AlUlA, Saudi Arabia, January 21, 2024: In a picturesque setting, Saudia won the highly-anticipated championship final of the Richard Mille AlUla Desert Polo Tournament Saturday at Al-Fursan Equestrian Village.
Saudia (Melissa Ganzi, Sayyu Dantata, Adolfo Cambiaso) defeated Richard Mille (Yoanna Hanbury, David Paradice, Pablo MacDonough), 9-5, in front of a packed house of dignitaries, celebrities and fans.
Following their victory, Saudia celebrated with the prestigious Desert Polo trophy presented to them by Abeer Al Akel, Acting CEO, Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) and Amr Zidan, Chairman, Saudi Polo Federation (SPF).
Ganzi, who made history in 2022 as the first international woman to compete in the tournament, became the first woman to win the prestigious tournament. She was also named Top Female Player. „Being the first woman to play here in 2022 was special but it was even more special to be the first woman to win.
„It was amazing to play with Adolfo. It was special. He is such a great teammate as is Sayyu Dantata. This was an incredible magical spectacular tournament. I was honored to be invited to play.“
In addition to Ganzi‘s honor, other post-final awards were Dantata (Men’s Best Player) and Cambiaso (Top Scorer). There were also awards for Pablo MacDonough (Best Goal), HRH Prince Hamza bin Abbas (Most Promising Player) and Yohanna Hanbury (Sportsmanship). The Best Playing Pony awards went to Dolfina Absoleta and Dolfina Shayla.
In the opening round, Saudia defeated SAB, 8-5 and in the semifinals, Dadan 8-4.
Ganzi‘s husband Marc surprised his wife flying in for the final.
„It‘s a great moment for her, she works really hard at not only being a polo player, but being an ambassador for the sport on a global basis,“ Ganzi said. „She has introduced so many people to polo and making it accessible to women and children. So for her this is her passion. When someone‘s passion is executed it‘s a beautiful thing to see. So I‘m real happy for her.“
The third edition of the Richard Mille AlUla Desert Polo, the one-of-its-kind organized polo tournament played in a desert, featured a star-studded lineup. Eight teams, double the number from 2022, featured some of the world‘s top players including the 26-goal World Polo League‘s Pablo MacDonough and Juan Martin Nero, was held in a purpose-built desert arena in the Equestrian Village.
The eight teams, featuring a record 24 players from 12 countries, were AlUla, Richard Mille, Saudia, SAB, Bentley, Dadan, Kaybar and Tayma. AlUla finished third and Tayma was fourth.
Top women‘s players Nina Clarkin of Great Britain and Lia Salvo of Argentina gave a ladies polo clinic to promote polo for women in Saudi Arabia. In 2022, Ganzi was the only woman playing in the tournament. This year there were seven.
The four-day desert tournament was a collaboration between the Saudi Polo Federation, Royal Commission for AlUla, title sponsor and tournament timekeeper Richard Mille and La Dolfina Polo Team. The tournament is a part of the commission’s commitment to promote the country’s heritage, culture and arts in addition to its equestrian commitment to reinforce Saudi Arabia‘s historic ties to its horsemanship heritage. The tournament was also held in 2020 and 2022.
„We are incredibly proud to have hosted the third edition of Richard Mille AlUla Desert Polo, it was a brilliant occasion for everyone connected,“ said Ziad AlSuhaibani, Chief Sports Officer, Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU). „The on-field competition was magnificent and players, visitors, and media alike really enjoyed a unique experience, one exclusive to AlUla that can’t be found elsewhere on the international polo circuit.
„We are working towards Richard Mille AlUla Desert Polo being a world-class competition that people travel to from all over the world. It’s true that we’re in the early stages of this endeavor. However, we’ve reached our development targets to date.
„Improvements were made to the competition, arena, and entire set-up this time around, and we have big ambitions for the future. We are committed to bringing more of the best players and teams to compete while increasing interest, attendance, media coverage and international exposure. We are growing the sport in AlUla and this competition is central to our efforts and progress.“
Throughout the tournament, luxury hospitality and live entertainment with local musicians honored Arabian culture and heritage for the complete desert polo experience.
