Emma Challenge Cup winners La Karina and runners-up Piocho Ranch.

Emma Challenge Cup winners La Karina and runners-up Piocho Ranch.

By Sharon Robb

CARBONDALE, Colo., July 29, 2018---On an emotionally-charged day, the Emma Challenge Cup final lived up to expectations in front of a packed house Sunday at Aspen Valley Polo Club.

Argentine 9-goaler Nacho Novillo Astrada scored the winning goal with four minutes left in overtime to lead defending champion La Karina (Alejandra de la Vega, Brian Boyd, Stewart Armstrong, Nacho Novillo Astrada) to a thrilling 8-7 victory over Piocho Ranch (Grant Ganzi, Juancito Bollini, Nacho Figueras, Tom Barrack).

The day was dedicated to longtime player and groom Jesus "Chuy" Baez who died in an accident earlier in the week at age 60. Photographs of Baez, who worked at Aspen Valley and Grand Champions Polo Clubs, during his career were shown on the club's Jumbo-tron throughout the day and were on display at the club. A moment of silence was held before each game and awards ceremony. A memorial service was held after the final.

"For me Chuy was a shining example of what our organization is about," said Aspen Valley Polo Club co-owner Marc Ganzi. "It was a very difficult day for me. It's the first time I showed up to my barn in 13 years and I haven't seen Chuy.

"But as I told a couple of the grooms today and some members of our organization, Chuy will continue to live here at this club. He will live in every horse that rides out of this barn. My hope is that God gives him that ability to live through each of the animals that grace this field. Chuy we love you, we miss you and you will always be remembered."

It was La Karina's second consecutive victory over Piocho Ranch and second Emma Challenge Cup title in two years. Boyd is the only repeat winner off last year's champion.

"It was a lucky win and we will take it," Boyd said. "Tom, Nacho and the boys played amazing."

Last week La Karina won the Basalt Handicap defeating Piocho Ranch, 8-5. Both teams have now each won two tournaments during the summer season.

Astrada was named Most Valuable Player after scoring a team-high four goals including the game-winner.

Little Hawk, an 11-year-old mare, owned and ridden by Figueras in the fifth chukker, was selected Best Playing Pony.

Also scoring for La Karina was De La Vega with two goals including a clutch 30-yard penalty conversion that gave La Karina a 7-6 lead with 3:37 left in regulation. Boyd and Armstrong each added one goal.

For Piocho Ranch, Figueras scored a team-high four goals and Ganzi added three including an incredible lofted neck shot that tied the game 7-7 with 1:29 left in regulation.  

Astrada had an opportunity to win the game in regulation with a 60-yard penalty shot with 38 seconds remaining but his attempt sailed wide right.

Piocho Ranch had the first opportunity to score in overtime but missed a long goal attempt. Astrada brought the ball downfield and despite having defenders all over him near the sideboards got the winning shot off.

"He's a champion high goal player and he made the magic happen when it was all on the line," Boyd said. "It's a pleasure to play with all these great professional polo players. He and Stewart played amazing today. I had the best seat in the house."

La Karina, known for its colorful white and lime green jerseys unveiled during the 2016 season, is named after Boyd's wife, Karin, who is called Karina by family and close friends.

In the Just For The Love If It subsidiary game, Sopris Mountain Ranch (Jeff Desich, Rich Desich, Melissa Ganzi, Juan Bollini) defeated Los Amigos Red (Michael Payne, Paul Foster, Pablo Dorignac, Jonathan Gracida), 9-7.

Jeff Desich, who scored a game-high five goals, was named Most Valuable Player. His brother Rich was forced to leave the game with six minutes left in the third chukker with an injury. The teams decided to play three-on-three polo for the rest of the match.

After a close first half with Sopris Mountain Ranch leading, 5-4, Ganzi scored and Sopris Mountain Ranch shut out Los Amigos Red for a 6-4 lead.

Behind Desich's hot mallet and three goals, Sopris Mountain Ranch extended its lead to 7-4 early in the fifth chukker and maintained a two-goal advantage for the rest of the game.

In addition to Desich's scoring barrage, Ganzi had three goals and Rich Desich added one goal in the opening chukker. For Los Amigos Red, Payne scored a team-high four goals and Foster had three goals.

In a fun Kids Foot Mallet game, Polo School Purple and Polo School Green tied 2-2 in two chukkers. Artemio Figueras scored both goals for Purple and Solon Tamplin scored both for Green.

For the third consecutive Sunday doubleheader local firefighters and first responders were honored during AVPC's "Polo Cares" initiative. Each Sunday through Labor Day Weekend, firefighters and their families will be acknowledged on AVPC's featured game day. The club has a donation boxes for anyone wishing to contribute to local fire and rescue stations. AVPC is matching all funds collected 100 percent. AVPC wants to show its appreciation and support of the hundreds of brave men and women who have been battling the third largest fire in Colorado history for nearly three weeks.

With the majestic 12,965-foot summit of Mount Sopris as a backdrop, Aspen Valley Polo Club is one of the busiest and fastest growing USPA-sanctioned clubs in the nation with a membership increase of 75 percent over four seasons.

The Emma Challenge Cup was the fifth tournament of the 13-tournament schedule that features ten grass tournaments including the inaugural Aug. 31-Sept. 2Triple Crown of Polo Trophy and three arena tournaments highlighted by the July 24-Aug. 7 USPA National Arena Handicap.

Piocho Ranch has won the Independence Cup and Craig Sakin Memorial; Los Amigos Blue won the ChukkerTV Challenge; and La Karina won the Basalt Handicap and Emma Challenge Cup.

Since Marc and Melissa Ganzi founded the club in 2014, polo has increased in popularity in Aspen and surrounding cities with the club’s offerings of various weekly grass and arena tournaments, Gladiator Tuesdays and Asado, Kids Polo and The Polo School. In addition, the club offers practice sessions for teams competing in the weekend tournaments.

In the last four years, Aspen Valley Polo Club has had a positive impact in the area hosting kids polo camps, teaching lessons and hosting several charitable events at the club that have benefitted local charities including last season's Champagne, Caviar & Chukkers fundraiser that raised $366,000 for the Aspen Valley Hospital Foundation.

The Ganzis are avid players and patrons and "have created a polo paradise" according to Barrack. Players, sponsors,  community leaders and fans share Barrack's sentiments.

Aspen, named after trees that quiver in the slightest breeze, offers hiking, mountain biking, rafting, fishing, golf, horseback riding, great restaurants and taverns in addition to a full summer of polo.