By Sharon Robb
WELLINGTON, Fla., November 26, 2018---In an exciting finish, Team USA remained undefeated with a hardfought 9-7.5 victory over Azerbaijan in the International Cup Saturday at Grand Champions Polo Club.
In front of a packed house, the team of Marc Ganzi, Grant Ganzi, Jeff Blake and Juan Bollini led for most of the game to turn back the upset-minded Azerbaijan team of Rashad Hasanov, Elcin Jamalli, Andres (Lala) Laplacette, Adrian Laplacette and reserve Amil Namazov.
It was an unprecedented seventh consecutive victory in the international match and one of the closest margins of victory in a regulation game. Since 2012, the U.S. has defeated England, Chile, Mexico, South Africa, Uruguay and Brazil. It was one of the most experienced U.S. teams in event history.
Blake, a three-time U.S. Open champion and Team USA captain, was named Most Valuable Player in his International Cup debut. Blake, at six goals was the highest rated member of the team and winningest American-born Floridian of all time in polo.
"It was some added pressure being my first time in the international match knowing they had won six straight," Blake said. "Marc scored some big goals at important moments. Grant played very smart and disciplined. Juan was phenomenal at back the whole game especially at the end when we left him alone with three Azeris and he won the play."
Marc Ganzi scored a game-high four goals. Blake added three goals and Grant Ganzi had two goals. Argentine cousins Adrian and Andres Laplacette and nephews of Juan Bollini, shared scoring honors for Azerbaijan each with two goals.
Bollini, at 56 the oldest player in the lineup, replaced his son Juancito Bollini for the U.S. The former 8-goaler from Argentina was granted U.S. citizenship a week ago. His son was injured during the USPA National 20-Goal tournament and unable to play.
"For me to be an American and play for America is a real dream come true, it's like a movie," Bollini said. "I wanted to do well for my son, I wanted to win and have him on the podium with me.
"I am very proud to play for the USA, it never crossed my mind I would be able to do it," Bollini said. "I was so excited, I couldn't sleep. I felt like I was playing the final of the British Open. We knew it would be a very tough game.They have a lot of good players."
Ganzi, a junior at Lynn University and Team USPA member, won his third consecutive International Cup. He wears the American flag on his helmet.
At 20, Ganzi is the youngest member of Team USA. Ganzi, a third generation polo player first won in 2016, playing alongside his father Marc, a 2009 U.S. Open champion, winning his first International Cup against Uruguay.
"The win takes on added meaning when you play for the U.S.," Ganzi said. "It's always a huge deal for me when I step on the stage and play for the U.S. This is as big as it gets and I'm just so happy to win again."
Team USA dominated most of the hardfought, physical game
"We played really well in the first half and pretty good in the fourth chukker, the last chukker was really not our best," Ganzi said. "They clearly saved some horses for the last chukker knowing that maybe they would be in a tough spot. We came out strong when it mattered to secure the victory."
Azerbaijan made it interesting late in the game. Trailing 8-4.5 with 1:27 left in the fourth chukker, the aggressive Azeris scored three unanswered goals before Elcin Jamalli missed a scoring opportunity and Marc Ganzi scooped it up to score an insurance goal.
"It was a great last chukker, we were close," said Azeri Andres (Lala) Laplacette. "It was a very exciting finish. We came to win. We are a strong team and had a really good time.
"We represented our country well. The American team was very well-organized. And of course, they know the field, they know the horses, they know everything how it works here. We are visitors. I think they got scared a little bit at the end.
"Besides the game, the hospitality was very good, everything was very well-organized, the reception was amazing... this event was so big," Laplacette said.
Two Wellington-based Santa Rita Polo Farm-owned horses were honored. The American Polo Horse Association Best Playing Pony was Nadia, a 5-year-old chestnut mare played by Marc Ganzi, and Grand Champions Best Playing Pony was Fendi, an 11-year-old dark bay mare played by Adrian Laplacette.
The International Cup is a holiday tradition that ends the biggest week of fall polo and season at Grand Champions.
Azerbaijan, known as the Land of Fire and Ice, is one of the most improved polo teams in the world and it showed against Team USA. Recently, Azerbaijan finished runner-up to Italy in the 14-team FIP European Championship. Two years ago, it won the European Championship in arena polo.
"It was a great game and these players represented Azerbaijan well," said polo visionary, promoter and snow polo founder Reto Gaudenzi. He brought the first FIP Arena Polo European Championship to Baku.
"At the beginning the USA was dominating the game but then they caught up and at the end it was a very close call. I think by being in America and playing against America, Azerbaijan had really a fantastic game. I think they are already a power in Europe. They are improving every day. I think it's great to see a new emerging country which is actually one of the oldest polo countries in the world because polo comes from that region. It was all the Persian Empire at one time."
Last year the team of Grant Ganzi, Carlitos Gracida, Julio Arellano and Mike Azzaro defeated Brazil, 9-7. Arellano was named Most Valuable Player for the third consecutive year. Before that, Nic Roldan was a three-time MVP winner.
Other past U.S. team victories and rosters featuring a Who's Who of polo players are: 2016, U.S. 6, Uruguay, 3, Marc Ganzi, Grant Ganzi, Julio Arellano, Nic Roldan; 2015, U.S. 12, South Africa 7, Marc Ganzi, Jeff Hall, Nic Roldan, Julio Arellano; 2014, U.S. 3, Mexico 2.5 and USA 2, Team USPA 1.5, Marc Ganzi, Wes Finlayson, Nic Roldan, Mason Wroe; MVP Roldan; 2013, U.S. 13, Chile 8, Marc Ganzi, Nic Roldan, Jeff Hall, Carlitos Gracida; MVP: Roldan; and 2012, U.S. 8.5, England 6, Marc Ganzi, Carlitos Gracida, Jeff Hall, Nic Roldan; MVP: Roldan.
Award-winning Ken-Rose Catering and Event Planning, serving clients for 25 years from the Treasure Coast to Miami-Dade, catered the VIP tent that also featured a custom-made cake by Jennifer Johnson, owner of Johnson's Custom Cakes of Wellington. Another sponsor was Perfect Vodka, the official VIP liquor. Owner Dennis Cunningham was one of the awards presenters.
Popular local singer Tom Blake, older brother of MVP Jeff Blake, gave a stirring rendition of the National Anthem. Azeri dancers entertained the crowd at halftime.
Proceeds from the doubleheader benefitted The Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame, a non-profit educational organization, dedicated to fostering an appreciation of the development, history and tradition of the sport of polo by collecting, preserving, exhibiting and interpreting its collections as well as honoring those who have made outstanding contributions to the sport.
World reknown polo announcer Jan-Erik Franck called the action and will return to Grand Champions for the much-anticipated winter season featuring the debut of the World Polo League. He will also call the Dec. 17-22 St. Regis World Snow Polo event at Aspen Valley Polo Club and Rio Grande Park.
Grand Champions and Santa Rita Polo Farm hosts polo tournaments ranging from six to 26-goal during the winter season in addition to special events at its well-manicured fields during the fall, winter and spring seasons.
Grand Champions Polo Club and Santa Rita Polo Farm cater 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 at the turnkey facility.
Club owners Marc and Melissa Ganzi, both accomplished players, take pride in teaching and sharing the exciting sport of polo with anyone interested in learning.
The Polo School, a 501c3 organization and stand-alone USPA club, is thriving at Grand Champions and Santa Rita Polo Farm. It 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. Scholarships are available. The Polo School operates in Wellington January through June and September through November.