After a weekend filled with top-tier polo, impressive horsemanship and winning camaraderie, the first ever USPA Women’s Arena Open on the West Coast came to a thrilling conclusion on Sunday, September 25 at OC Polo Club (Silverado, California). Featuring a deep field of experienced intercollegiate, interscholastic and Team USPA alumnae, the competition included plenty of high school and college reunions and created an overall fun environment for high-level arena polo. The illustrious event also garnered a sold out crowd at OC Polo Club’s gorgeous facilities, enlivening the atmosphere and adding to the tournament’s excitement.
Pitting OC Polo (Mila Slutzky, Cindy Halle, Marissa Wells*) against the formidable Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo (Kasia Lindgren, Jennifer Alexy, Audry Persano*), the final was highlighted by talented play and teamwork as well as impressive use of the boards. A close match entering halftime, OC Polo’s second half resolution to slow down their speed of play and make special efforts to control the ball paid off, ultimately delivering a decisive 16-11 win, with 11 of those goals coming off the mallet of 9-goaler Wells.
OC Polo’s Cindy Halle leans into the bump on Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo’s Audry Persano.
Starting off the tournament on Friday, September 23, OC Polo first met Lakeside (Nicole Bankhead, Molly Agee Bankhead*, Cory Williams) for a ticket to Sunday’s final. OC Polo created a solid 5-1 lead with an electric first chukker, which they would not relinquish throughout the game. Raising the score to 16-11 as the final horn blared the home team earned their spot in the title match. Shortly after, Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo met Tres Leches (CPC/DPC) (Maria Dahlmann Gupta, Becky Gonzalez, Erica Gandomcar-Sachs) in the second semifinal. Mounted on many of their own horses, Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo generated early offensive success and did not pump the breaks, powering to a commanding 18-5 victory to claim their place in the final.
OC Polo’s Cindy Halle and Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo’s Kasia Lindgren.
Discussing her team’s efforts to prepare for this tournament, Halle shared, “Her mom really set it up for her. The whole point was for Mila, who is 16-years-old and has never played at this level, to have a really positive experience. Marissa and I could bring our experience and really teach her, and obviously the second goal was getting to the final. We stayed with Mila’s family, so we had time to go over the tapes. For her age, she really absorbed everything!” Halle continued discussing the semifinal match, “We came in Thursday and played a couple of practice chukkers, but I only played two of my horses and Marissa played two of hers. So, Friday, we had never seen the other two—that was a little tricky. But we were super fortunate, we got really nice horses from George Dill. The Lakeside team is really talented, I think they were just a little rushed.”
The youngest competitor at 16-years-old, Mila Slutzky contributed two goals in OC Polo’s victory.
Slutzky, the youngest competitor in the tournament, was introduced to the sport through her mom, Danielle, about four years ago. She noted, “My mom took a lesson at her jumping barn and said, ‘you have got to come try this!’ And I did, and I fell in love, and now I’m here!” Prior to picking up the mallet, Slutzky got her start in the saddle competing in hunter jumpers. Finding more passion in polo, she noted, “That’s where I got my start and then I moved to [polo]. This is more fun for me.”
9-goaler Marissa Wells led OC Polo with twenty-four goals, including eleven in the final.
Both teams entering the final after dominant semifinal performances, the first chukker of play set the tone for an aggressive first half. Early in the chukker, riding Caviar a handy grey rented from George Dill, Wells was able to find the goal for OC Polo. “He’s just so handy,” said Wells about Caviar. “He gets around so quick. I felt like I had a lot more handle, I beat Jenny and Audry to the ball on him.” Her initial strike was matched by two goals off the mallet of Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo’s Alexy. Wells and Slutzky were both able to work together to create scoring opportunities, ending the chukker 3-2 in favor of their team.
OC Polo’s Marissa Wells leads the pack on Caviar.
Dedicated to building a strategy prior to the final, Wells discussed how her team was able to mentally prepare themselves to meet Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo. “I’ve been playing against Jenny all summer and I knew she was extremely well mounted. Her horses are super handy and she’s very smart and knows how to use the walls. So, when the ball rebounded, we tried to play smart and not foul. Fouls are going to happen, but I knew Jenny was super quick. If I could get her to rush and not be so alone, we thought that we could beat them.”
Halle also shared how watching Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo play on Thursday helped in creating a strategy, adding, “We watched how they lined up their horses in the first game, and tried to figure out our horses. Basically, our game plan was for Marissa to mark Jenny, I was going to try and mark up with Audry, and we put Mila on Kasia. In the lineups when they switched it up, we made sure to stay with our man. We also were looking at our game—we needed to hit to open space and take our time a little bit more. We needed to be more aware of where the space was.”
With the start of the second chukker came a reenergized Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo. Wells and Alexy traded two goals apiece to spearhead the action, followed by two more goals from Wells. Alexy was able to find the goal once more, but her effort was matched by Halle, who was able to add her name to the scoresheet to give her team a 7-5 advantage at halftime.
OC Polo’s Mila Slutzky races to the ball on Freddie.
Holding a narrow lead, OC Polo recognized potential within themselves to further the distance between their opponent in the second half. Wells shared, “I felt like in the first half we were rushing, myself personally, so we played calm and tried to control the ball, control the play and control the game.” With her entire family heavily involved in polo, and arena polo especially, Wells’ parents Kelly Wells and Trevor Wells were also able to offer words of advice in real-time thanks to the livestreamed game. Wells joked, “Today they were a little better. But on Friday, my dad was texting me, ‘rotate your shoulders on your penalties, they’re going a little bit right—you’re playing like an outdoor player.’ And then my mom was saying that I needed to hit to space. We were trying to clear it a lot going down the middle, because it was so deep it would get stuck, and we would lose it. So, she said, ‘clear it to the sides, go to the corners.’”
