On Sunday, February 26, the first leg of the Gauntlet of Polo came to a conclusion with the C.V. Whitney Cup Final. The elite competition pitted 2022 USPA Gold Cup and U.S. Open Polo Championship victors Pilot (Curtis Pilot, Lucas Escobar, Matias Torres Zavaleta, Facundo Pieres) against four-time C.V. Whitney Cup winners Valiente (Robert “Bob” Jornayvaz, Lucas “Luckitas” Criado Jr., Mariano “Peke” Gonzalez Jr., Adolfo Cambiaso). A match defined by opportunity, both teams hustled throughout the game to make every shot, penalty and play count, but in the end, a successful late drive from Gonzalez gave Valiente the edge while several missed opportunities from Pilot ceded the narrow 10-9 win to their opponent.
Entering the final, both Pilot and Valiente remained undefeated. Their paths to the title match, however, were strenuous, particularly for Pilot. Prior to the C.V. Whitney Cup, Matias “Colo” Gonzalez sustained a hand injury and was replaced by Escobar, altering the team structure right before the competition began. Escaping from Scone with the 13-12 win, Pilot also won by a single goal against Dazos 10-9 and then again one-upped Shack Attack in the semifinal 12-11 to narrowly earn their place in the final.
Valiente’s wins over La Elina and Aspen were much more decided in bracket play, however Park Place presented a formidable battle, with Valiente only outscoring the team in yellow 12-10. Cambiaso was noticeably absent in the semifinals due to a family emergency and his nephew Camilo “Jeta” Castagnola played in his place.
At the outset of play, Pilot’s Pieres catapulted his team to a quick start, converting two penalties and driving to goal once from the field. His efforts were met with a response from both Gonzalez and Criado, who were eager to shift momentum in Valiente’s favor. Their endeavors were rewarded with a second chukker shutout for Pilot, during which Criado scored again from the field and then twice on Penalty 2 conversions to give Valiente the 5-3 advantage.
As the third chukker began, Criado took advantage of another Penalty 2 opportunity, but a tenacious Pieres evened out the scoring with a field goal to end the half with Valiente leading 6-4.
Gonzalez, believing in his team and the synergy they’ve built so far this season, especially with Cambiaso back in the game, shared, “The other day with [Camilo “Jeta” Castagnola], it was his first game with those horses and us, so I think we started a little slow. We were trying to get to know each other a little bit. Now with Adolfo, we’ve been playing a little bit more. We’ve been trying to play the same way we’ve been doing it. Pilot is a great team – and we tried to make our own game. Sometimes we did, sometimes we couldn’t. We were trying to do the same thing we’ve been doing the whole tournament.”
After the break, the remainder of the game was largely decided by penalties. Pieres scored once from the penalty line and once from the field, but those efforts were matched by Gonzalez and Cambiaso, who both scored from the line. Pieres and Criado traded penalty conversions in the fifth chukker as well, with Escobar scoring the only field goal of the chukker to keep Pilot within one goal of Valiente, 8-9.
An early Penalty 4 off of Pieres’ mallet tied the game at 9-all in the final chukker, but a dexterous goal from Gonzalez propelled Valiente back into the lead. Pilot battled fiercely throughout the entire chukker, but the team couldn’t find their way to the goal. As time expired, Valiente firmly held their 10-9 lead to emerge with their fifth C.V. Whitney Cup victory.
Thrilled to be winning alongside Valiente again, Cambiaso commented on how Valiente faced the challenge of meeting an accomplished Pilot team. “Obviously they have Facundo [Pieres] – they’re already strong with that, [but] we believe in our system. We’ve been playing pretty [well] the last two or three games. We believe in our game [and] we were more thinking about what we were going to do than [what] to expect [from] them. I think the first half we did [well], and in the second half they did better. They came back pretty [well], we made some mistakes, [so] we were lucky to end up winning.”
Jornayvaz, who returns to high-goal polo after several years out due to health concerns, was elated to just be able to compete again. “The fun part is getting to play against one of your best friends in life – Curtis [Pilot]. I hope it was a fun game to watch. It was a really fun game to play in, fast and open. I can’t say enough good things about the Pilot organization.”
