Hosted by the Houston Polo Club in Houston, Texas, the 2017 U.S. Open Women’s Handicap Final took place on Saturday, November 11, in front of a packed sideline on the Flanders Field. One of the most prestigious outdoor women’s tournaments in the nation, second only to the U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship™, this year’s roster fielded an impressive eight teams, a historical high for the competition. First-time competitors La Herradura and Texas Monthly (with three defending-champions on the roster) each narrowly defeated their opponents to emerge from the semifinals victorious. Following suit, the final showcased two evenly-matched teams, delivering an incredibly close and surprisingly low-scoring game—Texas Monthly squeaking past their opponents with a final score 6-5.
A two-goal handicap was awarded to La Herradura (rated at a cumulative 11 goals) at the onset of the four-chukker match versus 14-goal Texas Monthly. Both teams were on edge as play began, resulting in numerous fouls and a choppy first chukker. Despite the stop-and-go, each team managed to put a goal on the board in the first. Chukker one nerves out of the way, play opened up in the second, Texas Monthly’s young stars rising to the occasion. Excellent defensive strategy kept La Herradura scoreless while Lia Salvo then Bridget Price (one of the youngest players in the tournament at 14 years old) equalized the score 3-all at the half. When asked about playing with the younger players Grace Mudra and Price, Lia beamed, “They have cool minds, they think really well and they don’t make many mistakes, which is really amazing for their age. It was really nice to play with them; they are great players.”
“The younger girls that we have seen play in the area, want to come here and are so excited to play. I think they look up to us, which is really cool.” – Grace Mudra
La Herradura missed a conversion opportunity early into the second half, a misfortune later corrected as Courtney Asdourian hammered in a Penalty 3 dead center to take back the lead 4-3. Back-to-back goals from Carolyn Stimmel, including a beautiful run on 14-year-old bay mare JJ, put Texas Monthly in the driver’s seat for the first time entering the final period 5-4.
La Herradura struggled once again from the penalty line early in the fourth as a Penalty 3 crept towards goal stopping short of the white line. As time wound down, Texas Monthly continued their second and third chukker momentum, Salvo expertly directing her team and dominating the field. Price scored an epic deep neckshot to widen Texas Monthly’s lead to two 6-4.
Time was not working in La Herradura’s favor as the ball popped over the boards and out of bounds not once, but twice. Passing the baton, Sheila Lequerica scored a Penalty 2 for La Herradura riding the famous buckskin gelding Bucky, bringing them within one. “Being able to play all the horses that we have trained and two that we raised and trained is so very rewarding,” said Lequerica. “My husband, CJ, and I work very hard and to have these horses turn out to be such fun polo horses to play makes it all worth it. So many of the horses we train are for other people and they go on to be good horses that they get to enjoy. Being able to play our own is the best!”
A near goal by Mia Bray had La Herradura fans on the edge of their seat. Less than a minute left on the clock, a blocking foul in favor of Texas Monthly and an umpire horse change halted play. When the action resumed La Herradura worked tirelessly to move the ball towards their goal but Texas Monthly would not budge. Courtney Asdourian finally jumped out of the melee on her way to goal as the second horn blew signaling the end of game. Texas Monthly claimed the title with a final score 6-5. Although the team’s first win donning the Texas Monthly jerseys, for the majority of the players it was their second, having won the 2016 title as My Table/Riveroaks.com (Lia Salvo, Carolyn Stimmel, Grace Mudra, Courtney Price). Bridget Price filled the shoes of her older sister Courtney Price in this year’s competition, and since it’s all in the family, the team raised two fingers for photos to signal their back-to-back win.
“It was great, so much fun, a lot different than interscholastic, but amazing. You have to change your riding style, but it was good.” –Bridget Price
Most Valuable Player was awarded to Argentine 8-goaler Lia Salvo who captained her team to victory. “I have to give credit to the other team,” said La Herradura Coach and Hall of Famer Memo Gracida. “Lia is a classy player, she is a good player and she plays with a lot of class. She plays clean and uses her team; it’s the way I feel polo should be played. Cheers to the victory, she really deserved it and it was classic polo, and fun.”
“We knew we would have to shut down Courtney and Shelia so we put our stronger riders on them. But still Meghan [Gracida] and Mia [Bray] are also really good, and all of us had to work man to man. So I think it was really even, much like yesterday, it was a close game. All of us had to work really hard and won only at the end. It was teamwork.” –Lia Salvo
Best Playing Pony honors were presented to Meghan Gracida’s 5-year-old gray gelding Patito Feo (Palermo/Pimpinela) ridden in the third chukker. “That is the horse that changed my life,” said Meghan Gracida. “He gained all my confidence. He is a homebred that Memo gave to me about a year ago. He came out a little ugly so Memo named him Patito Feo and got rid of him. He saw him playing last year and he was this really cute little balanced grey horse that was playing in Argentina, where he was bred. Memo said ‘Who is that?’ and no one wanted to tell him, and finally he put two and two together. Memo got on him for about two seconds and bought him back. I have been on him nonstop since then!”
Best Playing Pony Professional was awarded to 11-year-old gelding Dooley ridden by Lia Salvo in the first and third chukkers, owned by Billy Mudra. Charro Cowboy (also known as Mike) received the AQHA Top American Quarter Horse - Medium Goal Award. Owned ad ridden by Sheila Lequerica, the 8-year-old dark bay gelding won the award for the second year in a row.
Reflecting on the tournament at large Memo Gracida was thoroughly impressed by the competition. “I think this is the best tournament in the United States by far,” said Gracida. “The quantity of teams, the camaraderie, the quality of polo and the facilities are extraordinary. We are looking forward to coming back and competing in this. To me the U.S. Open means a lot, women’s or men’s, and this is the essence of polo. There are no angles, no agendas, they are just playing polo. And it is so wonderful to watch, for people like myself who love it and are passionate about it. To see these women play with passion, with determination and with heart, going all out, for me it is so refreshing and exciting.”
Photos by Kaylee Wroe