Gonzalito Pieres leans on a fence at his barn in Wellington, studying an old black-and-white photograph someone has handed him.
“I remember this. It was one of Curtis’ first practices with us at Ellerstina,” he says, exchanging a laugh with patron Curtis Pilot. “It was good fun.”
Eight years later Facundo and Gonzalito, with Timmy Dutta, are playing in the Florida 20-goal series. The Pilot team is a new face at International Polo Club Palm Beach, and their patron is quick to tell you that the Pieres family’s quality and professionalism are what made him decide to create Pilot.
People had been urging him for the past three years to put in a 20-goal team, and his response was always the same: “I’ll play the 20 if Facundo ever becomes available.” The reason wasn’t just Facundo’s skill but also his character. “I wanted a team that would be recognized for the same reason I admire Coca-Cola: the class they show whether they win or lose,” he said.
Chances of acquiring Facundo looked slim, as had been happily wearing an Orchard Hill jersey for many years. But after the 2017 U.S. Open, Orchard Hill patron Steve Van Andel decided to leave high-goal (he is now playing medium goal). Suddenly Facundo was on the market—but not for long. Pilot invited him and Gonzalito to dinner before they left Wellington. Facundo came onboard.
“We thought it would be great to have Gonzalito, too, but he was committed to another team,” said Pilot. “I’m not the kind of person who would try to get someone to leave a team. So I thought, ‘Well, maybe someday Gonzalito will be able play with us, and maybe even Nico, but who knows when?’” A few months later Gonzalito became available, and Pilot signed him immediately.
Pilot has taken some ribbing over hiring the Piereses. “A lot of people look at my team and say, ‘Okay, so you’ve got Facundo, and you’ve got Gonzalito, but 19 of your 20 goals are in two players!’ I know that may not be the smartest thing in the world, but I have more fun playing with those two individuals and losing than I would playing with other people and winning.”
In an early game this season his team missed a couple of easy shots, says Pilot. “At halftime Facu looked at everyone in the tent and said, ‘I apologize. I’m losing this game, not you guys. This one’s on me. I’m going to fix it.’ And he did. We started winning.” (Pilot currently stands 2-1 in the Ylvisaker.)
Three of the mares Pilot is playing this season—Open Pantera, Open Pasarela and Open 82—played the Argentine Open under Gonzalito. “My personal horses are all around 14 or 15 years old. They know more about polo than I do,” says Pilot. “When I run to the boards, they follow the ball and I just hang on. The other day the traffic was unbelievable. I was on Pantera and she just scooted me right in there. On those horses I have no fear.”
Eight years ago Pilot went to Argentina to learn about bloodlines and find the best breeding stock. Gonzalo de la Fuente, his manager, introduced him to Mariano Aguerre at Los Machitos and to Gonzalo Pieres, the father of Gonzalito, Facundo and Nico. Seven years ago he started a small breeding operation in Argentina with de la Fuente. Every year Pilot usually buys two 2-year-olds from Aguerre and two from the Piereses.
“I can stand beside Papa Pieres while he watches a horse run in a field, and he can tell you if it’s good or not,” says Pilot. “That’s important in this sport because you don’t know what you’re going to have in a horse for about 8 years—and if at 8 years you’ve made a mistake, you’ve made a bad one.”
Pilot had a lot to learn. He never sat on a horse (“not even a mechanical horse!”) until he was 49, when his neighbor in Alabama, Chip Campbell (now USPA Chairman) introduced him to horses. Through Campbell he hired de la Fuente. “For two years Gonzalo wouldn’t let me touch a mallet,” says Pilot. “He said, ‘You’re going to learn to ride first.’”
What’s it like to train with Facundo and Gonzalito? “They are such gentlemen and so patient. They never make you feel inadequate. They always point out the good things you did, ”says Pilot. “Sometimes I have to ask, especially with Gonzalito, what I did wrong because he doesn’t want to discourage you. They give you examples and little homework assignments. But if you do anything that’s too aggressive or that they feel might be dangerous in any way, they’ll come up and say gently, “I would do it this way …”
Pilot’s enthusiasm makes him “very easy to teach,” says Gonzalito. “He’s an amazing person and a horse fanatic. He came to watch us in the U.S. Open, and when we played the 40-goal exhibition he was always there helping. So when you find a guy who is that involved and who loves polo that much, it’s much easier to teach him because he’s ‘on’ nearly 24 hours. Whenever you’re talking, he’s listening.”