Story: United States Polo Association
PHOTOS CREDIT: ©David Lominska/United States Polo Association.
Systematically defeating each of their opponents in the C.V. Whitney Cup and USPA Gold Cup®, Pilot carried their undefeated streak into the final leg of the GAUNTLET OF POLO™, seeking not only the prestige associated with the inaugural title, but the potential $1,000,000 dollar prize. Producing a stellar performance, Pilot advanced 5-0 to face finalist Las Monjitas (5-0) for the CaptiveOne U.S. Open Polo Championship® Final on Sunday, April 21, at the International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida. Dominating the game from the first chukker with unrivaled offensive power plays, Pilot capped off their flawless 22-goal season with a decisive 12-7 victory and solidified their place in history as the first GAUNTLET champions.
“The key for our team is a great organization, but it extends all the way to the grooms, trainers and pilots who take care of the horses. Our team manager Gonzalo de la Fuente put it all together and without that we would not be here today. It did not happen by accident, we just did the best we could every day.” – Curtis Pilot
Exploding from the first throw in, brothers Facundo and Gonzalito Pieres secured two field goals within the first few minutes of play, setting in motion an offensive freight train that Las Monjitas would have difficulty stopping. Adding an automatic Penalty 1 and another quick field goal from Matias Gonzalez*, Pilot assumed a commanding lead with Las Monjitas yet to find their way onto the scoreboard. Retaliating against Pilot’s aggressive onslaught, Francisco Elizalde was determined to break through defenders and hammered a neckshot between the posts resulting in Las Monjitas’ first goal of the game to end the opening chukker 4-1. Mirroring one another in the second, Elizalde and Facundo Pieres each added a Penalty 3 conversion to their tallies to maintain the gap. Although several of Las Monjitas’ shot attempts continued to elude their mark in the first half, the team successfully shutdown Pilot’s 10-goaler from scoring in the third. Picking up the only goal of the chukker on a penalty conversion, Elizalde narrowed the deficit to two, securing all of Las Monjitas’ goals and ending the half 5-3.
Returning for the second half of play, Pilot regrouped to play an undeniably strong fourth chukker similar in intensity to their first. Missing the opening Penalty 4 opportunity, Facundo Pieres made up for it with two consecutive field goals, followed closely by an impressive neckshot from Gonzalez from over 100 yards out. Continuing to lead the charge for this team, Elizalde countered with a field goal of his own, struggling to narrow the deficit with Pilot’s rapid fire of goals. Relentless in their pursuit of the GAUNTLET title, Pilot continued to increase their lead, Facundo Pieres on a run with blistering speed past his competitors to score. Striking for the first time in the fifth, Hilario Ulloa made a strategic play to put one in within the last 40 seconds, Pilot doubling up Las Monjitas headed into the sixth 10-5. His confidence evident in a demonstration of exceptional skill and agility in the final chukker, Gonzalito Pieres stole the ball from Ulloa and continued his drive to put it between the posts, extending Pilot’s lead to six with four-and-a-half minutes remaining. “Gonzalito had an amazing day,” Facundo Pieres said of his older brother. “I told him after the game that, for me, it was his best game of the season and I was very happy because we needed him. He’s a player that in important moments is always there.”
Ultimately Pilot’s force powered by the Pieres brothers could not be contained, Las Monjitas unable to build the momentum needed to overtake them with Ulloa’s final two goals. Sweeping the final 12-7, Pilot earned the $250,000 purse (plus a $500,000 bonus for all three tournaments), and the honor of having their names inscribed on the inaugural GAUNTLET trophy.
Having only played with the Pieres brothers in the 20-goal previously, Curtis Pilot was overjoyed to win the GAUNTLET in its inaugural season. “When I first came into the sport I’d never ridden a horse until I was 49. I’ve been playing for about 10 years now and I always wanted to play with Facundo and Gonzalito Pieres. The first time we ever played in the 22-goal we won every game and I couldn’t be any happier. It’s like a fairy tale and a dream come true for all of us, the whole team.”
Reflecting over the course of the season, Facundo Pieres talked about the pressure to win the Gauntlet as the only team eligible following their C.V. Whitney Cup win. “It was a long season for both the horses and our team and we have been doing great, but if we lost today it was going to be tough for us, so we felt some pressure to win today,” he revealed. “We won 16 games in a row and you cannot do that with just the four of us. We needed the horses, vets, grooms and everybody to make this happen.”
Not having won the U.S. Open Polo Championship® with his brother since 2009, Facundo Pieres also spoke about what the win meant to the team personally. “It was a very special day for us as brothers also,” Facundo Pieres said. “It was a really special year especially for Curtis Pilot and his family. I knew how important it was for him to win and to feel this happy energy so I wanted to do that for him.”
Extending his appreciation to substitute Mia Bray*, Curtis Pilot wanted to give her a special thank you for playing in his absence at the beginning of the C.V. Whitney Cup. “I didn’t get to play the first three games and I want to give Mia Bray a shout out,” Pilot said. “She stepped in and made sure that we won the first three games so that we could be here today.”
Most Valuable Player of the CaptiveOne U.S. Open Polo Championship® Final was awarded to Pilot’s Matias Gonzalez. GAUNTLET OF POLO™ Most Valuable Player was presented to Las Monjitas’ Francisco Elizalde.
“I can check that off my bucket list,” Gonzalez said with a smile about winning MVP. “This is a dream come true, I don’t think I can put it in any other way because it’s just a huge honor to win the GAUNTLET here in Wellington where I was raised.”
Facundo Pieres’ bay mare Mega Chistosa (Simpatia x Sportivo), ridden by Pieres in the first and sixth chukkers, walked away with the Best Playing Pony blanket.
Fans are encouraged to relive the action of the 2019 U.S. Open Polo Championship® Final on Sunday, April 28 at 2:00pm ET on CBS Sports and CBS 12 locally. The final will also be aired on Monday, April 29, on CBS Sports Network at 8:00pm ET, and again on Eurosport and Dsport at 6:30pm CT with a TVG broadcast to follow in May.
Although the 22-goal season at IPC has concluded, the USPA Polo Network will livestream the Westchester Cup between the United States and England on Sunday, April 28, at 3:00pm ET on uspolo.org, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
*Matias Gonzalez and Mia Bray are members of Team USPA. 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.
About the United States Polo Association®
The U.S. Polo Association was organized and exists for the purposes of promoting the game of polo, coordinating the activities of its Member Clubs and Registered Players, arranging and supervising polo tournaments, competitions and games, and providing rules, handicaps, and conditions for those tournaments, competitions, and games including the safety and welfare of participants and mounts. Founded in 1890, the United States Polo Association (USPA) is the national governing body for the sport of polo. USPA is currently comprised of almost 300 member clubs with thousands of individual members, and oversees 40 national tournaments. For more information, please visit uspolo.org.