After taking time to regroup, OC Polo planned to execute their updated strategy to take more time and focus on controlling the ball and the game. Wells returned on Caviar and OC Polo generated a seemingly endless stream of offensive power; four goals coming from Wells and another one added by Halle. “I always played Caviar in the third chukker because I knew the arena was dragged fresh, and the ground was soft,” said Wells. Hammering down on the defensive front with the same vigor they invested in their attack, OC Polo held Rancho Arroyo/Luna to just a single goal to double up the score and end the third chukker ahead 12-6.
The final chukker placing a firm time limit on the opportunity for a comeback from Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo, Persano and Alexy combined forces to score five goals in a valiant effort to close the gap. All OC Polo team members contributing to the score in the final chukker, a nearly matched four-goal fourth chukker helped the local favorite cling to their game-long lead and claim the title 16-11.
OC Polo’s Marissa Wells drives down the arena alongside Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo’s Jennifer Alexy.
Overjoyed with her team’s victory, Slutzky was thrilled for the opportunity to just participate alongside her teammates and opponents. “This win means a lot,” she shared. “It’s my first big tournament at this level, and I learned so much—the win is a bonus.”
Mila Slutsky celebrates with her parents Eric and Danielle.
For her incredible performance, including 24 goals over the course of the weekend, Marissa Wells was named Most Valuable Player. Crediting a lot of her success to her horses, specifically her third chukker horse Caviar, Wells noted, “Thank you George Dill for that gray horse! The third chukker both days, he owned it. I would get on him, and the confidence was just there!” Wells was also thankful to be able to play alongside Halle, a former rival turned teammate. “Cindy and I have always been competitive rivals in Maryland because she was coaching for Garrison [Forest School] and we were team Maryland. It was great getting to play with her. Polo’s a great community, it’s a small world and, at the end of the day, we’re all friends and we can be teammates on the field.”
This win marks Wells’ and Halle’s second USPA Women’s Arena Open victories, with Halle winning in 2020 alongside Lindsey Morris and Jessica Schmitt with Ace Sportswear and Wells triumphing alongside her mom, Kelly Wells, and Sophie Grant in 2018 with Marlan Farm.
Most Valuable Player Marissa Wells, presented by USPA Pacific Coast Circuit Governor Danny Walker.
Jenny Alexy’s second chukker horse, Fifi, bred and trained by Diego Larregli, was awarded Best Playing Pony honors. 10 years old and standing at just 14’2”, Fifi doesn’t let size stop her from dominating the field. Alexy shared, “She’s built like a horse, she’s a little tank. She has such incredible handle, and she can push a horse of any size. She knows how to use her little body and it’s the same in outdoor—she’s small but mighty. She’s also completely in charge of the entire barn. She’s the boss, no one messes with her and she’s extremely sassy.”
Best Playing Pony Fifi, played and owned by Jennifer Alexy, pictured with Kasia Lindgren.
The competition also recognized 11-year-old chestnut Izzy as Best Playing Thoroughbred in partnership with the Thoroughbred Incentive Program (TIP). Played by Audry Persano in the first and third chukkers Izzy is also owned by Jenny Alexy. “Izzy has a lot of heart,” said Persano. “She hasn’t played in the arena much, this was her first tournament, but she’s super quick, really nice and light.” An off the track thoroughbred, Alexy described Izzy’s racing heritage, “She is out of a stallion named Invasor who won the Breeders Cup Classic in 2006 and was horse of the year that year—so she’s really well bred. Interestingly enough, Invasor is Argentine bred. I bought her from a photo as a 3-year-old. She only raced a couple times, but you could tell her heart wasn’t in it. You can watch her races and she would be really fast and then be like – ‘yeah, done.’ But now she loves polo!” Similar to BPP Fifi, she was trained by Diego Larregli.
Best Playing Thoroughbred Izzy, played by Audry Persano and owned by Jennifer Alexy and pictured with Kasia Lindgren.
The Sportsmanship Award was presented to Mila Slutzky for her winning attitude and pure desire to learn throughout the weekend. A bit nervous going into the tournament, Slutzky was grateful for all of the support and advice she received from her teammates and other competitors. She shared, “I know polo players in general are supportive, but getting to this level, you’d think it would get intense and aggressive—which it does, but everybody in this tournament has been so supportive and so amazing. Everybody’s so nice and I feel like I’ve made so many connections.”
Sportsmanship recipient Mila Slutzky, pictured with OC Polo Club President Denny Geiler.
The memories and lessons learned will stay with the competitors, especially Slutzky, for years to come. “You learn so much just from being on a team with people that are better than you,” Slutzky noted. “Being the least experienced in that game just taught me what I’m working towards and what I can potentially be one day. It was amazing to have all those talented ladies to look up to.”
*Molly Agee Bankhead, Audry Persano and Marissa Wells are Team USPA alumnae. Team USPA is a USPA program designed to enhance and grow the sport of polo in the United States by identifying young, talented American players and providing mentored training and playing opportunities leading to a pool of higher rated amateur and pro players and the resultant giveback to the sport of polo.
All photos courtesy of ©Josh Kizziar.