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Casablanca, Richard Mille Meet Sunday In WPL All-Star Challenge Final At Grand Champions

Barto Castagnola of Casablanca leans for the near side shot with Robi Bilbao defending. © Candace Ferreira

WELLINGTON, Fla., February 23, 2023—Casablanca will play Richard Mille Sunday in the championship final of the All-Star Challenge in what promises to be one for the World Polo League history books.

In a heart-stopping semifinal, Casablanca (Grant Ganzi, 3, Tomacho Pieres, 6, Barto Castagnola, 10, Jesse Bray, 7) escaped with a thrilling 11-10 victory over Dazos La Fe (David Farache, 0/Louis Devaleix, 1, Robi Bilbao, 2, Nico Pieres, 9, Francisco Elizalde, 9) Tuesday at Grand Champions Polo Club.

Casablanca will face 2021 champion Richard Mille (Gilberto Sayao, 0, Gonzalito Pieres, 9, Pablo MacDonough, 10, Alejandro Novillo Astrada, 7), 15-11 winners over Brookshire (Scott Wood, 0, Pipe Vercellino, 7, Polito Pieres, 10, Jero Del Carril, 8), in the opening semifinal.

„When I saw the teams come out I thought Richard Mille would be the toughest,“ Ganzi said. „It‘s going to be tough. It‘s not going to be easy at all. I‘m really happy we made the final. It‘s always the best way to start out the season to come out and play well especially in knockout tournaments it‘s tough.“

Tuesday‘s game came down to the final minutes when Bilbao scored after a long run to trail Casablanca, 11-10, with 2 minutes left on the clock.

„Oddly enough, I told people in the tent  and they looked at me like I was a little crazy, but I wasn‘t that worried,“ Ganzi said. „I was worried when we gave up two goals fast, we were a little careless with the ball. But when we started playing better and we got more organized I was like, ‚we got this.‘

„I knew it was going to be a really, really tough game but I did think we had the potential to make the final. I always believed in the team and believed we could do it.“

With 1:30 left, Casablanca lost their challenge on a foul called against them setting up Elizalde‘s penalty three which probably would have sent the game into overtime but instead sailed wide. Elizalde stole the ball but was quickly swarmed by Casablanca‘s suffocating defense in the final 30 seconds. „I thought we defended our tails off,“ Ganzi said.

Working well together as a team, Casablanca kept the game close. After Dazos La Fe led for most of the first two chukkers, Castagnola‘s goal with a minute left tied the game at 5-5 going into the third chukker.

Dazos La Fe gave up a goal when 1-goaler Devaleix replaced 0-goaler David Farache in the lineup giving Casablanca a brief 5-4 lead. Dazos La Fe picked up two more goals from Elizalde to lead 6-5 until Castagnola converted his second penalty of the game to tie 6-6 at halftime.

The close battle continued in the second half with Casablanca outscoring Dazos La Fe, 2-1 to lead 8-7 after four, and shut out Dazos La Fe, 2-0, to take a 10-7 lead going into the final chukker.

Dazos La Fe clawed its way back with back-to-back goals to trail, 10-9. Castagnola added another penalty conversion for an 11-9 lead with 3:25 left. A minute later Bilbao‘s goal cut the lead to 11-10 before the final two heart-stopping minutes.

When Ganzi, Brand Ambassador of Casablanca, put his team together there were a few raised eyebrows, but Ganzi had played with all three players and saw the chemistry on paper.

„I knew Tomacho would shine with the opportunity and he played lights out today,“ Ganzi said. „He has always been an amazing rider and understands the game so well. I always enjoyed playing with Jesse back in the day and when I saw he was available I wanted him to play with us. Obviously, my first selection was Barto. I always want to play with him. To me, he is one of the best players in the world.“

The final game statistics illustrated just how close the game was and how well-balanced the teams were. Casablanca outshot Dazos La Fe, 19-17 and led in throw-ins, 15-10. Dazos La Fe led in knock-ins, 8-7. Each team committed 10 fouls and each team scored off four penalty shots, all 30-yarders.

Castagnola scored a game-high 10 goals including four penalty conversions. Ganzi scored one. For Dazos La Fe, Pieres led scoring with four goals, Elizalde had three and Bilbao added two.

In last year‘s All-Star Challenge final, Audi and White Birch renewed their 30-year rivalry. In an explosive game, Audi (Marc Ganzi, 2, Jeta Castagnola, 9, Barto Castagnola, 9, Paco de Narvaez, 6) defeated White Birch (Chris Brant, 0, Lerin Zubiaurre, 7, Mariano Aguerre, 7, Santi Toccalino, 8), 17-12. Jeta Castagnola scored a game-high nine goals and was named MVP.

In addition to the All-Star Challenge, the remaining WPL events are the Founders Cup, Palm Beach Open, Tommy Hitchcock Legacy Memorial, Triple Crown of Polo and Beach Polo World Cup Miami Beach.

Grand Champions, the nation‘s largest  polo club celebrating its 16th anniversary, and Santa Rita Polo Farm is the largest and most unique private 102-acre polo facility in Wellington with 212 stalls in nine self-contained barns, two tracks, five climate-controlled tack rooms, vet room, staff quarters, guest house and four polo fields with state-of-the-art underground irrigation and short work arena. The club has 13 well-manicured fields including nine world-class fields at GCPC and four at Santa Rita.

During the winter polo season, Grand Champions, the nation‘s largest and most innovative USPA-sanctioned polo club, nestled in the heart of the world‘s winter equestrian capital, is hosting various tournaments: 6, 8, 12, 20, and 26-goal leagues, WCT Finals, Polo School Ladies Weekly League and 26-goal WPL tournaments at both Grand Champions and Santa Rita.

Grand Champions tournaments attract a large international field of players from all corners of the world including Argentina, India, Mexico, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Canada, Ecuador, Brazil, Switzerland, France, England, Germany, Uruguay, Azerbaijan, South Africa, Venezuela, Chile, and England.

Season highlights for 2023 are the Sterling Cup, $50,000 National 12-Goal Tournament, Sieber Memorial, John T. Oxley Memorial Cup and $100,000 World Cup Tournament, a unique 0-40-goal, winner-take-all single-elimination tournament and special events including WPL Polo Pride and Sunset Chukkers & Cocktails.

The winter season is being live-streamed locally and worldwide on Wellington-based ChukkerTV (CTV Sports).

Grand Champions Polo Club caters to men, women and youth polo players at all levels. Its‘ expert staff can customize a complete playing experience including horses, pros and certified umpires in addition to lessons and practice sessions as part of its‘ Polo On Demand program.

The Polo School, now located at the former Pony Express facility, operates in Wellington January through May and September through November. The stand-alone USPA-sanctioned polo club, is thriving. It is dedicated to teaching polo to all ages, particularly grass roots youth. Its mission is to provide individuals opportunities in polo at every economic and ability level. The Polo School has nurtured several junior, men and women polo players now playing in the pro and amateur ranks since its inception.

For more information on leagues or Polo School contact Director of Operations Juan Bollini at  561-346-1099 or General Manager Cale Newman at 561-876-2930.

2023 World Polo League All-Star Challenge Schedule

Sunday 2/26
4 p.m. All-Star Challenge Final
Casablanca vs Richard Mille
GCPC Field 2

By Sharon Robb
Photos by Candace Ferreira

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