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Lechuza Caracas starting over Exclusive interview with Victor Vargas

By Alejandra Ocampos.

Venezuelan Victor Vargas is one of the most successful and renowned polo patrons. Owner of one of the best organisations in the world, that is Lechuza Caracas, the latter has been the involuntary protagonist of an event that shook the polo community in Wellington and worldwide, when unexpectedly on Sunday, April 19th, 21 horses belonging to the organisation died, causing Vargas to withdraw his team from the US Open.

Lechuza Caracas starting over
Exclusive interview with Victor Vargas	Lechuza Caracas starting over
Exclusive interview with Victor Vargas	Lechuza Caracas starting over
Exclusive interview with Victor Vargas	Lechuza Caracas starting over
Exclusive interview with Victor Vargas	Lechuza Caracas starting over
Exclusive interview with Victor Vargas	Lechuza Caracas starting over
Exclusive interview with Victor Vargas
But Victor Vargas is a fighter who has always known how to overcome life's troubles. After this tragedy, he got prepared to present his team in the UK and fought the battle with his impeccable organisation.
PQ met up with Victor Vargas in England, and this was the only interview given to the media, in which he spoke about all topics.

Last year, after a long-term relationship, you split up with the Merlos brothers. What was your relationship with them like throughout the years?
My relationship with the Merlos brothers and their father Cacho dates back 20 years. I am very fond of this family. They are friends of mine. We were together in Argentina for a long time, at Lechuza. I have wonderful memories of that place and, in fact, Cacho, Pite, Sebastián and I got Lechuza started up in Argentina. It was a very interesting project, since back in 1993 Pilar was far from being what it is today, a spectacular place with very good polo fields.

What was the Lechuza project in Argentina all about?
It was the first idea of having something in Pilar, even before Ellerstina.
For me, it was the opportunity to begin playing high goal polo, since between 1983 and 1985, I played medium goal in Palm Beach, Dominican Republic and Venezuela. So I had the chance of buying that place and playing high goal under the Merlos, which was great for me.
My relationship with the Merlos' family was very fruitful between 1993 and 1999. We played together and won everything with Sebastián and Pite as well as Cacho. But when my son died in 1999, I decided to sell that place.
Since then, I have never gone back to Argentina. I almost returned last year, as I received an invitation from Adolfo Cambiaso to play the Diamond Cup, at La Dolfina, but unfortunately I was not able to go due to presidential elections that were taking place at the time in Venezuela, and I was very busy. However, I do plan on returning this year and buying another place.

After splitting up with the Merlos family, where do you stand in your relationship with them?
I had a very good relationship with the Merloses during all those years, but now things have changed. The way marriages change, or relationships between parents and children. The way all things change in every aspect of life. I decided to split up with them as regards polo, but we still have a good personal relationship. In fact, I still buy horses from the Merlos' family. In my opinion, what happened last year is that the time came to make a change, to split up. As from that moment, I took charge of my own organisation, which was in the hands of the Merlos' family during all that time. Personally, I am very fond of the Merloses, and I have very good memories with them.
The doors to my organisation are open to them for life.

