Returning for the first time since 2018, the prestigious U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship featured six competitive teams vying for the title in one of the premier arena polo competitions in the United States.
California Polo Club hosted the 12- to 14-goal tournament for the first time since 2011, with games played at Empire Polo Club.
Establishing themselves as early powerhouse favorites, BOOM! Cult, with Robert McGinley, Alejandro Nordheimer, and Pelon Escapite, sought to continue early domination in the final. Meanwhile, Dallas Polo, composed of Vaughn Miller Jr., Will Walton, and Rob Payne, looked to capture their first title by accelerating their momentum and team chemistry.
Ultimately, Dallas Polo’s strategy of preventing Escapite from controlling the game saw the Texan trio ride to a 14 to 10 victory.
“It’s unbelievable that we have our names on the historic U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship trophy. We assembled as a team from Dallas less than a month ago, so to be able to come together, compete, and win with my teammates was an amazing accomplishment,” Rob exclaims.
The semi finals were played in a round-robin format with BOOM! Cult, led by arena veteran Pelon. They utilized their experience and practices earlier in the week to take both of their respective matches over 101 Polo Club with Johann Felhaber, Jason Crowder, and Dan Flaherty, and Paragon, with Patrick Uretz, Troy Crumley, Jimmy Wright, Tomas Obregon, and Vance Miller III) to advance into the final undefeated.
Where experience prevailed in the first round-robin match, Dallas Polo’s youthful energy and determination found themselves in heated battles between OC Polo Club, with Spencer Hurtt, Jared Sheldon, and Ulysses Escapite, and Bryce Catalyst, with Molly Agee-Bankhead, Garrett Bankhead, Shane Rice.
Following a 1-all three-way round robin stalemate, Dallas Polo forged ahead into the final determined by their two net-goal advantage.
Working along the wall, Pelon opened the scoring in the final matchup for BOOM! Cult. Playing a classic game of arena polo working in tight spaces, Alejandro quickly scooped up the ball from along the boards to hit the goal in quick succession for BOOM! Cult. Recognizing the challenging task ahead, a disciplined Vaughn utilized quick transitions and responded with back-to-back goals for Dallas Polo.
Strategically neutralizing Escapite proved effective in the second chukker as Vaughn tapped in a goal, followed by Will with a successful two-pointer. As BOOM! Cult trailed for the first time in the tournament, Escapite was able to create some space on a pass from Alejandro to find the goal. After receiving a goal on a Penalty 1, BOOM! Cult leveled the scoreboard.
Continuing to play as a cohesive unit, Dallas Polo took charge of the remaining time in the half. After two quick goals in succession from Rob, Vaughn was able to tap in his second of the chukker. Scoring three goals within forty seconds, the offensive blitz from Dallas Polo allowed them to take a 9 to 7 lead into halftime.
BOOM! Cult emerged from the break with a charge as Pelon made his first two-pointer of the match, followed by another goal on a Penalty 3. Regrouping their strategy, Dallas Polo needed to prevent Escapite from taking control.
“Will and I just had to attack Pelon,” Vaughn shares. “He’s an 8-goaler, so it took everything both of us had to slow him down. He made us better by trying to match his greatness.”
Despite BOOM!’s successful third chukker, Dallas Polo was able to respond with one goal in the third, as Vaughn scored on a well-executed pass from Rob.
Entering the final chukker with a narrow two-goal lead, Will knew Dallas Polo could not afford to relax on either end of the play. “It was stressful because we were right down to the nitty-gritty,” Will recalls. “Pelon had already made a great two-pointer earlier. We just bared down and tried to keep going to take him out of the game.”
The opportunity to go to goal came early in the chukker for Dallas Polo, with Rob finding the goal, followed by a two-pointer on a brilliant backshot from Will. Alejandro would respond for BOOM! Cult, but Dallas Polo retaliated with back-to-back goals off the mallets of Vaughn and Rob.
Unable to find their rhythm and catch any bounces, BOOM! Cult were awarded their second Penalty 1 goal of the game. However, with time expiring, Dallas Polo’s commitment to teamwork and strategy allowed them to persevere and claim the championship with 14 to 10.
Honoring the rich history of the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship, Dallas Polo’s Vaughn was elated to join the ranks of high-goal players such as 2022 Museum of Polo Hall of Fame inductee and two-time U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship winner Tommy Biddle. He notes, “It’s history, winning this tournament goes on your career stamp.”
Contributing five goals and providing invaluable defensive play throughout the final, Rob was named Professional Most Valuable Player. “It’s unbelievable that we have our names on this historic trophy,” Rob muses. “We assembled as a team from Dallas less than a month ago, so to be able to come together, compete and win with my teammates was an amazing accomplishment.”
Making a strong impression in the semifinals, Molly Agee-Bankhead was named the Amateur Most Valuable Player. The only woman competing in the tournament and her first time in this level of arena polo, Molly shares, “It wasn’t as nerve-wracking as I thought it would be. My teammates, including my husband Garrett, really helped lift me up and encouraged me to keep going.”
Celebrating the importance of fostering healthy competition, the Sportsmanship Award was presented to Ulysses Escapite for his continued positive attitude, fairness, and support for his peers both on and off the field.
Best Playing Pony honors were awarded to 12-year-old Godiva, owned by Ramiro Gonzalez and played by Pelon in the first half of both the first and fourth chukkers. Hailing from an Argentine mare, Godiva has been playing polo since she was 5-years-old. Thrilled to receive the honor, Ramiro reflects, “Godiva’s very natural. She has a lot of potential and a lot of skill also on grass.”
Staying in California for the winter to compete with Bush League Polo, Pelon normally brings his own horses. However, his string needed a rest after completing a busy season in Aiken, South Carolina. Working with Ramiro for a rental in the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship proved to be a winning combination. “I know the mare so it makes it easier to do what I need to on her,” Pelon comments. “She has everything—the speed, the handle, and I can play her outdoors.”
The strength of the horse strings for Dallas Polo were also critical to their U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship success. Both Vaughn and Will brought their own horses from Texas, which gave them the advantage of familiarity. “I thought about renting, but I brought my best arena string,” Vaughn says. “Being on your own horse is the difference between winning and losing.”
Rob rented his horses from George Dill and couldn’t have been happier with the result, “I didn’t have a single chukker I was worried about. The horses went great, it really was our day,” he adds.
An Interscholastic national champion with Prestonwood in 2018, Vaughn shares a joke. “I’ve won the National Youth Tournament Series Championship, the Open National Interscholastic Championship, and the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship before the National Intercollegiate Championship. I did it out of order!” he exclaims.
Currently enrolled at University of North Texas (UNT), Vaughn still has three years of eligibility remaining and hopes to capture an intercollegiate title. With a 2-goal outdoor handicap, Will is currently taking some time off from college and is currently looking for opportunities to play and further his polo career.
Photographs by Kerri Kerley