The Villages $50,000 International Cup a Homerun
By Alex Webbe
Twenty – five hundred excited spectators cheered throughout the 6 – chukker 30 goal $50,000 International Cup at the Villages Polo Club as eight of polo’s top players battled it out in a groundbreaking event that has changed the face of the Central Florida club. In a coordinated effort with Carlos Gracida and Michael Brown’s Gracida International Polo & Equestrian Ventures, The Villages Polo Club experienced its first taste of high goal polo, and they did it in style.
Through the efforts of Gracida International and the support of a myriad of sponsors, The villages hosted two teams, The Villages Gold (Roberto Gonzalez, Jeff Hall, Mike Azzaro and Luis Escobar) and The Villages Blue (Brandon Philips, Nick Roldan, Carlos Garcida and Matias Magrini) on one of the most exciting polo matches in the polo club’s eleven year reign.
Three hundred yards of golf carts (two deep in most cases) lined the East side of the field while the magnificent open – air stadium and adjoining sidelines accommodated one of the largest audiences in club history.
When the teams were introduced by the announcer and took a turn around the field the spectators jumped to their feet in thundering applause as the grateful players waved to the crowd.
“I’ve never seen so many golf carts in my life,” said 8-goaler Jeff Hall.
Local journalist Larry Woodward of the The Villages Daily Sun was surprised at the turnout.
“There were over 900 people here an hour before the game,” he offered, and this is football Saturday.”
The college games might have siphoned some local polo fans, but it did nothing to suppress their support and appreciation of the historic match.
Roberto Gonzalez (6) opened the scoring for The Villages Gold team after receiving a pass from Mike Azzaro (9), but Nick Roldan (8) backhanded a pass from Carlos Gracida (8) through the goal posts to knot it at 1-1. Each team continued to attack its opponent’s goal, but hard checking and resilient defense by both sides shut down any further scoring as the chukker ended in a 1-1 tie.
In spite of the fact that a number of players had flown in from Aiken, South Carolina to participate, high caliber mounts were provided through the organization of Gracida and with the assistance of Roberto Gonzalez and Luis Escobar. Strong runs and hard charges were the theme of the day as these top-level mounts provided thrills and excitement for all present.
Roldan converted a penalty shot to give the Blue team a 2-1 advantage, but the Gold team’s Azzaro retaliated by scoring on a penalty shot of his own, and the score was tied, 2-2.
Blue tried to press its attack but it would be Azzaro who would turn the tide with two consecutive goals for the Gold to lead 4-2 after two chukkers of play.
Settled in to the game, both sides attempted to take advantage of lightning scoring thrusts and well-placed passes, but the defenses held.
Runs and passes from Gracida and Brandon Phillips (5) were countered by defensive backshots and checks from Luis Escobar (7) and Hall. Probes by Matias Magrini (9) and
Roldan were turned aside by Roberto Gonzalez and Azzaro as the Gold team left the field at the half with a 4-2 lead.
Taking a page out of his tenure as manager of the International Polo Club, Michael Brown introduced this signature champagne pour during the halftime divot stomp thanks to Piper Sonoma as hundreds of area residents and rabid polo fans stormed the field to the sounds of Pretty Woman on the sound system.
“The crowd is fantastic,” said Luis Escobar as he got ready to return to the field for the fourth chukker, “Everyone is so in tune with the game.”
Understanding the game of polo is one thing The Villages audience is assured of. There are over 1200 members of The Villages Polo Club booster club who attend clinics and demonstrations explaining the various nuances of the game.
“We have to put a good product on the field,” said The Villages Polo Club’s Marketing Director, Ron Allen, “because they know the difference.”
Luis Escobar made a strong statement for the Gold team in the fourth period, scoring two unanswered goals from the field for a comfortable 6-3 lead, but The Villages Blue team fought back with a goal from Gracida to cut the lead to two goals, 6-4. Two more runs at The Villages Gold goal were backed away from goal, and the chukker ended with The Villages Blue team on the downside of a 6-4 score.
Despite several runs and passes toward the Gold goal, The Villages Blue team failed to convert in the final seven minutes of the game.
Shots from Phillips, Magrini and Roldan all went just wide of the goal while a penalty shot by Gracida was also off mark. In the waning seconds of the final chukker Roberto Gonzales stole the ball and headed toward the Blue goal when time expired. The Villages Gold team had captured The Villages very first $50,000 International Cup, and a new era had begun for the club.
“These are world class facilities,” said Magrini after the game, “Carlos and Michael have done a great job organizing this match and introducing The Villages Polo Club to a new audience of players.”
“As over a thousand eager fans gathered around the presentation stage Brandon Phillips was heard to remark that they need to bus these people (the fans) to Wellington for the season.
As both teams were honored with rousing cheers from the fans, Luis Escobar’s 10-year-old mare, Stacy, was named Best Playing Pony and Mike Azzaro was named MVP.
Carols Gracida thanked the crowd for its enthusiasm and support before the players took up positions at a table where they patiently signed team photos for the waiting crowd.
“Do you realize that there are only three of us here today who have played polo at this level or above in this country. What Michael and Carlos put together will change polo.”
Other players agreed with Azzaro’s assessment.
“This was a great experience,” said Roberto Gonzalez. “We’re looking forward to coming back.”
“This was first class all day long,” said Roldan.
Carlos Gracida looked up from where he was autographing a Villages polo cap and said, “It’s a lot of fun to compete with players of this caliber, “ said the winningest player in the game, “I don’t think there is a player amongst us who wouldn’t want to play another two or three chukkers right now.”
Michael Brown reviewed the post game autograph session he initiated from several yards away.
“It’s been a team effort,” he said, “ and we’re looking forward to getting The Villages Polo Club acknowledged as one of the very top facilities in the country.”
Brown and Gracida were brought aboard to enhance an already outstanding polo program and are responsible for bringing the USPA National 20-Goal and the international Camacho Cup (Mexico vs. US) to The Villages in the spring of 2009