How did you decide to take control of your organisation?
I am a very busy person, but I think it was the right moment to take charge of my organisation. I am very satisfied with Steven Scott's management. Steven has been my friend and manager for years now. Managing a big polo organisation was a great opportunity for him, and he is very good at it. This was also very good in terms of having only one person in charge of taking care of and training the horses. That person is Felix Crespo; a great high goal player, a spectacular person, an excellent professional and veterinarian, and highly responsible as regards training horses.
Our horses have changed a great deal over the past two years, and this is reflected in practice games and matches, since our players are very satisfied with the horses' performance. He is a person who works a lot and very well, and I want the whole world to know that Felix Crespo is a great human being, an excellent hard-working person, very reliable and professional, which is not an easy thing to find. I appreciate his effort very much.
Without a doubt, that terrible Sunday at Palm Beach was a hinge-point in Lechuza Caracas' career.
I still don't know what happened to us. These were 21 of our best horses and it took years to achieve this.
My whole family has always been connected with horses and horse breeding:
my father, my grandfather, my two daughters, every one of them.
It's not like I get on a horse and go out on the field to play. That's not my style. I spend time at the stables, with the horse grooms, who are a part of my family. Beto, Chango, all of them.
I spend a lot of time with them. For me, a horse is a spectacular animal, the very best. I always tell my friends that if I were to live another life, I would like to be a horse!
We take care of our horses as if they were athletes because they are very special.
There are no restrictions in terms of what can be spent on horse caretaking.
Many conjectures have been made concerning what happened. Whether we used drugs on our horses, which we have never done, as these are some of the best horses within the world of polo, and on which we spent a lot of money during the whole year. We buy horses all the time. If we come across a good one, we make an offer, since more horses are always needed to keep the good ones going. Polo is a very tough sport, both for the horses and the players and everyone who is involved and, therefore, there is a lot of hard work to be done. So, in order to face this, horses must be given the very best care.

What was that day like?
It was a normal day. Our vet had ordered us to buy this vitamin complex at a lab in Ocala. We normally play a tough practice game the day before the match, and have each horse play five minutes per chukker. Later, we gave them a vitamin shot in the morning before the match, with a 24-hour lapse between the practice game and the match.
When we reached the field, an hour before the match, as we usually do, Steven gave me a call and said there had been a problem with the horses.
He said one of them had died in the truck... it was all very quick. We tried to move the horses off the field and take them to the trucks in order to transfer them to our stables. What moved me most was the collaboration of all polorelated people. They were all there to help us, even all the vets in the area.
At the time, we had no idea what had happened. We just watched the horses drop to the ground one after the other.
For me, that was one of the worst days of my life. I never imagined something like that could happen. I just wondered, 'why us?' I lost some of my best polo ponies, and it has nothing to do with money. It's just that those horses were unique, irreplaceable specimens.
Juan Martin, el Sapo, Nico... we all lost spectacular horses.
It was a very tough situation for us all. It all happened in scarcely two hours. I still cannot believe it... it was very difficult for all of us...

What happened later? What was the organisation's feeling?
That afternoon was horrible. The following were hours of disappointment, of sadness... there was only silence to be heard. I returned to the stable for a meeting with my staff and I told them it was not the time to talk about the subject. I told them to relax and take a rest. It was extremely tough for all of us. The next day was even worse. When we saw the empty stables, with no horses, I decided to withdraw the team from the US Open. We needed 30 horses to play the US Open and the main ones were no longer there...

How do you pull through after such a terrible thing?
We have all supported each other and we continue to work towards our objective: to play good polo, since we have a commitment to our people, our game, our friends and our families. It was time to start again, and rebuild our lives around this sport, because we are like a great big family, as my organisation is made up of people who have been with us for years. I like keeping the same people around me, maintaining my relationship with people for years and enjoying time with each one as a human being. I am not the kind of person who sees someone today and then never again. This is why I found it so difficult changing people on my team. This is the way I am, not only regarding polo but also regarding my life as a businessman.
We decided to move on and fight against some media companies that were so tough on us, and I don't know why. Everybody knows us within the polo world, and they know perfectly well the kind of people we are. Sometimes the press can be very harsh, which is a normal thing for me in my life as a businessman. I am a public person in my country too. In any case, I have my staff in the United States, who work on press-related matters but... oh, well, it's just something that happened. Fortunately, the lab acknowledged having made a mistake in the preparation, that there was a higher amount of selenium, which we suspected from the very beginning, that there was a mistake in the amount of selenium which was toxic for the horses. As from that moment, everything calmed down a little.
We learnt a great deal from this... It was very tough, but here we are.

What stage of the investigation have they reached by now?
The investigation has reached its last stage. One thing is for sure: the preparation was wrongly made. There was a higher amount of selenium. That was definitely the problem. The lab assumed its responsibility, but I don't know what happened with the vets.
I hope they put the right amounts in the prescriptions, but I don't know. I am unaware of those details. This is a very simple mixture. The vets prepare the prescriptions and send them to the lab, which is totally permitted in the United States.

