He’s polo’s poster boy and the good-looking embodiment of the Ralph Lauren universe he models for. We spoke to polo star Nacho Figueras about his unbridled love for the gameand his ever-growing collection of polo ponies.
Photography NATHAN COPAN Text SUSANNE MADSEN / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.4
It’s a crisp spring evening at The O2 arena in Greenwich, London, and the queues winding their way into the dome are awash with so many pairs of white jeans that you could be forgiven for thinking there was an Eighties tribute band playing. In fact, white jeans happen to be a fixture of polo fans’ wardrobes, and tonight England are playing Argentina for the second instalment of the HPA Gaucho International Polo – an event that takes polo from grassy fields to an indoor urban setting. A straw poll of spectators suggests that although most have come to root for the home team, they’re all secretly cheering for Argentina or, more specifically, for Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Figueras.
With a cameo on Gossip Girl, appearances on Oprah and 60 Minutes and a modelling gig with Ralph Lauren that has spanned more than a decade, Figueras has become a household face even to those who haven’t got the slightest idea what a chukka is. (It’s a seven-minute play period, of which a polo match has four to six, in case you were wondering.) He may not have the highest handicap or hold the title as the world’s best player (that honour belongs to fellow Argentinian Adolfo Cambiaso), but Figueras’ celebrity and position as captain of the Ralph Lauren Black Watch team is bringing polo to a much bigger audience. Last year’s Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic on Governors Island in New York – which saw Nacho pitted against Prince Harry – drew crowds of 18,000 people.
“It’s a great game that everyone can enjoy,” Figueras says when we catch up with him after the match. “Polo is no longer an elitist game, with matches taking place in great venues such as The O2 in the middle of cities. Playing in an indoor arena has a much faster pace than outdoors, and you really feel that the spectators are more involved as they are closer to the action.” Whereas outdoor matches are played on grass in an area the size of nine football fields with two teams of four players, indoor polo only has three players on each team in a much smaller space, and horses are changed during each chukka to preserve their energy. “Sometimes it can shake things up and change the rhythm slightly,” Figueras observes, “but if you have a good relationship and connection with your horse then it doesn’t affect things.”
The game eventually ends with England winning 1-0 on penalties after the two teams finished at 15-15. Watching Figueras and his team charge around the arena, their steeds bumping into each other and racing after the ball with the gusto of a Warhorse battle scene, is an intense experience. Fittingly, Figueras calls his style of playing warrior-like. “Every time you are out on the pitch you are in battle. We all love to win and I never give up,” he notes, adding that he is “definitely a perfectionist”. You can’t tell from his handsome, chiselled features, but Figueras has taken some serious blows in the field. He has broken his nose (twice), his wrist, his collarbone and his ankle.
It’s stating the obvious, but Figueras is a bit of a dreamboat. Macho but softly spoken, he has a soothing Argentinian drawl that turns polo into ‘pwollo’, and his outlook on life seems decidedly sunny. Ask him what bores him and the answer is “Nothing. I love life.” With his rugged but dapper looks, he could have stepped out of one of those legendary “What sort of man reads Playboy?” ads from the 1960s, filled with Don Draper-y types who are shown skiing in Aspen, riding in Montana and drinking dry martinis surrounded by beautiful women. And there are plenty of, shall we say, enthusiastic Nacho fans (often known as Stick Chicks, in reference to the mallet-wielding players they admire). But you won’t get any sordid tales about rabid groupies from the diplomatic Figueras. “All my fans have always been super nice and supportive. I am very lucky in that respect.”
He is also firmly off the market: in 2004, Figueras married his long-term love, the photographer and former model Delfina Blaquier, and the couple have three children: Hilaro – who is already thundering around in the polo field – Aurora and Artemio. “I make time for my family whenever I’m not playing, and I’m lucky that they often come to my matches to support me. One of the downsides of being a polo player I suppose is all the travelling – it can be tiring.” A polo season takes players to England, New York, the Hamptons, Santa Barbara, Palm Beach and Argentina – not to mention St Moritz for snow polo.
“I always say: if you’re born in Hawaii you surf, if you’re born in Austria you ski, and if you’re born in Argentina, most likely you play polo,” Figueras told 60 Minutes earlier this year. There’s a saying in polo that the only way to get out of it is to die or go broke: polo is not so much a mere sport as a passion and a way of life. And while the word polo conjures up images of hat-wearing socialites sipping champagne on freshly manicured lawns in a VIPs-only world for the privileged few, Figueras is adamant that’s an outdated perception and hopes that his celebrity can help bring the sport of kings and princes to the masses.
Figueras doesn’t come from a moneyed background, but rather, by his own account, from a middle-class family. His father was a hard-working man who made it possible for Nacho to have his own horse when he got hooked on polo at the age of nine. Home was a farm outside of Buenos Aires, but at the tender age of 14, Nacho’s ambition took him to professional polo player Lucas Monteverde’s farm, where he lived and breathed the game. At just 17, he was playing pro in Paris, until a new patron (the word for owners and sponsors of polo teams) took him to the US in 1997. Two years later, he made serious waves during his debut season in the Hamptons – the place where he also fell into modelling after being introduced to famed photographer Brucer Weber.
Weber brought Figueras to the attention of Ralph Lauren, and the following year he appeared in his first campaign for the brand. So how did the polo crowd view his newfound status as a model? “I think they acknowledge me as a polo player first and foremost, so the modelling hasn’t changed their perceptions,” he muses. Today, he is the face of every single one of Ralph Lauren Polo’s fragrances for men, and a constant fixture on the Models.com Icon top ten rankings. But Figueras far transcends the traditional role of the model. He brings the iconic Ralph Lauren logo to life, a dashing embodiment of the silhouette of the mallet-wielding polo player, and you’re hard pressed to find anyone who could bring Ralph Lauren’s preppy yet rugged Americana dream to life the way Figueras does. “I am close to the Lauren family and they are wonderful people,” he says. “Working with them really fits so perfectly with what I do, and it’s a great complement to my profession as a polo player.”
It’s clear that polo always comes first. During recent years, Figueras has added mentoring schemes to his long list of activities and also supports a polo programme for inner-city kids from troubled areas. So what makes a great polo player? “Having a passion for the game. It’s also hard work, so you need to be patient, determined and committed to it. You can always improve and become a better player. That’s what I hope I’m doing.” And while retirement isn’t quite on the cards – polo players can play well into their forties or even fifties – does he have any ideas what he will do once that time comes? “Not really. But I will always be involved in the sport somehow.”
At home, on his and Delfina’s idyllic farm outside Buenos Aires, Figueras breeds a steady supply of squirrely polo ponies – of which he has “too many. I’m like Carrie Bradshaw and shoes,” he once commented to London’s Evening Standard. So how does he manage to bond with each one of them and get inside their heads? “You build close relationships with horses by riding them regularly, talking to them, rewarding them,” he says. The polo pony holds a special place in the horse pantheon. It is hard to find a more level-headed yet fiery mount, and most players will tell you that a good pony can play the game for you. While some polo players refer to their horses as machines, Figueras is not one of them. He speaks of his four-legged companions with much devotion, and refuses to name favourites: “I have no favourites. I love them all equally.” •