He continued, “I [have to] give credit to Adolfo [for] putting [our] team together with Luckitas and Peke. Peke played incredibly today, so it was just a fun, wide open game. We had a good strategy to try to slow down Facundo, and when you can get one-on-one against Adolfo and Facundo, it’s really fun. Just to be out there and be in a final, it’s a big deal. I’ve got a long way to go, but I’ve got great guys to help [me] step-by-step [with] what [I] need to do. It’s about them and the encouragement, camaraderie, teamwork [and] the organization. That part of it is what really drives me.”
Though this is Valiente’s first victory in the C.V. Whitney Cup since it became part of the Gauntlet of Polo series, the team is very well acquainted with all three trophies. Jornayvaz added, “For us, it’s still the triple crown. We’ve won that before, so the Gauntlet would be fun as well. The USPA Gold Cup is something we’ve won five times, so we’re looking forward to playing in that next. I can’t thank these guys enough for working as hard as they do so I can have a good time.”
For his impressive performance and game-winning goal, Peke Gonzalez was awarded Most Valuable Player. Carpacho, Gonzalez’s 10-year-old Argentine bay gelding was presented Best Playing Pony honors. He was bred by Lucas Monteverde (Alcaparra x Dolfina Cuarteto). Gonzalez played Carpacho in the second chukker and then again in the sixth chukker, during which he scored his game-winning goal. Gonzalez shared, “I know if I play him a little in the beginning, he plays well and for the second half, he’s way better.”
A staple in Gonzalez’s string, Carpacho has long been a standout. “He’s been my best horse for the last three years. He had an amazing season in 2021 playing with me. He was my best horse. Then last year, I got injured and I didn’t play him. I passed him to Poroto [Cambiaso] to play in the entire Gauntlet and he did really well. He keeps on doing it, so I’m really happy that he finally got a blanket and I think he really deserved it. I have a lot of confidence on him, I know he’s always the same [and] he never lets [me] down. I love him.”
Describing him further, Gonzalez lightheartedly shared, “He’s not good looking. You look at him and it’s like ‘Wow, [that’s] not a typical polo type horse.’ Once he starts playing [though], he gives me all that I’m asking and he’s always the same. He’s lazy sometimes, but I think he’s really powerful. He goes everywhere, he has a good mouth [and] good movement sideways. I think he’s really complete.”
Gonzalez will also add to his string for the two remaining Gauntlet competitions. “I brought four from Argentina that didn’t play this tournament. My goal is to play them in the USPA Gold Cup and the U.S. Open Polo Championship.”
Similarly pleased with his whole string’s performance, Cambiaso earmarked two horses to specifically look out for on his string as Valiente continues this season. “[First], a little black mare called Cherokee Bay (J5 Argentina Cherokee Bay – Dolfina Guitarerro x Fax Cherokee). I think she’s growing every time, it’s her first season here, but she’s amazing. She’s small, but she feels like she’s big, and I believe everyday she’s doing better. [There’s also] another mare that I call Carmesi (Taita Carmesi – Open Iluminado x Polo Purpura). Those two [were] the best today. I played them twice, in the first half and in the end when I needed them. Those are the two horses that I really feel like I’m comfortable with.”
Jornayvaz also identified a horse to keep an eye out for on his string for the remainder of the season. “I’ve got one of the Wembley clones here this year (Clone Wembley 01). I’m really proud of him. He played in the Argentine Open this year. Juan Martin Nero played him. It’s fun to have a horse up here that’s a clone of Wembley. It’s shocking how similar [clones] are. It’s brought a whole new level [and] it’s raised the bar on the quality of horses. The Pilot organization has a lot of clones. So, we’ll just see more and more of them. They really improve the sport because we need [a large] quantity of quality. So, it allows you to have the quantity of the quality that you need.”
For Valiente, this is just the start of their Gauntlet crusade. Equipped with the skill, teamwork and horsepower to dominate the competition, the team stands a lasting chance at capturing all three jewels to emerge as the first Gauntlet champions since Pilot in 2019.