WELLINGTON, Fla., February 24, 2022–Stage Hill held off Running Iron and Spencer Ranch to capture the Grand Champions Polo School Ladies League Final Wednesday at Santa Rita Polo Farm.
Stage Hill (Ava Hinkson, 1, Ava Nunez, 1, Malicia van Falkenhausen, 2, Alyson Poor, 4) defeated Running Iron (Pamela Flanagan, 4, Ari Dogani, 2, Annalise Philips, 0, Rileigh Tibbott, 1), 2-1.5, and Spencer Ranch (Rachael Spencer, 0, Valentina Tarazona, 0, Marisa Bianchi, 4, Heather Soto, 4), 1-0. In the other matchup, Running Iron defeated Spencer Ranch, 4.5-1.
Hinkson, who just turned 18 on Feb. 19, was selected Most Valuable Player.
„I have been MVP a handful of times, but it‘s always such an honor to get it, especially today,“ Hinkson said. „There were so many other incredible women out there. I was really surprised.“
Ava Hinkson and Marisa Bianchi.
Foxy, played by Heather Soto in the first chukker, was Best Playing Pony.
„The February final went really well,“ said Ladies League co-founder Alina Carta. „The girls had so much fun. They had a great time. They are all super nice girls. We are really lucky.
„Ava played well today,“ Carta said. „She has been playing better and better. She is very engaged, very on the ball and quick. I thought she played consistent.“
Pamela Flanagan and Ava Nunez.
Hinkson, a home schooler, has been playing polo since she was 12. She has honed her skills in Polo Training Foundation tournaments and Polo School Ladies League games. She is also competing in the 8-Goal League at Grand Champions.
Hinkson comes from a horse family. Her family has a 60-acre horse farm in Ocala. Her father played polo for years and her mother competed in three-day eventing. She first tried her mom‘s sport and then started playing polo.
„I started with the PTF and fell in love with it,“ Hinkson said. „I am definitely committed. I have two full strings of horses now. It‘s a lot but I love it. I want to go as far as I can with it.“
Her first tournament was the 2015 WCT Finals created by Hall of Famer Sunny Hale, who took Hinkson under her wing.
„She was an incredible person,“ said Hinkson of Hale, who died in 2017. „I remember she took us to Adolfo Cambiaso‘s barn one day and shared so many experiences. She was such an icon to me. She always took time for everyone. She really helped me find my love for polo. After that 2015 event I knew this is what I wanted to do. I have just fallen in love with it.“
Hinkson played a key role in her team‘s success on Wednesday.
„That was such a fun game,“ Hinkson said. „I love playing out there so much with those girls. There was a lot of running.
Ava Nunez and Ari Dogani.
„The four of us really click together. It was really competitive games. You had to be on and be cooking. We were a little bit slow in the first half, but started coming along a lot better. I love playing with the other three girls. We get along really well, we all communicate really nicely. We play off each other‘s strengths which is something I really enjoy.“
The Grand Champions Polo School Women‘s League, now in its sixth year, continues to play a key role in developing women players. The league, for all levels of playing ability, is held every Wednesday at 10 a.m. through April.
„I think it‘s definitely helped me, I really enjoy it,“ Hinkson said. „I played with Pam and Alyson and all these great women. They have really helped me on different things. Alyson tells me to work close to the man. Pam tells me she wants me to work with the ball more. They have all helped me round my game out. Every week I feel like I have gained a little more traction on putting everything together.“
The only full-time weekly women‘s polo league in the world was created by Carta, a polo pioneer and one of the highest ranked women in the U.S. in the 1980s, and Melissa Ganzi, Grand Champions Polo Club President, World Polo League co-founder and avid player. Ganzi is the first woman in history to win the prestigious 35th Snow Polo World Cup St. Moritz and first international woman to compete in the Richard Mille AlUla Desert Polo and earn MVP honors.
„It provides a place for them to really have fun, work on their game and play competitively,“ said Carta, who has several new players coming into the March League. „We have had a lot of new young girls.“
Pamela Flanagan and Ava Hinkson.
All team entry fees benefit The Polo School, a stand-alone USPA-sanctioned club located at the former Pony Express facility. The Polo School offers lessons to men, women and children of all ages and ability levels and offers scholarships.
The women‘s league, along with the March 30-April 3 WCT Finals at Grand Champions, honors Sunny Hale, the all-time greatest women‘s polo player, mentor and Hall of Famer.
Grand Champions, the nation‘s largest and busiest polo club celebrating its 15th anniversary, is coming off its most successful fall season. Club officials hope to build off that success when it hosts 23 tournaments from January through April.
Valentina Tarazona and Ari Dogani.
Grand Champions is host to the World Polo League, now in its fourth year and only 26-goal polo played outside of Argentina. Already underway with the All-Star Challenge, it has attracted a large international field from around the world.
The world-class league will run through April 16. In addition to the All-Star Challenge which ends on Saturday with the final, the remaining tournaments are the Founders Cup, which will hold its draw on Thursday; Palm Beach Open, March 9-27; Triple Crown of Polo, March 23-April 16 and Beach Polo World Cup Miami Beach, April 29-May 1.
Grand Champions has also added Sunset Chukkers and Cocktails, presented by Seminole Casino Coconut Creek held Tuesday late afternoon on Field One for players and guests.
The high goal club tournaments feature the Sterling Cup, $100,000 World Cup and Santa Rita Abierto.
The 16-goal league play includes the Grand Champions Cup, Power Horse Invitational and Pedro Morrison Memorial.
Valentina Tarazona and Ari Dogani.
The 12-goal league continues with the current Sieber Memorial Trophy, the $50,000 National 12-Goal and Mar. 8-26 Top Pony 12-Goal.
After January‘s successful Aspen Valley Cup, the 8-goal tournament schedule continues with the 5 Top Pony 8-Goal and Limited Edition 8-Goal.
The 6-goal schedule features the Metropolitan Cup, also underway; Halo Polo Trophy and Madelon Bourdieu Memorial.
Grand Champions Polo Club and Santa Rita Polo Farm is the largest and most unique private 100-acre polo facility in Wellington with 120 stalls in several self-contained barns, exercise track, five climate-controlled tack rooms, vet room, staff quarters, guest house and polo fields with state-of-the-art underground irrigation and stick-and-ball fields.
Heather Soto and Best Playing Pony Foxy.
During fall, winter and spring seasons, Grand Champions Polo Club, the nation‘s largest club with 13 well-manicured, world-class fields at GCPC and Santa Rita Polo Farm, hosts polo tournaments ranging from six to 26-goal including the 26-goal World Polo League in addition to special events.
The Polo School operates in Wellington January through May and September through November. For more information on the Fall Leagues or Polo School contact Director of Operations Juan Bollini at 561-346-1099 or General Manager Cale Newman at 561-876-2930.
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 only polo club in the U.S. to offer the unique program.
By Sharon Robb
Photos by Candace Ferreira