The inaugural World Polo League is less than a month away from making its debut at Grand Champions Polo Club and Valiente Polo Farm.
By Sharon Robb
WPL Commissioner Dale Smicklas said Friday eight team sponsors have already committed and the total may reach 10 or 11 before the 26-goal league’s debut with the Feb. 6-17 season-opening All-Star Challenge.
“We have eight teams now,” Smicklas said. “Melissa Ganzi, Marc Ganzi, Grant Ganzi, Bob and Rob Jornayvaz are fielding teams along with Nacho Figueras and his Argentina-based Cria Yatay and Canada-based Alegria.
“The eighth team will be a satellite team which is going to be a unique concept with a lot of potential,” Smicklas said. “A team sponsor from Europe will have three pros and string of horses provided to him or her. All that sponsor has to do is bring a helmet and boots. We’re not just looking for team sponsors in the U.S. It is the World Polo League and it’s a big world out there.”
Co-founded by Grand Champions owners Marc and Melissa Ganzi and Valiente Polo Farm owner Bob Jornayvaz, the World Polo League features the world’s top player Adolfo Cambiaso and at least three other 10-goalers in the only 26-goal league in not only Wellington, but the United States.
The exciting new league will run from Feb. 6 through April 15 and will not only fill the void but preserve the highest level of polo and its rich tradition in the U.S.
The void was created when the U.S. Polo Association, the sport’s governing body, announced it was lowering high goal polo to 18-22 goals at International Polo Club Palm Beach for three years and would not have 26-goal tournaments including the C.V. Whitney Cup, USPA Gold Cup and U.S. Open.
“This World Polo League will be about team owners all working for the good of the sport,” Smicklas said. “The owners should be able to have significant input in all aspects of the league. The team owners and players will play a tremendous role in how we operate.
“It will be about taking care of those owners, players, grooms and all participants as well. We want to listen to them. Throughout history they have always provided the teams that played the sport. These are the people who have financially provided the teams that allowed us to watch the highest goal polo in America. They have always been responsible for high goal polo but never really had a voice in how polo is run. The time has come.”
The WPL, with 14 tournament-quality fields to play on and three other pratice fields, opens with the Feb. 6-17 All-Star Challenge. A first-of-its-kind draw party will feature team owners drawing for all-star players. The remaining WPL tournaments are the Feb. 20-March 3 Founders Cup, March 6-24 Palm Beach Open and March 27-April 14 Triple Crown of Polo.
The WPL featured games will be held Sundays at 3 p.m. Several games will also be held throughout the week at various times. Admission is free along with food and refreshments. Smicklas said there may be plans for fans to purchase tailgate spots to guarantee they have the same spot every Sunday.
Smicklas is well-rooted in the sport. His pro career spans more than 20 years during the glory days of polo. The former 8-goaler was one of the top American players and competed throughout the world including Argentina, England and the U.S. In 1987, he was a member of Silver Eagle-Carlsberg that won the $100,000 International Gold Cup at Royal Palm Polo Club and also reached the Rolex Gold Cup finals before losing to White Birch. He won the C.V. Whitney Cup and International Gold Cup. He played mostly for Michelob Polo.
Smicklas said when he was playing during the old Palm Beach Polo Country Club polo days under Bill Ylvisaker only two tournaments were sanctioned by the USPA. He stressed “this is a league and not a competing association.
“We don’t have anything limiting us right now,” he said. “Obviously, the first year we will be constantly evolving and thinking about how to improve the product. We don’t want a governing body that tells us ‘here is how it’s going to happen, here’s how it’s going to go.’
“These team owners have their own league and will do whatever is best for marketing the sport of polo. They won’t be hindered by rules we would rather not use or are not good for the game. We want to do our own thing. The USPA is very good at some of the things they do.
“When we first rolled this out last March we said we don’t intend to compete with the USPA although it seems like that, it’s not our intention. We never said anyone playing at IPC are not welcome. We want everyone to know they can play. The WPL has no animosity with the IPC or USPA. We just want to do our own thing our own way.”
Smicklas is working with the WPL’s exclusive professional umpires during January. “We know which rules we will use,” Smicklas said. There will also be practice games at the end of the month for the players and umpires to adjust to the simplified rules. Smicklas said the rules will help speed up the flow of the game. The game will be simple to follow from a spectator aspect and easy to officiate.
Smicklas is also working with live streaming companies ChukkerTV and Horseplay.
“The live streaming will be second to none out there,” Smicklas said. “It will be as good as anything ever seen in polo. I have met with those guys and it’s going to be the best of both worlds. It’s a fantastic combination.”
The WPL hopes to resurrect some of the traditions that went on during polo’s heyday including weekly team asados.
“The traditions got lost through the years,” Smicklas said. “We want it to be like the old days with camaraderie among teams. Twenty-six polo is here to stay.”
Grand Champions, the nation’s largest polo club, will host 22 tournaments during the winter season: 6, 8, 12, 20, and 0 to 40 goals, WCT Final and women’s weekly league at Grand Champions and 26-goal at both Grand Champions and Valiente.
“That’s the most polo in the U.S.,” said Smicklas, who said one of his most popular tournaments is the $100,000 World Cup set for March 3-24. The tournament, open to teams 0-to-40 goal on handicap, is similar to the Copa Republica in Argentina where teams of any handicap from 0-to-40 can compete and several WPL teams are expected to compete.
Last year in one of the most exciting finishes in club history, Palm Beach Illustrated (Carlitos Gracida, Juan Monteverde, Peco Polledo, MVP Tommy Collingwood) won the coveted $100,000 World Cup presented by Audi. The defending champion and underdog going into the final won its second consecutive title with a thrilling 10-9 victory over Grand Champions (Grant Ganzi, Juancito Bollini, Juan Martin Nero, Alejandro Novillo Astrada).
Smicklas competed in five World Polo Cup finals at Palm Beach Polo, winning two titles in 1991 and 1993.
“I love that tournament,” Smicklas said. “There was no greater thrill for me to play in two 30-goal polo tournaments in America and win…no greater thrill.”
The winter polo season at Grand Champions attracts a large international field of players from all corners of the world including India, Mexico, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Ecuador, Nigeria, Uruguay, Chile, Nicaragua, England, Azerbaijan and U.S.
World reknown polo announcer Jan-Erik Franck will return to Grand Champions and call the action at the prestigious World Polo League along with other tournaments.
Grand Champions Polo Club and Santa Rita Polo Farm’s 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, created by Melissa Ganzi when the club first opened the turnkey facility.
Grand Champions Polo Club and Santa Rita Polo Farm is the largest and most unique private 102-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.
The Polo School 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. Headed by Director of Operations Juan Bollini, The Polo School has nurtured several men and women polo players now playing in the pro and amateur ranks since its inception.