By Sharon Robb
WELLINGTON, Fl., April 5, 2018---The highly-anticipated opening day of the Sunny Hale's Legacy WCT Final lived up to expectations Wednesday at Grand Champions Polo Club.
In front of a good crowd, opening day featured the open division round-robin competition between between San Saba (Dawn Jones, 6, Clarissa Echezarreta, 6, Alyson Poor, 4, Clara Cassino, 7); Chateau D'esclans (Riley Ganzi, 2, Mia Cambiaso, 5, Mia Novillo Astrada, 4T, Nina Vestey Clarkin, 10) and CrossFit El Cid (Paige Boone McCabe, 6, Cecelia Cochran, 5, Sarah Wiseman, 8, Tiffany Busch, 6).
In the opening two chukkers, Chateau D'esclans, playing for the first time as a team with no practice sessions, started strong with a 4-1 victory over San Saba with two goals from Clarkin, including one banked off the goal post; one goal by Novillo Astrada and one goal by Ganzi.
In the next two chukkers, San Saba regained its rhythm and offensive attack to tie CrossFit El Cid, 3-3. Cassino led San Saba with two goals and Jones had one. Busch had two goals and Wiseman added one for CrossFit El Cid.
"The quality of play was the top, this is what we are aiming for, this is what we are dreaming about," Jones said. "We are making plays and working as a team. We are trying to mark our best.
"It was amazing today," Jones said. "I lost concentration because I was watching Nina Clarkin play. I just love to watch her play. It's an honor. Between her, Sunny Hale and Caroline Anier...these players when you get a chance to play with them, you can learn. I am so happy to be here."
In the final two chukkers, Busch scored with 49 seconds remaining to enable CrossFit El Cid to tie Chateau D'esclans, 4-4. McCabe and Busch each had two goals for CrossFit El Cid. Clarkin led Chateau D'esclans with two goals. Novillo Astrada and Cambiaso each had one goal.
It was the first time Clarkin competed in the U.S. since the Nov. 2012 U.S.-England game held before the International Cup at Grand Champions. Clarkin played against Melissa Ganzi, Gillian Johnston, Busch and Hale.
Clarkin enjoyed playing with three up-and-coming teenagers.
"This is a great team," said the 10-goaler. "We played really well. We played three good chukkers and one bad one at the end. The other team came out and changed their polo and we were too slow to adapt. We were just loose on the man. But I think we will come back better on Friday. Hopefully, now that we have played together and know our horses we will have a better run."
Clarkin enjoyed not only playing with the girls but coaching them on the field as well.
"The great thing is they all really listened," Clarkin said. "They are so talented and with a bit of direction they really played fantastic. It's really exciting to me to play with young, talented people that have such big futures. I am just delighted. I have been traveling around playing ladies polo and all I see is loads of talent. It's just really exciting for me to see what's coming after."
Clarkin was also impressed with the quality of play in the open division.
"I think it was great," Clarkin said. "There's always room for improvement. I think we could all up our game a bit. We definitely have more to give. It's good polo, fun to play and competitive."
Clarkin said she is honored to play in the WCT Final honoring Sunny Hale's legacy.
"Sunny was my idol and inspiration," Clarkin said. "I remember one of the first ladies tournaments I played I was 16 or 17 and thinking, 'wow, she's a dream and I want to play and go like her.' As we went around the circuit we became friends and I was constantly inspired by her, her talent, dedication and drive and also what a great person she was.
"I think that's what I always want to try and improve in myself is to make sure I am a good sports person, on and off the field and an inspiration. It doesn't always happen with the adrenaline out there. But she was the ultimate sports woman on and off the field."
Fathers and male pro players are impressed with the quality of women's polo.
"I really enjoyed watching," said pro Michel Dorignac, who watched from the San Saba players' tent with veteran coach Luis Echezarreta. "They were three really good, balanced teams out there with good rhythm. I think it's great what they organized. Women's polo has grown so much over the last few years."
The open division continuous round-robin resumes on Friday at 4:30 p.m. The top two finishers advance into Sunday's final at 12:30 p.m.
On Thursday the 16-goal and 8-goal level games get under way at Santa Rita Polo Farm.
