Polo’s Rising Stars

By Terry Duffy

Photography by David Lominska and United States Polo Association

Great polo players don’t have to be born into the sport, but the best are certainly raised within it. Team USPA, a mentoring program developed by the United States Polo Association, encourages young players to reach their full potential on and off the field. Formed in 2010, Team USPA provides the rising stars of polo with the skills and guidance needed to be the club managers, trainers, and team sponsors of the future. The following five men have taken full advantage of this program in an effort to become tomorrow’s top players.

FELIPE VIANA

AGE: 26 | CURRENT HANDICAP: 5 | JOINED TEAM USPA: 2011

Felipe Viana has played polo in Uruguay, Argentina, and the United States. He achieved a career high in 2015, when he was named captain of the USPA World Cup team.

For polo fans, a day at the field is filled with the sound of clacking mallets and pounding hoofbeats. Skilled players and lightning-quick ponies make the game seem effortless. Felipe Viana describes this misperception as “colora di rosa,” for he knows how much work goes into preparing for every seven-minute chukker.

Though born in New York City, Viana was raised in Uruguay, playing club polo there as well as  in Argentina. “There were no sponsors, just families who supplied horses and made it easy to play,” he says. A lifelong rider and athlete, he made the leap to professional play while attending the University of Virginia.

Through Team USPA, Viana was introduced to the White Birch polo team and Argentine legend Mariano Aguerre. “Mariano reads the game like no one else,” Viana says. Both Aguerre and Viana played for White Burch during the 2012 season, when his team dominated the Greenwich and Hamptons polo scenes. The pair continued their streak into Palm Beach, taking the 2013 Joe Barry Cup with the Crab Orchard polo team.

Most recently, Viana played with polo superstar Adolfo Cambiaso on Bob Jornayvaz’s Valiente team in Palm Beach. “A 10-goaler inside and outside the boards, Cambiaso is the most giving teammate,” Viana says. “He makes you play 1 or 2 goals higher.”

Viana, who is in the running to be on the 2017 World Cup team, credits USPA for providing young players with the structure and connections needed to succeed in the world of polo. “Polo is a huge commitment that requires sacrifices,” says Viana. With a win at the World Cup, his years of personal commitment could certainly pay off.

COSTI CASET

AGE: 23 | CURRENT HANDICAP: 4 | JOINED TEAM USPA: 2015

The connections Team USPA players develop can make a big difference to their future success. Costi Caset credits his friend Geronimo Obregon for sparking his interest in the Team USPA program. “They help get your name out there so the teams recognize that you are ready to play,” says Caset.

The rising 4-goaler is clearly “ready to play” and made that known when he nabbed the Most Valuable Player award at the finals of the 2016 Gulfstream Pacific Coast Open. Caset delivered a stand-out performance with the Restoration Hardware team, playing alongside Jason Crowder (6), Santi von Wernich (6), and patron Ben Solemani. “Costi is a fierce competitor who always puts the team first,” says Crowder.

Winning the Pacific Coast Open was a homecoming of sorts for this California native. Caset was born in Carpinteria, and his father, Marcelo Caset, was a top professional who played at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club.

After his family relocated to Argentina, Caset developed his skills through games and tournaments arranged by polo families. “I think I was 11 or 12 when I won my first 14-goal tournament with my father and brother,” Caset says. “I had a zero handicap then.”

At age 16, Caset worked with Tommy Lee Jones’ San Saba organization prepping horses for tournament play. Today, Caset has seven horses of his own in the States. He looks for “made” ponies that are trained and ready to play. His horse Poncho was awarded Best Playing Pony in the 2016 Gulfstream Pacific Coast Open final. This season, Caset will play at the International Polo Club with Jeff Hildebrand’s Tonkawa polo team.

Right: As a member of the Restoration Hardware polo team, Caset was named MVP at the 2016 Gulfstream Pacific Coast Open.

JESSE BRAY

AGE: 24 | CURRENT HANDICAP: 5 | JOINED TEAM USPA: 2011

A California-raised Kiwi, Bray is one of polo’s most talked about young players, having racked up a string of accolades, including the USPA’s prestigious Equus & Co. Award.

Jesse Bray exudes confidence, and upon first introduction, it’s immediately clear he is perfectly comfortable with his role as a polo ambassador. The New Zealand–born Bray (check the kiwi on his helmet) grew up traveling between his native land and California’s desert polo clubs. His father, former 7-goaler Graham Bray, was a fixture on the West Coast polo circuit. Bray the younger honed his polo skills on the same fields where his father played with medium- and high-goal teams.

