Pacific Open Finale

Everything took a bit of downturn this year at the Pacific Coast Open. The PCO is the marquis event of high-goal season each August at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club. It’s the one trophy everyone wants to win, the one event that brings the crowds, and the only one anywhere near California that is part of the ESPN Triple Crown of Polo.

But this year, only four teams signed up to compete, just half the typical eight, a result of quirky injuries to six of the patrons – or polo-playing team sponsors. Accordingly, both the corporate tournament sponsors and audience attendance lagged. There were no big pavilions full of cars and fancy foods on Sunday afternoon, no extra grandstands on the far side, no salsa band performing after the match.

But none of that mattered to Lyndon Lea, whose Zacara team walked away with a 14-10 victory and the PCO crown – or actually replicas of the massive trophy that cost $1,500 per player – when the final horn sounded on Sunday.

Walked? Make that ran. Zacara plowed through the round-robin over the last two weeks, earning victories by three, seven and four goals over Grants Farm/ERG, Piocho Ranch and Audi Polo, respectively, to earn the top seed in the finals, a rematch with Piocho, which had compiled a 2-1 record but a lackluster 4 goals differential.

The final game was no different. Piocho Ranch jumped out to an early 1-0 lead as Kris Kampsen knocked through a 40-yard penalty shot just moments into the first chukker, but that was the last time Piocho was ahead. Zacara’s Nick Roldan, later named Most Valuable Player of the game, answered with two quick goals, sparking a run that became a 10-4 lead by halftime.

Things got interesting in the fifth chukker, when Piocho scored four of the five goals to pull within one at 11-10. But it was clear they’d used their best horses – and best plays – before the period even ended. Zacara’s Roldan and Ruke Baillieu both picked up loose balls and drove them through the goalposts to increase the margin to three before Brandon Phillips closed the scoring in the last chukker.

Lea had a big scare with only 150 seconds left in the game when his horse pulled up going up the bank behind the goal, throwing the rider hard to the ground.

“It’s sore. Trust me; it hurt even after I got up,” Lea said post-match, minutes before heading off to the hospital to have his back checked out. “But (winning) feels great,” he added.

For Lea and three-year old Zacara – previously called Jimmy Choo, before Lea sold the shoe company last year and renamed the team for his children Zachary and Cara – the third time was the charm after two close calls in ’05 and ’06.

“They played it really smart this year,” said SBPRC polo manager (and announcer) Andy Smith. “They played as a team, and didn’t burn out their horses. When they jumped out to a lead, they passed the ball around with confidence and then capitalized on every opportunity, while Piocho missed quite a few.”

Indeed, the game might have been much closer had Kampsen not failed on several scoring opportunities at the condo end of the field in Carpinteria, including a penalty shot and an open goal breakaway.

“There were chances to come through, but when the time came to finish it off, I just didn’t get it done,” Kampsen admitted. In his defense, however, injuries had forced the team to change members frequently; they fielded their seventh different lineup on Sunday afternoon.

No such issues for Zacara, which has sported the same group for two years running.

“We matured as players and the team played as a unit,” said Roldan.

“This is what we came here for,” added Phillips.

“If we didn’t do it this year,” joked Baillieu, “I was giving up polo.”