ended up working, but it was too late. It was still a lot of fun. I will come back any time.”
Gillespie, who learned to play polo in graduate school at Yale, appreciates the connection between the military and polo. He was a professor at West Point where he learned how to ride.
“In the early 1900s, polo spread across the United States as a result of the U.S. Army’s reliance on horses. At the height of the sport’s popularity in the 1930s, there were 1,500 military players, far outnumbering civilians playing the sport. Army General George S. Patton once said it was one of the best sporting preparations for modern combat. Today, there are about 40 active military players throughout the world,” Gillespie said.
“I was hooked on polo the first time I tried it,” said Gillespie, who retired from the Army in 1997. He now owns a drone company in the Orlando area and lives in Virginia. “It’s nice to keep this event going and we are very grateful to Melissa for all the support she’s been giving military polo over the years. She’s invited us to get something going at Aspen Valley Polo Club around the Fourth of July.”
Gillespie, who has been involved in polo since 1983, enjoyed the mix of pros, amateurs and military players in Wednesday’s game.
“It was very competitive,” Gillespie said. “Any time you get military guys going against each other it’s ‘Katy bar the door.’ Of course, we had to loan the Navy our big gun (Paul Knapp). Today’s game was lots of fun. Everyone displayed good sportsmanship and were gentlemanly in their conduct. It’s just a joy to play down here. All the horses were fantastic.”