3rd time lucky for La Indiana - Cartier Queen's Cup 2018
Under the gentle flutter of flags on the grandstands, devotees of polo gathered to watch the world's best battle it out last Sunday for this year's Cartier Queen's Cup Final match at Guards Polo Club. Would it be 3rd time lucky for Michael Bickford's La Indiana, or would it be victory for Andrey Borodin's high-goal virgins Park Place, newly up from medium goal this season?
Despite the less than seasonal chill, the atmosphere was hot with anticipation as the players took to the field in the warm-up, giving us spectators, who included everyone from Her Majesty the Queen to such diverse polo lovers as Jilly Cooper and Tinie Tempah, a glimpse of the skills that would be showcased in the match to come.
Tinie Tempah - a man who dresses with conviction
With plenty of stunning ponies available for each side, it was clear that keeping up with their identities would be a challenge for the commentators, who were going to need eagle eyes with the constant changes that saw up to 3 horses used per chukka.
Unusually, both teams had met in an earlier round of the 11-team competition, with a closely fought 9-8 victory to Park Place. A (thoroughly unscientific) Instagram poll conducted the day before the final had showed a close match was again predicted despite clear differences in the teams' favoured styles of play. La Indiana have often favoured a penalty-based strategy, and how this would work against Park Place's free-flowing team-oriented game was the subject of much conjecture as the crowd took their seats for the opening chukka.
The Cartier Queen's Cup Final started with a bang quite literally, with Hilario Ulloa from Park Place on the floor less than two minutes in following a collision with Alec White of La Indiana, who received a 2 minute 'sin bin' style exclusion for his role in the crash. The resulting penalty to Park Place gave them the lead with the 1st goal of the match. It wasn't long before La Indiana equalised (another penalty) but Park Place were very much on the front foot and making most of the play during this 1st chukka with La Indiana doing their best to hassle their opponent's impeccable team play. Tomas Beresford was definitely the man of the chukka for Park Place, as he appeared to be everywhere with what commentator Ebe Sievwright memorably called his "albatross-like wings".
Tommy Beresford demonstrating his "albatross-like wings"
The battle of tactics continued into the 2nd chukka, with penalties flying left and right, though when La Indiana's attempts to force penalties led to the high speed fall of Park Place's patron Borodin, resulting in him leaving the field in an ambulance, it became clear that something needed to change. Every cloud has a silver lining however and Borodin's departure led to an exciting opportunity for Charlie Tighe to take to the pitch as his substitute following the lengthy stop in play. The young Englishman, who has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top level this season, began making his mark immediately and it was noticeable how well Park Place played together despite the substitution. This team effort paid off almost at once with a spectacular equaliser to La Indiana's 2nd goal by Ulloa of Park Place on the bell.
A perfect demonstration of 'marking your man'
The 3rd chukka really belonged to Park Place, as La Indiana's change in tactics to adopt a more flowing style of play kept the latter on the back foot for much of the chukka. The resulting open play led to a much more exciting chukka for the assembled crowd, who forgot about shivering for a red-hot few minutes as a combination of galloping runs and stunning shots produced goal after goal to leave the bell for half-time ringing on a score of 6-4 to Park Place.
Synchronised polo from Park Place
Due to the long delay while Borodin was treated by the superb paramedics in the 2nd chukka, treading in time was much reduced, leading to the player warm-up including the novel excitement of obstacles in the form of spectators still sauntering back to their seats.
Polo warm-up and spectators, never a good mix
With no time to lose, play began for the 4th chukka and both players and ponies appeared to have an extra zip in their systems. There were some notable shots on both sides, with a particular highlight being Beresford's stunning save at the La Indiana goal mouth that left spectators open mouthed. It became clear that La Indiana had fully embraced the team dynamic by this stage and their more aggressive play, combined with Facundo Pieres' quite astonishing pony power, dominated as they quickly equalised to bring this chukka to a close in the blink of an eye with the score standing at 6-all.
The 5th chukka continued the theme of fast, running play from the 4th. The glorious sound of thundering hooves that sums up high-goal polo for so many could be heard time and again as the teams chased each other all over the pitch seeking out opportunities to score. The Instagram poll looked increasingly prescient as it became clear how well matched the 2 teams were - quite amazing considering Park Place's relative inexperience at this level of competition.
The throw in...
With this penultimate chukka finishing on a level score of 7-all, the crowd excitedly settled in for the 6th, and those that made it back from the bar in time were rewarded with some of the best polo we've seen. All the ingredients of a thrilling final chukka were there, with plenty of attempts at the goal to keep the audience on the very edge of their seats. Bickford's unfortunate fall following a ride-off gone wrong added extra drama and tension to the mix as play was halted at just 2 minutes to go to enable him to catch his breath. A penalty awarded to Park Place as the result of Bickford's collision had more than a hint of a World Cup penalty shoot-out, and this metaphor was further realised when the resultant shot at goal gave Pieres an opportunity to show his class by the most amazing mid-air save in front of the goal mouth to gasps from the crowd.
As the seconds ticked down to the final bell, the score stood at 8-7 to La Indiana - would Park Place manage to equalise and take the match into extra time? It was not to be. After 2 failed attempts at victory in previous years, La Indiana would not be denied a 3rd time and Pieres scored the final goal of match to huge cheers from the crowd as the bell rang out for the final time in the Cartier Queen's Cup tournament.
Michael Bickford inspecting the Queen's Cup for space to add La Indiana
All in all, this year's Cartier Queen's Cup Final was the most gripping and exhilarating polo match we've seen in a long while, and here's to seeing more of both La Indiana and Park Place!
Final score: La Indiana 9 - 7 Park Place
Most Valuable Player: Facundo Pieres
Best Playing Pony: Cube (13yo chestnut mare, owned by Facundo Pieres)