Torrential rain failed to dampen the atmosphere at the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup at Cowdray Park when the last two teams in the four-week long British Open faced each other in a riveting final.
Huge support was shown for Les Lions, the team of Joachim Gotschalk, who has been on the quest for the most coveted trophy in polo since 1993 and had made it to the semi-finals three times but never lifted the cup.
Businessman Lyndon Lea, with his team Zacara, has entered the championship every year since 1995.
Zacara kicked off the scoring with two goals from the team’s No1 Gonzalo Deltour in the first chukka, but fortunes changed in the second with no further goals on the scoreboard for Zacara and Les Lions pulling up to take the lead 4-2.
Already there was a clear indication of the different styles of play from the two sides – the two nine-goalers for Les Lions, Merlos brothers Sebastian and Agustin ‘Tincho’, looking to dominate play, while Zacara’s three-man combination of Deltour (six goals), Hillario Ulloa (eight goals) and the South African seven-goaler Nachi du Plessis hoping to take over with their additional strength and speed.
The third chukka opened with a penalty 30-yard shot taking Les Lions further ahead, but a long run down the field and a fantastically angled shot at goal by Ulloa was Zacara’s answer.
Deltour took the score one goal further and Ulloa managed to level the score at 5-5, but then Zacara gave away a penalty enabling Lions to pull ahead once again before half-time.
During the tread-in, and with the scores so close, it would be intriguing to know what advice the teams were being given by their managers.
Clearly both teams were fired up as the fourth was the highest-scoring chukka of the match with field goals from Ulloa for Zacara and Sebastian Merlos for Les Lions, although both teams gave away two penalties apiece, closing with Les Lions still in the lead at 10-8.
But what a difference a chukka makes. Les Lions failed to score in the fifth and gave away a penalty to enable Zacara to creep up to 9-10.
Four field goals came in the final chukka, Nachi du Plessis levelling the scores at 10-10 then dramatically giving his side the lead for the first time at 11-10.
Tincho Merlos again worked his magic to pull Les Lions ahead again to roars from the crowd. Suddenly Deltour seized a chance and there was another through the post for Zacara.
A scrum in front of the goal posts failed to materialise another goal for Les Lions and the score remained on 12-11 in Zacara’s favour as the final bell sounded.
Jo Gottschalk saw his dream of hoisting the Veuve Clicquot Gold cup melt away, while Lyndon Lea’s side, coached by former England player Andrew Hine, and surrounded by a huge network of grooms, support staff and family erupted into celebrations.
The fabulous golden trophy was presented by Sabina Belli, international general manager of Veuve Clicquot, to a delighted Lyndon Lea, who also received a Salmanazar of Veuve Clicquot – equivalent to 12 bottles of champagne – from Jo Thornton, managing director of Moet Hennessy UK Ltd.
Zacara’s Gonzalo Deltour was named the most valuable player of the match to win the Peter Holman trophy, Hillario Ulloa’s pony Nuve was voted best playing pony, with a rug being presented by Lord Cowdray’s sister-in-law the Hon Lila Pearson.
A bespoke yellow leather saddle was presented by Elsa Corbineau, brand director for Veuve Clicquot, to Agustin Merlos, the highest goalscorer of the entire British Open Championship.
As his triumph began to sink in, Lyndon Lea said: “On the road we beat last year’s winners Dubai and 2009 winners La Bamba de Areco but to have actually won the Gold Cup is amazing – an absolute dream.”