The first ever USPA Women’s Arena Open on the West Coast came to a thrilling conclusion on September 25 at OC Polo Club in Silverado, California.
It was a weekend filled with top-tier polo, impressive horsemanship and winning camaraderie. Featuring a deep field of experienced intercollegiate, interscholastic, and Team USPA alumni, the competition included many high school and college reunions. It also created an overall excellent environment for high-level arena polo.
OC Polo Club also boasted a packed crowd at its gorgeous facilities, enlivening the atmosphere and adding to the tournament’s buzz.
The first contender for the title is OC Polo, with members Mila Slutzky, Cindy Halle, and Marissa Wells. They battled against the formidable Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo, composed of Kasia Lindgren, Jennifer Alexy, and Audry Persano.
The final was highlighted by talented play and teamwork as well as impressive use of the boards. A close match entering halftime, OC Polo’s second half resolution to slow down their speed of play and make special efforts to control the ball paid off. Ultimately, the team delivered a decisive 16 to 11 win, with 11 goals coming off the mallet of 9-goaler Marissa.
Starting off the tournament on September 23, OC Polo first met Lakeside, with Nicole Bankhead, Molly Agee Bankhead, and Cory Williams. OC Polo created a solid 5 to 1 lead with an electric first chukker, which they would not relinquish throughout the game. Raising the score to 16 to 11 as the final horn blared, the home team earned their spot in the title match.
Shortly after, Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo met Tres Leches (CPC/DPC)—composed of Maria Dahlmann Gupta, Becky Gonzalez, and Erica Gandomcar-Sachs—in the second semifinal. Mounted on many of their own horses, Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo generated early offensive success and did not pump the breaks. They powered through to a commanding 18 to 5 victory to claim their place in the final.
Discussing her team’s efforts to prepare for this tournament, Cindy shares, “Her mom really set it up for her. The whole point was for Mila, who is 16-years-old and has never played at this level, to have a really positive experience. Marissa and I could bring our experience and really teach her, and obviously the second goal was getting to the final. We stayed with Mila’s family, so we had time to go over the tapes. For her age, she really absorbed everything!”
Cindy continues discussing the semifinal match. “We came in Thursday and played a couple of practice chukkers, but I only played two of my horses and Marissa played two of hers. So, Friday, we had never seen the other two—that was a little tricky. But we were super fortunate. We got really nice horses from George Dill. The Lakeside team is really talented, I think they were just a little rushed,” she recalls.
Mila, the youngest competitor in the tournament, was introduced to the sport through her mom, Danielle, about four years ago. She notes, “My mom took a lesson at her jumping barn and said, ‘You have got to come try this!’ I did, and I fell in love—and now I’m here!”
Prior to picking up the mallet, Mila got her start in the saddle competing in hunter jumpers. Finding more passion in polo, she says, “That’s where I got my start, and then I moved to [polo]. This is more fun for me.”
Both teams entered the final after dominant semi final performances. The first chukker of play set the tone for an aggressive first half. Early in the chukker, riding Caviar, a handy gray rented from George Dill, Marissa was able to find the goal for OC Polo. “He’s just so handy,” Marissa comments about Caviar. “He gets around so quick. I felt like I had a lot more handle. I beat Jenny and Audry to the ball on him.”
Her initial strike was matched by two goals off the mallet of Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo’s Jennifer. Marissa and Mila were both able to work together to create scoring opportunities, ending the chukker with 3 to 2 in favor of their team.
Dedicated to building a strategy prior to the final, Marissa discussed how her team was able to mentally prepare themselves to meet Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo. “I’ve been playing against Jenny all summer and I knew she was extremely well mounted. Her horses are super handy and she’s very smart and knows how to use the walls. So, when the ball rebounded, we tried to play smart and not foul. Fouls are going to happen, but I knew Jenny was super quick. If I could get her to rush and not be so alone, we thought that we could beat them,” the player points out.
Cindy also shared how watching Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo play on Thursday helped in creating a strategy. She adds, “We watched how they lined up their horses in the first game, and tried to figure out our horses. Basically, our game plan was for Marissa to mark Jenny, I was going to try and mark up with Audry, and we put Mila on Kasia. In the lineups when they switched it up, we made sure to stay with our man. We also were looking at our game—we needed to hit to open space and take our time a little bit more. We needed to be more aware of where the space was.”
With the start of the second chukker came a reenergized Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo. Marissa and Jennifer traded two goals apiece to spearhead the action, followed by two more goals from Marissa. Jennifer was able to find the goal once more, but her effort was matched by Cindy, who was able to add her name to the scoresheet. This gave her team a 7 to 5 advantage at halftime.
Holding a narrow lead, OC Polo recognized potential within themselves to further the distance between their opponent in the second half. Marissa shares, “I felt like in the first half, we were rushing, myself personally. So we played calmly and tried to control the ball, control the play, and control the game.”
