Players honor polo pioneer Sunny Hale in tournament

Players got the chance to honor Sunny Hale the only way she would have wanted — by playing polo.

The Grand Champions Polo Club monthly women’s league final and consolation games on Wednesday were renamed the Sunset “Sunny” Hale Memorial Tournament at Santa Rita Polo Farm.

The part-time Wellington resident died Sunday night in Norman, Okla., due to complications from cancer. She was 48.

With heavy hearts, 16 players competed in honor of one of the sport’s pioneers and first woman in polo history to win the 26-goal U.S. Open in an era when the sport was male-dominated.

“I wish she had been here to see this,” said Tackeria MVP Clarissa Echezarreta, also one of women’s polo pioneers in Argentina. “This was her vision for us.”

A moment of silence was held before each game.

Every player from polo teams CrossFit/El Cid, Designer Hair by Nikki, Scribble Horse and Masai of Palm Beach had been touched by Hale’s influence in the sport.

“I was crying during that moment of silence,” Belinda Brody of Masai of Palm Beach said. “Sunny is such an inspiration. It kills me that I am never going to be able to sit down and have a conversation with her and get words of advice from her when things get tough.

“It was important to play this today. This is her dream. She wants women’s polo and polo in general to succeed and become more public and better quality. Today you could see there were two open, pretty games of polo with good women players.”

Most players were friends of Hale, who was rated at five goals among men, the highest of any woman player in the sport’s history.

Many of them have competed in qualifiers for the Women’s Championship Tournament (WCT), the largest women’s league in the world that Hale created to help open the door and break down barriers for girls and women in the sport. The WCT final, now in its 12th year, is held every year in April at Grand Champions.

“We are so honored to play in this tournament,” said Scribble Horse patron Kathy Iverson, at 63, the oldest player in the league. She set the tone for women’s polo. She wanted us all to be good and have fun.”

“It’s definitely heartbreaking, she was such an inspiration for me and everyone,” said Hope Arellano, 13, of CrossFit/El Cid and one of the sport’s up-and-coming stars. “I knew she was watching over our game, so I was trying to play good for her. I am going to try to carry on her legacy and help women’s polo.”

Added her father, Julio, one of the top American players: “Sonny was awesome. I played with Sonny a lot. We got to win a lot of tournaments together and we lost a lot of tournaments together.

“What she did for the sport was awesome. Hope got to play the WCT last year and Sunny gave her some tips. Any girl that grew up here that plays polo looked up to her as their idol and wanted to be like Sunny.”

Legendary Hall of Famer and former 10-goaler Memo Gracida watched his wife, Meghan, compete for Crossfit/El Cid.

Gracida met Hale in California when she was 14 and invited her to play in high-goal polo.

“Now that we don’t have her, we realize how important she was for women’s polo and polo in general,” Gracida said. “She left a legacy. She left us a road to follow. In Argentina, they are doing a memorial game for her in her behalf. I have tears in my eyes. She is greatly missed but not forgotten.”

CrossFit/El Cid won the monthly league tournament with a 4-3.5 decision over Designer Hair by Nikki. Scribble Horse defeated Masai of Palm Beach, 4-1, in the consolation.

“It wasn’t about winning today,” Brody said.

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