By United States Polo Association. Photos © David Lominska/International Polo Club.
Mark Bellissimo and the International Polo Club Palm Beach (IPC) in Wellington, Florida, hosted the final installment of the USPA-sanctioned and highly-innovative Gladiator Polo™ arena event, presented by U.S. Polo Assn. on Saturday, April 8.
“The sport evolved every week. We did little tweaks to make the game more exciting, and I think the crowd tonight was fantastic—they were really engaging. Unlike a lot of equestrian competitions in general, the crowd was clapping at great plays and paying attention the whole time. I think the level of sport was remarkable and I think this is going to grow.” – Mark Bellissimo
Spectators and polo fans of all ages crowded into the Equestrian Village of Palm Beach International Equestrian Center (PBIEC), also known as “The Coliseum,” to witness some of the highest-ranked arena polo with an unprecedented $250,000 prize purse accumulated over four months.
Entering the Gladiator Polo™ Final, undefeated Spartacus had accrued an impressive $72,000 in three games while Spiculus losing only to Spartacus in a previous matchup had amassed $54,000. In the final showdown teams battled for an additional $34,500 for the winning team and $15,750 for the losing team.
Now widely recognized as the Gladiator uniform, both ponies and players donned matching wraps, saddle pads, equine head sleazys and helmet covers to create a cohesive look for each Gladiator team. Spiculus in purple consisted of 9-goaler Sebastian Merlos and 7-goalers Pelon Escapite and Mariano Obregon (replacing Juan Martin Zubia).
Pitted against Spiculus was Spartacus, in red, led by 10-goaler Tommy Biddle along with 7-goalers Jason Crowder and Felipe Viana*. The two all-star teams, named after Roman Gladiators, played on the flat over six five-minute chukkers of continuous play.
“We changed our strategy a bit because we changed our team line up. Today was a different day, and that is the way of polo. The last time we played Spartacus we had Juan Martin Zubia he is a different style of player. Mariano Obregon came in and he is a little more physical. I think both our teams were very strong with several good players, but today ended in our favor.” – Spiculus’ Pelon Escapite
The evenly-matched teams began the competition with a low-scoring and controlled first two chukkers of play. Escapite put the first goal on the board for Spiculus, expertly threading the needle on a penalty 2 conversion that went between defender Biddle’s reins and saddle to goal.
Merlos followed up with the first two-pointer of the game and Spiculus seized an early three-goal lead. Spartacus’ Viana then took over, scoring a field goal followed by a two-pointer to tie the score 3-all. Spiculus dominated the third with a series of two-pointers that brought the crowd to their feet, two from Merlos and one from Escapite.
Viana was once again able to keep Spartacus in the game dribbling past not one, but two players for the score. However, Spiculus confidently entered the half with a comfortable 10-5 lead.
“It is a very physical game, if you get very technical, it makes the game really slow. We are making it spectator friendly, so you have to let the little fouls go. We just try to be safe, and make sure to put on a great performance for the crowd.” –Pelon Escapite of Spiculus
Escapite impressed in the fourth, scoring a two-pointer and two field goals, while Biddle contributed his first two tallies on the day. This allowed an overpowering Spiculus to double their lead 14-7.
Spiculus continued to keep Spartacus at bay in the fifth, Merlos further widening the lead with two more field goals and exceptional defending in the back. Spiculus led by a substantial margin 16-7 moving into the final chukker, but Spartacus could not be counted out as the game could easily turn with an effective use of two-pointers.
Viana immediately found the goal to stage a comeback, but he was quickly subdued by Merlos. With 30 seconds left on the clock, Viana managed to score a final two-pointer for Spartacus, but it was too little too late as Spiculus ran away with the victory 17-10.
Most Valuable Player was awarded to Sebastian Merlos for an outstanding performance as the game high-scorer with a total nine goals, including three two-pointers.
“We lost to them in our second game by a few goals, that day Tommy had an amazing game. We learned from that, and knew what we had to do. Today we worked well together.” – Spiculus’ Sebastian Merlos
“What was nice about this event was that we were able to bring in sponsors that normally wouldn’t be able to look at polo as an option,” said Katherine Bellissimo. “They loved coming, they brought their customers and they got a lot of exposure with it. If you look at the trophy backdrop you will see there are 40 sponsors on there. Everybody really enjoyed it and they are looking forward to coming back next year.”
When asked about the future development of Gladiator Polo™ Mark Bellissimo answered,” Next year, we are going to have eight teams with team owners and a draft, so the teams will be formulated that way. We are hoping to do a heavily televised circuit with shows each week for 10 weeks. I think this is great traction to use both nationally and internationally.”
Escapite echoed these sentiments, “It is amazing what they are putting together here, Mark [Bellissimo] and his associates. What they are doing is great for polo, you have a good crowd and sponsorship and I think it is revolutionizing the game.”
* Felipe Viana is a Team USPA member. 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.