WELLINGTON, Fl., March 2, 2017---Players got the chance to honor Sunny Hale the only way she would have wanted, by playing polo.
The Grand Champions Polo Club monthly women’s league final and consolation games for February were renamed the Sunset “Sunny” Hale Memorial Tournament held Wednesday at Santa Rita Polo Farm.
The part-time Wellington resident died Sundaynight in Norman, Okla. due to complications from cancer. She was 48.
With heavy hearts, sixteen players competed in honor of one of the sport’s pioneers and first woman in polo history to win the 26-goal U.S. Open in an era when the sport was male-dominated.
CrossFit/El Cid (Hope Arellano, Meghan Gracida, Slaney O’Hanlon, Cecilia Cochran) defeated Designer Hair by Nikki (Amy Huson, Ashley Emerson, Alyson Poor, Clarissa Echezarreta), 4-3.5.
In the consolation game, Scribble Horse (Kathy Iverson, Annabelle Begg, Kylie Sheehan, Laura Wilson) defeated Masai of Palm Beach (Lynn O’Connor, Marisa Bianchi, Alina Carta, Belinda Brody), 4-1, in the consolation.
Clarissa Echezarreta, another women’s polo pioneer, was named Tackeria Most Valuable Player. Lychee, ridden and owned by Cecilia Cochran, was named Polo Gear Best Playing Pony.
“I wish she had been here to see this,” Echezarreta said. “This was her vision for us. It is emotional today. I think it would be nice if everyone who has more experience and knowledge helps develop a younger player.”
A moment of silence was held before each game.
Every player on the four polo teams had been touched by Hale’s influence in the sport.
“I was crying during that moment of silence,” Belinda Brody of Masai of Palm Beach said. “Sunny is such an inspiration. It kills me that I am never going to be able to sit down and have a conversation with her and get words of advice from her when things get tough.
“It was important to play this today. This is her dream. She wants women’s polo and polo in general to succeed and become more public and better quality. Today you could see there were two open, pretty games of polo with good women players.”
Most players were friends of Hale, who was rated at five goals among men, the highest of any woman player in the sport’s history. Others were so motivated watching Hale play that they started playing.
Many of them have competed in qualifiers for the Women’s Championship Tournament (WCT), the largest women’s league in the world which Hale founded to help open the door and break down barriers for girls and women. The WCT final, now in its 12th year, is hosted by Melissa and Marc Ganzi in April at Grand Champions.
“We are so honored to play in this tournament,” said Scribble Horse patron Kathy Iverson, at 63, the oldest player in the league. She set the tone for women’s polo. She wanted us all to be good and have fun.”
“It’s definitely heart breaking, she was such an inspiration for me and everyone,” said Hope Arellano, 13, of CrossFit/El Cid and one of the sport’s up-and-coming players. “I knew she was watching over our game so I was trying to play good for her. I am going to try to carry on her legacy and help women’s polo.”
Added her father Julio Arellano, one of the top American players, “Sonny was awesome, I played with Sonny a lot. We got to win a lot of tournaments together and lose a lot of tournaments together.
“What she did for the sport was awesome. Hope got to play the WCT last year and Sunny gave her some tips. Any girl that grew up here that plays polo looked up to her as their idol and wanted to be like Sunny.”
Legendary Hall of Famer and former 10-goaler Memo Gracida watched his wife Meghan, who has only been playing for two years, compete in the final.
Gracida met Hale in California when she was 14 and invited her to play in high goal polo.
“Sunny was one of the wonderful people you meet in your life,” Gracida said. “She left a mark with everyone she met. She was super positive, dedicated, hard worker. Just a nice person all around.
“Now that we don’t have her, we realize how important she was for women’s polo and polo in general,” Gracida said. “She left a legacy. She left us a road to follow. In Argentina they are doing a memorial game for her in her behalf. I have tears in my eyes. She is greatly missed but not forgotten.”
The monthly polo league at Santa Rita was created by Alina Carta, one of the highest ranked women in the U.S. in the 1980s. Carta played with and against Hale in the U.S. and internationally including Singapore. Carta pitched the women's league idea to Melissa Ganzi, Florida Circuit Governor and Grand Champions Polo Club president who loved it.
“I will do whatever is needed to keep this going,” Carta said. “We have had a great two months. We look forward to March. We have a great group of girls. I think it was great they named today after Sunny. It’s just such a loss.”
“It wasn’t about winning today,” Brody said. “It was about having fun and playing good polo.”
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 only polo club in the U.S. to offer the unique program.
The Polo School at Grand Champions, a 501c3 organization, is dedicated to teaching polo to all ages, particularly grass roots youth. Its mission is to provide individuals opportunities in polo. The Polo School operates in Wellington January through June and September through November.
2017 WINTER SCHEDULE
(Subject to change because of weather and scheduling conflicts).
Aspen Valley Cup 8-Goal Final and Handicap, TBA.
Women’s League: Every Wednesday, 10 and 11 a.m., Santa Rita Polo Farm.
MARCH: $50,000 National 12-Goal Tournament (Single-elimination, winner take all).
MARCH: 3-25, Madelon Bourdieu Memorial (6 goal) and The Limited Edition 8-Goal Series; 3-25, The Top Pony 12-Goal Series.
MARCH 12: Boys & Girls Clubs of Palm Beach County, Inc. Celebrity Polo Charity Cup, 10 a.m.
APRIL 1-15: $100,000 World Cup Tournament (0-26 Goals), winner-take-all single elimination.
APRIL 1-25: Las Acacias (4-8 Goals), Women’s League, every Wednesday, 10 and 11 a.m.
APRIL 5-8: WCT Finals and Women’s Polo Week.
GRAND CHAMPIONS POLO CLUB
WHERE: 13444 Southfields Road, on the corner of South Shore Boulevard and Lake Worth Road, Wellington, 33414.
INFORMATION: For spectators, there are great field side views for tournament action and also the Grand Champions Polo Club Boutique. The club is home base for pro teams Audi, Flexjet and first-year team Casablanca. Everyone is welcome to watch every level of polo in a relaxed atmosphere that includes complimentary food and refreshments during the featured games of the winter, spring and fall tournament seasons and other special events. Admission is free except for some special events.