Unless they are in the same family, few young players get the opportunity to develop their string under the mentorship of a 10-goaler, especially one who has one of the best breeding programs in the world.
Matt Coppola, 23, of Wellington, Florida, is among the lucky ones. Three years ago he came under the guidance of Hilario Ulloa, and his career took an upswing. Tonkawa brought him onboard, and this is his third year playing for them in the spring and fall.
Last winter playing for The Tackeria in Florida, Coppola swept the awards at the 20-goal Herbie Pennell Cup final. His team won the trophy, Coppola was named MVP, and his mare Lavinia Ventaja (pictured below) was selected as Best Playing Pony.
He credits his success in large part to the five horses he purchased from Ulloa, whose ponies won the 2018 International Polo Club Best String award.
“It’s been amazing to see Matt grow so fast in the last couple of years. He’s a really good kid with plenty of talent, and he’s willing to learn a lot,” said Ulloa. “I see him going in a very good direction. He’s really focusing on trying to have a good string of horses. That’s the key for any player who wants to improve and succeed. Horses are everything.”
Spending six weeks at Ulloa’s farm in Pilar during the 2017 Argentine high-goal season (where he will be going again this year) gave Coppola repeated opportunities to ride, play and evaluate prospects for his string. He was also on hand to help when Ulloa was competing in the Argentine triple crown.
“I didn’t really know what to expect when I went there,” says Coppola. “The first day I stick-and-balled, and the next day was practice. It went on from there, and I played six days a week.” In addition to Ulloa, top players on the field with him included Facundo Sola and Tomás Garcia del Rio.
Four of the ponies Coppola purchased from Ulloa remain mainstreams in his string. He brought Lavinia Ventaja and Tortuga with him this summer to Mashomack, New York, where he is playing for Gardenvale. He played both horses in the 2018 Florida high-goal season.
Among his Lavinia line are two high-goal mounts Ulloa bred and played: Ventaja, who played the U.S. Open and was Coppola’s first purchase from him, and Tortuga, who played Tortugas in 2017. He describes Ventaja as “an angel in the barn and fantastic to play. I know that I can get on her and she’ll do everything I ask. She runs, she’s handy, she’s quick. She’ll win a ride-off. I can control the game with her.” Tortuga, he says, is “a smaller, compact mare with a lot of power, very handy, and that’s what I like.”
Coppola also purchased some young Lavinias that he is training now. “La Princesa and Velenta are green, but they do everything,” he said. They came from Argentina in April and are his fifth- and sixth-chukker horses in Texas.
Coppola also developed his own breeding program in conjunction with Owen Rinehart. Other horses were purchased with the advice of his father, USPA president Tony Coppola. Matt Coppola’s first polo pony was his homebred, Adele (pictured above), who remains one of his favorites. She was born the same night the singer Adele swept the American Music awards. Other top horses he bred are Adele’s full brother, a stallion named Sundance, and a full sister, June Bug, that he is playing this summer in Mashomack.
In addition to the horsepower he acquired, being at Ulloa’s farm was a learning experience for Coppola, a 4-goaler. “Watching what Hilario did with his horses every day and how he prepared them was incredible,” he says. “He has helped me out tremendously. He let me play his own horses in Argentina and learn. To be around a 10-goaler, especially one of his caliber, is amazing. I’m really lucky.”