Faisal Bin Dowees, CEO of SPF, said the strong audience attendance was instrumental to the tournament’s success, pointing out the local community’s enduring relationship with equestrian sports dating back thousands of years.
„Polo has remained firmly embedded in the hearts and minds of the Saudi population,“ he said. „Interest in the sport is as high as ever and we are looking forward to presenting more opportunities four our people to participate and compete in the near future.“
In 2022 AlUla won. AlUla (HRH Prince Salman bin Sultan bin Salman, Mohammed Al Habtoor, Adolfo Cambiaso) rallied from a three-goal deficit to defeat Richard Mille (Noor Abu Khadra, Melissa Ganzi, Pablo MacDonough), 5-4.
Ganzi will finish her overseas competition at the Jan. 26-28 39th Snow Polo World Cup St. Moritz along with her son Grant and husband Marc. Melissa Ganzi will play with Adrian Laplacette Jr., Alejandro Novillo Astrada and her son on Team World Polo League. Marc Ganzi will play with Santos Bollini, Martin Jauregui and Freddie Mannix on Team Flexjet. Ganzi finished runner-up with her Bentley teammates Martin Jauregui and Alejandro Novillo Astrada in the 21st Bendura Bank Snow Polo World Cup Kitzbuehel in Austria earlier this month.
During the winter polo season, Grand Champions Polo Club, the nation‘s largest and most innovative USPA-sanctioned polo club nestled in the heart of the world‘s winter equestrian capital, hosts a wide range of tournaments: 6, 8, 12, 20, and 26-goal leagues, GCPC Polo School Women‘s Weekly Polo League, WCT Finals, several PTF junior tournaments, World Polo League, World Polo League Pride and Sunset Chukkers & Cocktails at both Grand Champions and Santa Rita.
The season‘s biggest highlight is the sixth season of the World Polo League, the only 26-goal polo played outside of Argentina, featuring some of the world‘s top players including 10-goalers Pablo MacDonough, Jeta Castagnola and Juan Martin Nero, former 10-goaler Gonzalito Pieres, Alejandro Novillo Astrada and hometown favorite Nic Roldan, the second highest ranked American player at 8 goals. The WPL filled the void created when the U.S. Polo Association, the sport‘s governing body, announced it was lowering high goal polo to 18-22 goals and would not have 26-goal polo.
Other high goal season highlights are the Feb. 1-11 Sterling Cup (20 goals), Feb. 1-March 31 USPA Butler Handicap (18-22 goals), Feb. 7-24 $100,000 World Cup (0-40 goals) and Feb. 27-March 10 Santa Rita Abierto (20 goals).
Other January tournaments are the Metropolitan 6 Goal Cup, Aspen Valley 8-Goal and Limited Edition 12-Goal Series. The GCPC Women‘s Weekly Women‘s Polo League also gets under way Jan. 24 and runs through April. It is the longest running women‘s league in the world.
Grand Champions and Santa Rita Polo Farm is the largest and most unique private 102-acre polo facility in Wellington with 212 stalls in nine self-contained barns, two tracks, five climate-controlled tack rooms, vet room, staff quarters, guest house and four polo fields with state-of-the-art underground irrigation and short work arena. The club has 11 well-manicured world-class fields at GCPC and Santa Rita.
The winter season will be live-streamed on Wellington-based CTV Sports. Grand Champions is the only USPA club live streaming all of its tournaments.
Grand Champions Polo Club caters to men, women and youth polo players at all levels. Its‘ expert staff can customize a complete playing experience including horses, pros and certified umpires in addition to lessons and practice sessions as part of its‘ Polo On Demand program.
The Polo School, now located at the former Pony Express facility, operates in Wellington January through May and September through November. The stand-alone USPA-sanctioned polo club is dedicated to teaching polo to all ages, particularly grass roots youth. Its mission is to provide individuals opportunities in polo at every economic and ability level. The Polo School has nurtured several junior, men and women polo players now playing in the pro and amateur ranks since its inception.
For more information on leagues or Polo School contact Director of Operations Juan Bollini at 561-346-1099 or Cale Newman at 561-876-2930.
By Sharon Robb
Photos by Alexander Sherwin and Saudi Polo Federation