With her entire family heavily involved in polo, and arena polo especially, Marissa’s parents Kelly and Trevor were also able to offer words of advice in real-time thanks to the livestreamed game. The player jokes, “Today, they were a little better. But on Friday, my dad was texting me, ‘Rotate your shoulders on your penalties. They’re going a little bit right—you’re playing like an outdoor player.’ And then my mom was saying that I needed to hit to space. We were trying to clear it a lot going down the middle, because it was so deep it would get stuck, and we would lose it. So, she said, ‘Clear it to the sides, go to the corners.’”
After taking time to regroup, OC Polo planned to execute their updated strategy to take more time and focus on controlling the ball and the game. Marissa returned on Caviar and OC Polo generated a seemingly endless stream of offensive power. They added four goals coming from Marissa and another one added by Cindy. “I always played Caviar in the third chukker because I knew the arena was dragged fresh and the ground was soft,” Marissa says.
Hammering down on the defensive front with the same vigor they invested in their attack, OC Polo held Rancho Arroyo/Luna to just a single goal to double up the score. The third chukker ended with a 12 to 6.
The final chukker placed a firm time limit on the opportunity for a comeback from Rancho Arroyo/Luna Polo. Audry and Jennifer combined forces to score five goals in a valiant effort to close the gap.
All OC Polo team members contributed to the score in the final chukker. A nearly matched four-goal fourth chukker helped the local favorite cling to their game-long lead and claim the title with 16 to 11.
Overjoyed with her team’s victory, Mila was thrilled for the opportunity to just participate alongside her teammates and opponents. “This win means a lot,” she shares. “It’s my first big tournament at this level, and I learned so much—the win is a bonus.”
For her incredible performance, including 24 goals over the course of the weekend, Marissa was named Most Valuable Player. Crediting a lot of her success to her horses, specifically her third chukker horse Caviar, she notes, “Thank you George Dill for that gray horse! The third chukker both days, he owned it. I would get on him and the confidence was just there!”
Marissa was also thankful to be able to play alongside Cindy, a former rival turned teammate. “Cindy and I have always been competitive rivals in Maryland because she was coaching for Garrison [Forest School] and we were team Maryland,” she muses. “It was great getting to play with her. Polo’s a great community—it’s a small world and, at the end of the day, we’re all friends and we can be teammates on the field.”
This win marks Marissa’s and Ciindy’s second USPA Women’s Arena Open victories. Cindy won in 2020 alongside Lindsey Morris and Jessica Schmitt with Ace Sportswear. Meanwhile, Marissa triumphed alongside her mom, Kelly Wells, and Sophie Grant in 2018 with Marlan Farm.
Jennifer’s second chukker horse, Fifi, bred and trained by Diego Larregli, was awarded Best Playing Pony honors. Ten years old and standing at just 14’2”, Fifi does not let size stop her from dominating the field. Jennifer shares, “She’s built like a horse—she’s a little tank. She has such incredible handle and she can push a horse of any size. She knows how to use her little body and it’s the same in outdoor—she’s small but mighty. She’s also completely in charge of the entire barn. She’s the boss. No one messes with her and she’s extremely sassy.”
The competition also recognized 11-year-old chestnut Izzy as Best Playing Thoroughbred in partnership with the Thoroughbred Incentive Program (TIP). Played by Audry in the first and third chukkers, Izzy is also owned by Jenny Alexy. “Izzy has a lot of heart,” Audry quips. “She hasn’t played in the arena much—this was her first tournament. But she’s super quick, really nice, and light.”
An off the track thoroughbred, Alexy describes Izzy’s racing heritage. “She is out of a stallion named Invasor who won the Breeders Cup Classic in 2006 and was horse of the year that year, so she’s really well bred. Interestingly enough, Invasor is Argentine bred. I bought her from a photo as a three-year-old,” she reminisces. “She only raced a couple times, but you could tell her heart wasn’t in it. You can watch her races and she would be really fast and then be like, ‘Yeah, done.’ But now, she loves polo!” Similar to BPP Fifi, she was trained by Diego Larregli.
The Sportsmanship Award was presented to Mila for her winning attitude and pure desire to learn throughout the weekend. A bit nervous going into the tournament, the player was grateful for all of the support and advice she received from her teammates and other competitors. She shares, “I know polo players in general are supportive. But getting to this level, you’d think it would get intense and aggressive—which it does. But everybody in this tournament has been so supportive and so amazing. Everybody’s so nice and I feel like I’ve made so many connections.”
The memories and lessons learned will stay with the competitors, especially Miila, for years to come. “You learn so much just from being on a team with people that are better than you,” she notes. “Being the least experienced in that game just taught me what I’m working towards and what I can potentially be one day. It was amazing to have all those talented ladies to look up to.”