At age 16, the second-generation polo pro carried a 2-goal handicap and landed his first paid assignment. When high-school friends were thinking about second-hand cars, Bray was buying his first horses and concentrating on a future in polo.

In addition to his father, Bray credits West Coast polo veterans Kimo Huddleston and Santiago Trotz as early influences. “Santi taught me to think through the play, to anticipate how it would go,” says Bray.

With a physical style on the field and noted strength, Bray carries himself like a linebacker and is able to land goals from the mid-field mark. That first impression, however, belies his on-field dexterity and considerable skill to score at high speeds. Bray played with the Palm Beach Illustrated polo team in Wellington last season and was instrumental in PBI’s trophy victory in the 2016 Joe Barry Cup. 

Bray will play in Florida this winter season and is being considered for a spot on the USPA team for the 14-goal World Cup in April. If chosen, it will be his second time in the international competition and a chance to avenge the team’s loss in the 2015 final to Chile.

Despite that defeat, Bray has maintained his signature swagger. When asked to name the best player at his handicap level, he replies, “Jesse Bray. Am I allowed to say that?”

WESLEY FINLAYSON

AGE: 21 | CURRENT HANDICAP: 3 | JOINED TEAM USPA: 2016

After turning pro at age 15, Finlayson went on to win two USPA President’s Cup tournaments, in 2013 and 2014.

Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, and now living full-time in Wellington, Wesley “Wes” Finlayson had his first polo lesson at age 11. His teacher? None other than veteran player and U.S. Open winner Martin Estrada. With fields to practice on and plenty of competition in and around Wellington, Finlayson quickly developed the skills required to begin playing professionally when he was just 15 years old.

Polo pros such as Kris Kampsen (6) have taken notice of Finlayson’s drive and determination. “I really love having Wes around my organization for his work ethic and attitude,” says Kampsen. “He has the ability to read plays, which makes hitting and dribbling effortless.”

 

In addition to Estrada and Kampsen, Finlayson also played with the late Carlos Gracida, whom he credits with fueling his own aspirations. “His game sense and patience were amazing,” Finlayson says.

Gracida was a legendary horseman, and Finlayson is developing a string of his own. Among the 12 ponies in his barn, Sabona is a current favorite. “Getting to 4 and then 5 goals is all about the right horses,” he says.

Beyond having a versatile roster of horses, Finlayson also credits his success to his experience with Team USPA and having the ability to foster relationships with team owners. Networking is critical for young players who may live in Florida but want to play in other polo destinations such as Kentucky or Houston.

And while the competition among young players is fierce, Finlayson believes that being a gentleman on and off the field is key to growth. He keeps a low profile and advises others to “bring no drama.”

Geronimo Obregon

AGE: 21 | CURRENT HANDICAP: 4 | JOINED TEAM USPA: 2016

Horsemanship and polo serve as second languages in Geronimo Obregon’s family. “I was riding before I could talk and have been around polo for as long as I can remember,” says Obregon, who is the youngest of four brothers, all of whom have polo handicaps ranging from 4 to 7. He has, on occasion, played alongside his brothers, most recently at the USPA Copper Cup in Aiken, South Carolina, where he was on the Skaneateles team with his brother Mariano (7).

Obregon played his first professional game in 2008, when he was only 12 years old. That same year, he won his first tournament, the USPA President’s Cup, with Villa del Lago. “On the team was my friend Jared (Zenni), Mariano, my cousin Augustin Obregon, and me,” he says.

In 2016, while playing for team PBI, Obregon scored the winning goal in the $50,000 National 12-Goal Tournament.

Today, Obregon is a sought-after player who credits Team USPA for providing him with valuable support from veteran players like former 10-goaler Adam Snow. Team USPA was also instrumental in matching Obregon with Mazusa, one of his current polo ponies.

Given his own familial ties to the sport, it’s no surprise that Obregon views the Novillo Astrada brothers as huge influences. “The Novillos play disciplined polo, always taking the man first and then going to the ball,” he says.  “Miguel (Novillo Astrada) waits for the play [as if] he is above the game watching for the play to happen.”

Obregon offers similar advice to fans: Follow the horses in addition to the players. “Fans should watch the game away from the ball to see how the other players are setting up for the next play,” he says. Good advice from a young player who always has his eye on what’s to come.