Park Place wins first U.S. Open polo championship, beating Valiente in rain-soaked finish

WELLINGTON — In a wild, rain-soaked finish, Park Place won its first-ever $100,000 U.S. Open polo championship with a stunning 12-11 victory over Valiente Monday at Isla Carroll East.

Heavy rain forced the postponement after three chukkers on Sunday at the National Polo Center. Despite more rain and threat of lightning on Monday, the teams were able to finish the sport’s most prestigious tournament and third leg of the Gauntlet of Polo Series to end the winter polo season.

In a battle of unbeatens, Park Place (Andrey Borodin, Juan Britos, Hilario Ulloa, Jason Wates) finished the tournament undefeated at 5-0, denying legendary 10-goaler Adolfo Cambiaso his 10th U.S. Open title. Valiente (Robert Jornayvaz/Rufino Merlos, 1, Peke Gonzalez, Agustin Nero, Adolfo Cambiaso) finished 5-1.

For his Herculean effort that featured the game-winner with 40 seconds left and defensive stop of a Cambiaso game-tying goal in the final seconds, Argentine 10-goaler Hilario Ulloa, 37, was named Most Valuable Player, one of three top honors he swept.

Ulloa’s horse, Latia Kavaska, played in the third and sixth chukkers, was awarded two Best Playing Pony awards: Willis Hartman U.S. Open and Argentine-bred.

In one of the finest performances in his career, Ulloa scored a game-high 10 goals. An emotional Ulloa congratulated his teammates and then dropped to his knees in tears. Britos came over, tapped him on the shoulder and hugged his longtime teammate.

“This win means a lot to me,” Ulloa said. “The U.S. Open I enjoy the most. It’s been a lot of hard work for Park Place and sacrifice for people working hard. We have been trying four, five years to get one of these main tournaments. It’s been a tough journey because we have been in semifinals and finals, but we really wanted to win this. This is the one we had to fight the most to get it.”

Hilario Ulloa and Juan Britos hug on the field Monday after Park Place's victory over Valiente in the U.S. Open polo championship.

Park Place showed up to the field on Monday at 8:30 a.m. and was ready to play at 10. The game did not start until 1:15 p.m. The teams played in a steady rain for most of the second half.

“It was strange to go to bed yesterday, not knowing exactly what was going to happen,” Ulloa said. “Today was a really long morning. We were sitting for four, five hours outside the field. We really wanted to play because the field was in great condition.”

Victory means a lot for billionaire Russian Borodin

Borodin bought Park Place, Britain’s most expensive house, for $219 million in 2012. He was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom in 2013. The billionaire Russian paid $23 million for the massive equestrian compound in Wellington that was once home to the Lechuza Caracas polo team. Ulloa has played with Park Place for six years, including five years in the U.S.

“This win means a lot,” Borodin said. “It has been our journey for several years to achieve this. A big thank you to my organization and the team. Everyone gave everything they could give. Tonight we have big party.”

In front of a packed house at National Polo Center on Sunday, Valiente was leading Park Place 6-5 at the half before tournament officials postponed the game after a 45-minute rain delay, the second of the game.

The game resumed on Monday with Park Place awarded an automatic goal on a penalty-one when a foul was called at the end of the third chukker. The game was tied 6-6 as play resumed.

The lead changed hands only twice with Valiente leading by as many as two goals, 8-6, in the fourth and 10-8 in the fifth chukkers. With 1:44 left Ulloa scored the tying goal (11-11) on an incredible angled neck shot.

“We started off a bit anxious and not quite ready at the beginning,” Ulloa said. “But everything paid off in the end. We really played as a team and used all our players. We had amazing horsepower.”

Added Britos of his first U.S. Open title, “I have been dreaming about this moment for a very, very long time. It’s hard to put into words. It’s been a lot of years of work. There have been so many people fighting for this title. This is something very special.”

Wates, a 3-goaler, is the first Jamaican-born player to compete in the U.S. Open. He became a U.S. citizen last year. More than 50 friends and family from Jamaica made the trip to watch him play and were waving Jamaican flags throughout the game.

“We knew this final was pretty special,” Wates said. “We had good energy and this one felt like it was ours. We went to the field going for it and looking for it. We played every play like it was the last one. This is my first big title. This is the cherry on top. Winning the Open is the biggest thing you can win.”

In addition to Ulloa’s 10 goals, Park Place was awarded two penalty one goals. Valiente got balanced scoring from its lineup. Cambiaso had four, Gonzalez three and Nero and Rufino each had two goals.

The final statistics were close. Park Place converted 8-of-13 shots on goal for 62 percent, Valiente 8-of-14 for 57 percent; Park Place converted all four of its penalty shots, Valiente converted 3-of-4; both teams won 11 throw-ins and each team had three assists. Valiente led in fouls, 12-7.

Adolfo and his son Poroto Cambiaso, Scone patron David Paradice and La Dolfina players were scheduled to leave late Monday for a tournament in Australia.

by Sharon Robb

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