In a brutal two-and-a-half hour war of attrition, La Dolfina won their fifth consecutive Argentine Open title Saturday, defeating Ellerstina 14-13 in overtime. It was clear from the beginning that the winner was going to be whoever was the last one left standing. All eight players took the field as though their lives were at stake, and in a professional sense that wasn’t too far off the mark. David Stirling was out to break the win record for foreign players (which he did); Polito Pieres was gunning to get his 10-goal handicap back (we’ll know in a few weeks), and everyone in a black jersey looked like he was trying to eradicate Adolfo Cambiaso from the face of the Earth (more about that later).
This was a game of madcap runs with unbroken stretches of scoring by each team in turn. Ellerstina started strong with a rapid-fire fast passing style that let them attack La Dolfina. Polito immediately made the first goal, which seemed to take La Dolfina by surprise. That unleashed a relatively even exchange of one-upsmanship through the first half, with the spread never more than two goals. Ellerstina scored three of the first four goals, and La Dolfina came back with four straight. After a flurry of trading two goals back and forth, La Dolfina scored six of the next seven. Ellerstina closed out regulation play with four straight goals.
La Dolfina took the lead for the first time in the third chukker (5-4), courtesy of two consecutive field goals by Cambiaso. By then field 1 was looking more like the Coliseum than the Cathedral of Polo. Cambiaso and Facundo Pieres nearly ejected each other from their horses with a belligerent bump in the second chukker. Minutes later Cambiaso and Polito got into it after an intense tousle that drew a whistle. While the call was being determined, the two rode past each other at close range, exchanging dagger-eyed stares and a few choice words.
Polito was a stinging pest all day, which was exactly what he needed to be in a game like this. He kept showing up in every place La Dolfina didn’t want him, and with impressive consistency often managed to score or stop his opponent from doing so. Nero wasn’t too happy with him when Polito foiled one of his long runs as he neared goal in the fourth.
The rough-and-tumble game erupted into all-out warfare in the second half, prompting a commentator to shout, “¡Qué bárbaro!” (Awesome!). However, there were no serious injuries all day, no subs were needed and the physical clashes (other than the normal hard bump) were accidental. Cambiaso was on the receiving end of one when Nico Pieres was going forward with the ball. Trying to hook him, Cambiaso came up from behind just as Nico took a big swing. Cambiaso saw it coming and ducked, but the mallet head of Nico’s mallet went under the brim of his helmet and broke his goggles.
Cambiaso was on the receiving end again in the fifth. Polito tied the game at 7 on a pass from Facundo and followed up with another goal. As the cameras focused on the ball rolling through the posts, yards away Cambiaso was writhing on the ground holding his right wrist, his teeth clenched. He got up, clearly piqued, and walked his horse off the field before accepting medical attention. The imbroglio that had triggered the injury resulted in a 60-yard penalty for La Dolfina, which Cambiaso took and tied the score at 8 to close the fifth.
Ellerstina was like a pack of badgers, still trying to wear Cambiaso down to the point of collapse. It didn’t work. By the sixth chukker Cambiaso was acting like a caged tiger being poked with a stick. The more Ellerstina provoked him, the fiercer he got. But he wasn’t in a cage.
La Dolfina came into their stride in the sixth chukker, hammering in goal after goal to take an 11-9 lead over a fading Ellerstina team. Cambiaso and Nero continued to rack up goals, each scoring once to create a four-goal lead (13-9). Nico Pieres shifted the momentum in favor of Ellerstina with a shot on the run and soon found himself sitting on the ground with a stunned look, surrounded by medics.
Polito and Facundo got back into the Pieres groove in the seventh, swapping the ball back and forth smoothly on runs toward goal. Polito looked like he had decided to have some fun (although if you ask him he will say it was strategic) as he hit a drive, picked up his own shot and dribbled the ball three times in the air, scoring on the last tap (13-10).
The last two minutes of the eighth chukker looked like the finish line at the Indy 500, with a sea of black-and-white flags surrounding the field going crazy as Facundo Pieres nailed a penalty shot to bring Ellerstina within two goals. Polito continued his hot streak, tapping in a goal on the run. Finally, with 58 seconds left, Facundo cruised up to the 60-yard penalty line with an air of unshakeable confidence and tied the game at 13.
In one of the shortest overtimes in recent memory, Nero took off on a breakaway that would give La Dolfina the win. When Nero saw two black jerseys closing in at speed, his eyes darted around to find Stirling on the run. Stirling took the ball and held onto it until Cambiaso could materialize. Cambiaso shepherded the ball over to Nero, who ran it in.
Nero, whose consistent performance on offense and defense earned him the distinction of MVP of the final, kissed the award as he stood on the podium. Later back in the palenque a reporter asked how he made the winning goal. Nero had nothing to say about himself. Without hesitation he said, “Adolfo’s pass was perfect! That’s what did it.
Ellerstina’s undoing was fouling and giving up goal shot penalties. Nine attempts are way too many to give La Dolfina; they converted eight. The fouls allowed La Dolfina to either go to the penalty line or get a penalty 5, where they could set up their offense. That ended up being the difference in a very close game.
Facundo was more involved on the ball than usual, directing the offense, and once again Polito was the offensive key for Ellerstina with eight goals. Gonzalito stayed back a lot, which helped prevent long passes by La Dolfina. But it also opened up the middle of the field. Ultimately, Ellerstina kept La Dolfina to just 13 shots, which is 13 less than they gave up to La Dolfina last year.
La Dolfina ran with the ball more than they normally do, with Cambiaso (also made eight goals) the driving force. He played in sync with Mac Donough. Stirling stayed in a more defensive position, allowing Nero to go forward. La Dolfina’s strong four-man performance took the day.
-Penalty shots: La Dolfina 8/9, Ellerstina 4/4
-Throw-ins: La Dolfina wins 18-11
-Top scorers (final): Adolfo Cambiaso and Polito Pieres (8 goals each)
-Top-ranked scorers (tournament): #1 Polito (38), #2 Cambiaso (36)
HSBC Cup: Pablo Mac Donough (captain of winning team)
Gonzalo Heguy Trophy: Juan M. Nero (MVP final)
Javier Novillo Astrada Trophy: Polito Pieres (tournament high-scorer)
Equine Promotion Cup: Adolfo Cambiaso (best string in final)
Gonzalo Tanoira award: Juan M. Nero (best-mounted player in tournament)
Fair Play award: Pablo Mac Donough (tournament)
AAJP Fair Play trophy: Gonzalito Pieres (final)
The Argentine Polo Association also recognized brothers Eduardo and Alberto Heguy for their 31 participations in the Argentine Open.
Cuartetera (the original), played by Cambiaso in the eighth chukker of his 100th game of the tournament, was inducted into the AACCP Hall of Fame in its inaugural event. Two other horses, Luna, owned by Gonzalo Pieres (p), and Marseillaise (Horacio Heguy) were also inducted.
Her ninth clone, “Dolfina B09 Cuartetera,” earned two extremely prestigious awards: the Lady Susan Townley Cup (best-playing pony of the tournament) and the AACCP (Argentine Polo Horse Breeders Association) and Rural Society Argentina Award for the best Argentine-bred pony of the tournament.
Cuartetera's grooms, Juan M. Aneas and Gustavo Gómez, received the Tito Lezcano trophy.
Photos by Katerina Morgan