How did the USPA react concerning this whole situation?
In the first place, I would like to make it clear that the USPA helped us a lot and we are very grateful for their phone calls and their support towards our organisation. The same goes for John Goodman and everybody at IPC, as well as the Wellington community.
They have all been wonderful and we are very grateful. But I don't know what happened with the handicaps. Before this occurred, we ran a very good campaign.
We won the Gold Cup, and after the tragedy, rebuilding everything was not an easy task. It isn't a question of going to a shop and saying - Ok. Give me the best 21 polo ponies. This is why it came as a surprise to me when they decided to raise Nico and El Sapo's handicap, because it is no longer possible for us to repeat this same team. It was a great team, in which we were all friends and we played very well. This was good for the sport, for the people, for polo fans. So our career was cut short, when we were halfway there. We were not allowed to reach the final. We lost 21 horses, we won the Gold Cup and we had a good chance of winning the US Open.
So why were our handicaps raised, even higher than other teams?
We tried talking about this. Not me, but Steven and our coach Roberto González. They tried to talk about it, to express our point of view. We are worried because starting over isn't easy for anyone and, of course, for us it is even worse. I have assumed a commitment.
My staff has taken on a commitment and we have all taken on a commitment, and two weeks after this disaster, it turns out that I have two important players off the team!!! We must start again, make up a new team and you wonder why... I have nothing against anyone, but why? This may not be the right moment to say so, perhaps later on, but you do notice there are other teams with good players and their handicaps haven't been raised, then why???

Why do you think those handicaps were raised?
I don't know. We can't understand why, since five players on the Lechuza team had their handicaps raised!!!
There was no happy medium. I have no idea how many people are on the USPA Handicap Committee. It may be the rules... I don't want to argue or complain. For me, this means relaxing.
It is my sport, it is my way of being happy and I don't want to fight with anybody, but it is also very disappointing.
I am disappointed with the decision taken by the USPA Handicap Committee of raising the handicaps of five players on the Lechuza team when our organisation is going through its worst moment. But, oh well, we will move on with our organisation all the same, and this is why we are here in England.

Precisely, let's talk a little about the UK season. Were you surprised by the results obtained in the Queen's Cup?
No, absolutely not. We work very hard. We have our plans. We work hard with our trainers and physiotherapists.

In our organisation, we must all be fit, players and horses. We plan each match. We watch every team on DVD. We work extremely hard. So this doesn't come as a surprise. As I said, two years ago I decided to take charge of my organisation and attend to every single detail. I put great effort together with all my staff who work very hard: Steven Scott, Roberto González, Beto González, Félix Crespo, the players, our trainer. Nelson Pugliese, our physiotherapist, Federico. This is the result of a good organisation that does things the right way. I consider we have a great organisation, and a very good team, which has a chance of being competitive in any match we play.
Having the strength to return after the tragedy was a huge challenge Yes, sure. After that, our attitude changed. You need to get the best out of each one in order to maintain good results. Perhaps the first five practice games were very sad for all of us, but after that we grew a lot as a team. It is a good opportunity, not only to show our skills but also our recovery gamewise.
This is something that has never happened before in any other equestrian sport. It is the first time it has happened in the whole wide world!!!
And I feel very responsible for this. Not because I did something bad, but because this is my organisation. This is the reason why we reacted very strongly.
Perhaps this tragedy brought about some sort of feeling that urged us to work stronger and harder.

What role do each of you play within your organisation?
One thing is very clear: there are no star players in our organisation.
This is very important. All players are the same, both a 9-goaler and a 1-goal player. And they all have the same opportunity because they feel that everyone is important. That is my philosophy, which I have put into practice in my life as a businessman. This began when I saw Steven Scott at the head of the Lechuza Caracas organisation. He has done a great job, very reliable and professional. If you look at the way the people on my staff do things, it is exactly the same. And you can see so in each personal presentation. This is our style.
Each one knows what to do and is in the right place, at the right moment. I seek for perfection in every aspect of my life.
If you take a look at my stables, you will notice everything looks perfect, and when a practice game is over, everything is tidy and in perfect condition. I am a very detail-minded person. I like being this way, and so do the people that work with me. This is very important in an organisation. Everything adds up to achieve good results and success.

