Jeff Hildebrand’s mid-season decision to enter Tonkawa in the USPA Gold Cup® paid off Saturday with a 10-9 opening day win over Audi. It was the team’s first-ever foray into 26-goal play.
Until a couple weeks ago no one expected to see Tonkawa in the Gold Cup, least of all its captain, Sapo Caset. “I never thought we would be playing the 26 this year,” he said.
The plan was to play in the U.S. only through the 20-goal series. But after Tonkawa won this year’s Joe Barry Cup and came close to becoming an Ylvisaker finalist, Hildebrand started to have second thoughts. Four days after the Ylvisaker semis, he went to Caset with an idea: “What if we play the Gold Cup?”
“I told him, ‘Sure!’” said Caset. “I was surprised and at the same time happy. I love to play 26. I think it was a great idea and a good opportunity for us to grow as a team.”
But they both knew what they were up against: the clock and the competition. With five other teams entered, some with a slew of heavy-hitters who had been playing together all season (some even for years), Tonkawa would have to scramble to pull a competitive team together. Where were they going to find an available 9-goaler who would be a good fit and enough horses with the ability to play at the 26-goal level? On top of that, neither Tonkawa nor its patron, Hildebrand, had ever competed in a 26-goal tournament.
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It’s rare for a team to take a chance like that in the middle of a season. “We are already thinking about what we’re going to do here next year,” said Caset, noting that Hildebrand is a meticulous planner and ultra organized. But in this case there wasn’t the luxury of time. The decision to play the Gold Cup was finalized February 26, only three weeks before the team would play their first Gold Cup game on March 17.
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THE SEARCH FOR A 9-GOALER
Nine-goalers Diego Cavanagh and Gonzalito Pieres were still on campus after the 20, but Cavanagh was committed to Colorado for the Gold Cup and Pieres to Flexjet. Fortunately Mariano Aguerre, who played the 20 for Postage Stamp Farm, was still at IPC when everything unfolded.
Hildebrand, Caset and team manager Jimmy Seward talked with teammate Julian de Lusarreta about inviting Aguerre. “Right away he said, ‘Yes, for sure!’” said Caset. “We were all very enthusiastic and happy when Mariano accepted.”
The night before Tonkawa’s 26-goal debut, Aguerre was equally happy. “I want to thank Annabelle [Gundlach, Postage Stamp patrona] for bringing me here and opening the door for me to go and play this great tournament,” he said. “She was supportive and so happy for me.”
Aguerre has won eight Gold Cups. He and Caset share a slice of that history, but it reaches back 15 years and they haven’t played together since in the U.S. They won the 2003 Gold Cup at Greenwich Polo Club for White Birch when Caset was only 16 years old and handicapped at 6. He had gone from 1 to 6 goals in 14 months.
“You could already tell back then that Sapo was a special player,” said Aguerre. “It was great playing with him. It is an honor for me to get invited to join Tonkawa and to be trusted by him and the team.”
PREPARING THE HORSES FOR THE 26
Tonkawa played all their top horses in the 20, especially in the last tournament (the Ylvisaker), said Caset. “We played them hard for two months, so we had to let them recover. We gave them several days off and then started playing them in slow, easy chukkers,” he said.
“It’s not the same for us as Valiente, who has been saving some of their horses just for this. We know that horse-wise we’re not going to be 100 percent, but I think we’re pretty close. The horses are fresh and feeling good, and I think they will do well for us.”
Caset and Aguerre already had the horsepower they needed for the 26. “Mariano is always very well mounted,” said Caset, who planned to play some of his favorites: his stallion, Popular (out of Cuartetera), and Any Negra, named Best Playing Pony several times, including the 2017 Ylvisaker Cup final.
Unlike Caset’s horses, most of the Tonkawa string has never played 26-goal polo, but the guys who will be playing them have. De Lusarreta is playing two of Hildebrand’s geldings, Sureño and Charlie. Caset is jazzed about a 7-year-old team mare named Tera that he played in the 20. This is her first season in the U.S.
“She really surprised me,” he said. “She started doing well the first tournament, not amazing but good, and in the second tournament she was better. I’ve been playing her the past 10 days, and I feel like she’s going to another level, so I’m excited about her.”
PUTTING THE PLAN TO THE TEST
Now it was time to put everything together and see how the plan worked. There was time for just two team practices before Tonkawa’s first game in the Gold Cup, but Caset said the signs were good from the beginning.
“The practices felt really natural. We didn’t have to force anything or tell someone, ‘No, you go here and I’ll go there,’” he said. “Mariano is a great player who knows the sport really, really well, He fit naturally with all of us and adapted to the team really fast. He could play any position—in the back, in the front, in the middle—and I liked that because I also like to switch a lot.”
Saturday’s game put the plan to the test. Caset and Aguerre made nine of the team’s 10 goals (Caset eight, Aguerre one). De Lusarreta was the glue that held the team together, and Hildebrand made a goal.
Does that mean Tonkawa will make a run for the U.S. Open?
“I asked Jeff the same thing,” said Caset. “But no, we can’t. He has to leave [Florida] in the first days of April.”
Maybe next year?
Caset smiled. “Yes, maybe . . . ”
Article by Darlene Ricker
Photography: Liz Lamont Images, David Lominska and Kengas Camera