INDIO — Memo Gracida turned Sunday's finals of the U.S. Polo Assn. (USPA) Open into a one-man show, scoring all but one of his team's goals and leading Aloha to a 10-9 win over Los Potros.
The match at Eldorado Polo Club was the sixth U.S. Open win for Gracida, a Mexican player whose home club is now West Palm Beach, Fla.
Playing for Aloha with his brother Carlos--both among the only seven players in the world who have the top USPA rating of 10 goals--Memo Gracida put in every penalty shot he attempted and rode circles around some of his bewildered opponents
"I was surprised myself," he said afterward. "The best player is not necessarily the one who scores the most goals. We won on pure determination. The other team was outplaying us, so we had to work to turn the game our way."
Los Potros had established a 3-1 lead at the end of the second chukker. Los Potros captain Owen Rinehart, rated at 9 goals, and 6-goaler teammates Mike Azzaro and Hector Galindo each tapped in one of those early goals.
Azzaro was hot in that chukker, galloping in front of the goal to save what looked to be another score by Gracida.
In the third chukker, Azzaro and Rinehart scored again. But then Memo Gracida began to pour it on, and he never looked back. Gracida scored four goals in quick succession for Aloha, tying the score 5-5 at halftime.
Most of Gracida's goals were made on penalty shots. Said a disheartened Rinehart after the match, 'We gave it away on penalties. We had a good team and we should have won, but Aloha jumped on every mistake we made.'
USPA President Summerfield Johnston of Lexington, Ky., observed that despite the strong teamwork by Los Potros, the seasoned Gracida brothers were a formidable obstacle: "This game was won on the penalties, and there were too many of them in the third period for a tournament of this caliber. Some of the younger players were trying too hard, and when that happens, they will foul. Memo and Carlos capitalized on every opportunity to turn those errors into goals.
In the fourth period, Aloha seemed to be losing steam and was scoreless. Azzaro and Galindo each scored once for Los Potros, bringing the score to 7-5 in Los Potros' favor.
Rinehart's single goal in the fifth period was quickly countered with two by Memo Gracida and one by Carlos Gracida.
The pressure was on as the sixth and final chukker began with an 8-8 tie. Rinehart scored once again, but Memo Gracida turned the last minutes of the game into a horse race. With some hard and fast rides over the sideboards, Gracida swooped in and snatched the ball away to score two final goals and end the game with a one-goal advantage for Aloha.
Actor William Devane, a one-goaler with the Piaget Celebrity Team who plays regularly at Eldorado, was on the sidelines. He came to watch his son, Jake, who played on the winning Deer Creek team in the USPA 8-Goal National Championship earlier in the day. Said the elder Devane:
"It's great to see this kind of polo being played in California again. The best two teams definitely got to the finals. The high-ticket polo is still mainly in Florida, but I think that's just because people are used to going there. We're still a little under that image in California, but we're growing fast."
Some Easterners, including Johnston of the USPA, remarked upon the way California polo has matured in recent years.
"Polo has definitely come of age on the West Coast," Johnston said, motioning to the 10 verdant playing fields that make Eldorado the largest polo club in the country. "But it's not a surprise. The state has been heading this way for sometime."
Rains earlier in the week soaked the fields and put a hold on play after Thursday.