Do you like coming to the UK?
I sure like coming to the UK. I like polo in the UK and, besides, this is a very straight country. I like things that go straight... down a path. And that is what the UK is like. I feel very comfortable in the UK. The only thing I would probably change is the possibility of having fields in better condition, as a good field is fundamental in order to play. The weather here isn't the best, but something should be done to improve the fields. This is the only thing that worries me, but otherwise, I feel very comfortable in the UK.

Which is the best mare you've ever had?
The best I've ever had? Two of them... they died in the Palm Beach tragedy, and they were spectacular.
One was "Julieta", which I considered one of the best polo mares. Platera and Shakira were also amazing. And there are two horses that I am now breeding which fascinate me, and these are Mary and Condesa. Monarquía is my favourite horse now, and so is Talia. But all the horses we have here in UK are very good.

What do you think is your contribution towards the team on the field, your best quality?
I believe it is confidence, giving the players confidence. When they feel pressured or nervous, as this is a very tough sport, I cheer them on so they can enjoy and be relaxed. At this moment, I am very happy and I enjoy playing polo much more than I used to, and I am even playing better! For me, it is a more relaxed and fun thing, but I like playing well. If you lose and you played well, it's ok. But, if you happen to win and you played badly... I like to play well, that's it. I try to make our players feel good because I know they do everything in their power and they do it very well. I must say I am very happy with the team we presented in England. Miguel Novillo Astrada is a spectacular player, with a very strong mentality, which is very important. As regards Sapo, I have believed in him for years. I always felt like helping him and giving him a hand. He is an excellent player. We play very well together.
And so does Juan Carlos Harriet. He works a lot and very hard.
As regards my team in Palm Beach, Juan Martín Nero is incredible and, besides, he has married a very good young lady, Josefina. It is a pleasure playing with him, as well as Nico Espain, who is also a great person.

Which player, with whom you have never played before, would you like to have on your team?
Well, I admire many players, but if you are asking about one in particular, as an individual player, without a doubt that would be Adolfo Cambiaso. He has given something different to polo.
There is a 'before' and an 'after' Cambiaso. He is also a great person, with a big heart. I have never played with him. He has invited me to play the Diamond Cup, and if everything works out fine, this year I plan to play with him over there.

Where do you see yourself in four years' time, both professionally and personally?
At this moment, I am facing lots of challenges in my professional life. I own a big company, with many employees around the world, and I am also involved with several banks in Central and South America. My great challenge and commitment is to continue working for my country, Venezuela. Venezuela is going through a very special moment. I am still the chairman of the "Asociación de Bancos de Venezuela" (Venezuelan Bank Association) and I am also closely involved with the Latin American Bank Federation. There are also many oil-related businesses, so I have lots of commitments laid down on my list for the next four years. I work everywhere. Luckily, I keep in close contact with my offices in London, Palm Beach and New York.
As regards polo, I plan to continue playing the best polo possible. Unfortunately, the Palm Beach season has been lowered from 22 to 20 goals, and for me the best thing is being able to play 26 goals. Although 22 goals are played here in UK, undoubtedly the level is a lot higher than that. But I plan to continue playing a lot in Palm Beach, in UK and in Venezuela where I own land. And I plan on returning to Argentina. This isn't easy, as I have the same organisation but in different places - Palm Beach, London and Venezuela. But we will try.
Personally, I am very happy with my family. My two sons-in-law are playing edium handicap. My grandchildren, Eugenia and Francisco José, that is to say, my daughters Margarita and Victoria's children, are 2 years old and they already have their own horses. We are a family who have always been around horses and, therefore, we find it very difficult staying away from that. So I plan to play a lot and improve as much as possible.