The 8-goal level begins play at 10 a.m. Grand Champions (Summer Kneece, A, Gracie Brown, 2, Malia Bryan, 3, Sydney Jordan, 1) and Catena (Slaney O'Hanlon, 3, Malicia Von Falkenhausen, 2, Catherine Roze, 1, Olivia Uetztrich, 2) will compete and meet again in Sunday's final at 10 a.m.
The 16-Goal division play also features one game at 11:15 a.m. between Hawaii Polo Life (Olivia Uetztrich, 2, Pamela Flanagan, 3, Mia Cambiaso, 5, Courtney Asdourain, 6) and G-String/Amista Polo (Hope Arellano, 4, Gillian Johnston, 6, Malia Bryan, 3, Olivia Merlos, 2). The teams will meet again in Sunday's final at 11:15 a.m.
After a year's hiatus, the WCT Final has attracted a Who's Who of women players. Twenty-eight women are competing in three levels of play.
Jones praised the efforts of Grand Champions owners Marc and Melissa Ganzi, USPA Florida Circuit Governor, and Dale Smicklas, WCT Commissioner and his wife Joanne Smicklas, WCT Ambassador for putting together the four-day event.
"There is a great group of people here watching and there is a buzz around town about the women's polo," Jones said. "For a transition year this is pretty impressive. And thanks to Grand Champions and Melissa and Marc, Juan Bollini, Juan Olivera and Dale and Joanne Smicklas. They did a remarkable job putting this together and organizing this."
The tournament is named in honor of legendary Hall of Famer Sunset "Sunny" Hale. The WCT is the only women's polo event of its kind. The largest polo league in the world has grown in popularity since its inception in 2005. The WCT Final, adult and junior qualifiers have U.S. and international players with more than 20 qualifiers in the U.S. alone.
Hale, the first woman in U.S. history to win the U.S. Open in 2000 with Outback and part-time Wellington resident, died February 26, 2017 in Norman, Okla. due to complications from cancer. She was 48.
Women's polo remains the largest growing sector in polo, aided by the WCT Series which has helped consolidate women's polo and promote high quality competition throughout the world.
Catena USA has been the official timepiece of the WCT Final since its inception. Catena USA owner Bill Kraft is one of women's polo biggest supporters and valued sponsor.
Grand Champions Polo Club and Santa Rita Polo Farm is the largest and most unique private 100-acre polo facility in Wellington with 120 stalls in five self-contained barns, exercise track, five climate-controlled tack rooms, vet room, staff quarters, guest house and polo fields with state-of-the-art underground irrigation and stick-and-ball fields.
During fall, winter and spring seasons, Grand Champions Polo Club, the nation's largest club with 10 well-manicured fields, hosts polo tournaments ranging from six to 26-goal in addition to special events.
The club features monthly 6, 8 and 12-goal tournaments and women's weekly league play during the winter season in addition to two 16-20 tournaments, $50,000 National 12 Goal, $100,000 World Cup winner-take-all 0-40-goal tournament, Sunny Hale's Legacy WCT Final and USPA National President's Cup.
During the 2017 winter season Grand Champions attracted a record 72 teams and another 18 teams during the spring season.
Grand Champions 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 Club Hotline is 561-644-5050. It will be updated every day at 8 a.m. for both players and fans.
2018 Winter Schedule
(Subject to change because of weather and scheduling conflicts).
APRIL: Las Acacias 4-8 Goal; $100,000 World Cup (0-40); USPA National President's Cup
Sunny Hale's Legacy WCT Final at Grand Champions: Thursday, 8-Goal, Grand Champions vs. Catena, 10 a.m., At Santa Rita Polo Farm and 16-Goal, Hawaii Polo Life vs. G String-Amista Polo, 11:15 a.m., Santa Rita Polo Farm; Friday, Open, San Saba vs. Chateau D'esclans vs. CrossFit El Cid, Grand Champions, 4:30 p.m.; Sunday, 8-Goal Final, Grand Champions vs. Catena, 10 a.m., 16-Goal Final, Hawaii Polo Life vs. G String-Amista Polo, 11:15 a.m., Open Final, Round Robin Finalists, 12:30 p.m.