As the polo season arrives in the United Arab Emirates Life After Sport talks to Argentine Polo star 'Nacho' Figueras about the sport of kings.
The sport of Polo has an old-world cache that is synonymous with the tamed power of well-muscled horses, ridden by vigorously athletic men, bearing down on a small white puck ball at speeds of 136 miles per hour with long wooden-handled sticks. Argentinian sportsman, brand ambassador and globally recognized polo player Ignacio “Nacho” Figueras needs no introduction to the world of coiffured green playing fields and privileged company. The globally recognized face of acclaimed fashion retailer Ralph Lauren’s Black Watch Polo Label brand has an air of detachment in cover shots but has a focused and burning joy for his sport. “Polo is my life”, he enthuses, when explain how the sport of kings as bestowed so much good fortune upon him. It’s just 12 noon and he landed in the early hours, flying into Dubai from Miami, United States where he plays competitively and shuttles between homes, games and family. Right now he’s coffee laden, in the saddle and ready to go.
At 6 feet and 1 inch this horseman’s grip is evident as he stealthily negotiates the coffee table on his way over and bares gently bares down on my hand. Affectionately known as “Nacho” amongst friends, peers and adoring fans, he seems to have a preference for a slightly more relaxed and informal address. Adoring fans of the Latin horseman have waited some time for his arrival in a region where horses and life style are key priorities amongst the must haves. Indeed it’s a confluence of positive factors making the United Arab Emirates and wider region a perfect nesting ground for growing the sport’s profile and core audiences. Indeed Dubai has a strong aspirational element of people who like to experience annual events that broaden their social life and contact. Polo is a lovely day out in the same way that events like the Dubai World Cup and other equine driven gatherings bring together an otherwise highly transient group to celebrate, have fun and connect with people who love the chivalry, gloss and glamour connected to the sport.
For Figueras the sport of kings has gracefully allowed him to leverage his personal talent, passion and energy for an ancient game that has its roots on the plains of Asia, but is now renowned for the playing fields of the pampas of Argentina, South America, or The Hamptons on the US east coast, where polo season mark the outdoor social and philanthropic calendar of the well-heeled.
A VERY UNBRITISH GAME: THE ORIGINS OF POLO
Historically played by the military, ruling and tribesman classes of Persia and Asia history polo has long heritage. The game was used to plan, play out and execute war strategy without weapons. The sport was later introduced to Argentina by the British in the Americas in the 1800s. The game is played with two opposing teams with four players at on each side. All players rotate their horses in each game. Each game is played in chukkas which are Figueras can be forgiven for protecting his sporting pedigree and heritage against that other sizeable sport - Football- and what for him partly defines the very identity of being an Argentinean. Born and raised outside of the Paris of South America, Buenos Aires Figueras grew up in a middle class family on a rural farm where he was able to grasp a love for sports and a natural upbringing rearing his horse as young boy. Introduced to the sport at seven years of age by his father he has never looked back. The regularity of grooming, walking and feeding his steed is clearly a loving memory of his youth, and has set him apart as an ambassador and gentlemen-sportsman when it comes to his mission to popularize horse polo as a sport for all. He turned professional at 17 years of age and played at various locations in Europe before arriving in Bridgehampton, New York in 1999. “It is true that we have many high quality sportsmen in Argentina that are global figures but in Argentina we have horse polo and this is what I do,” he retorts passionately, his back straightening out of the soft seating when addressing this point. He would be the first to acknowledge that polo has some challenges as a sport that is seen by many as a past time that is played and watched by the well-heeled from Monte-Carlo to Buenos Aires. However, he believes affirms, “In my homeland access to horses are a very common thing and in no way exceptional. If you have the passion for polo you can definitely play the sport and enjoy it”.
LIFE BEYOND POLO
He readily admits that while he played many sports including tennis his exposure to horses aligned him to drive a relationship with his personal horse which he cleaned, fed and groomed on a daily basis as a kid. You know when we are kids we all wanted to be whatever we wanted to be. It was all possible. I wanted to be John McEnroe,” he quips. Like his own sporting hero of yesterday Figueras is a champion of grit, self-realization and discipline he’d be the first to tell you that beyond the gloss of the game there’s much grind and repetitive work to be completed before he could showcase his horsemanship to audiences across the globe.
A family man with three children – Hilario, Aurora and Artemio with one on the way at the time of interview Nacho is a key player in two key teams. A husband to Delfina Blaquier, a photographer and former model since 2004 and co-owner of his own polo team named Black Watch in United States. He plays as a team member and maintains a stake in the team’s ownership. He travels extensively throughout the globe and between homes in Miami and Buenos Aires; this journey brings him to the Middle-East region for the first time where he played some horse polo fundraising showcase events in the Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Figueras is both a defensive and attacking player in what is a physically demanding game for both horseman and horse. Never one to shirk and challenge he assuredly states, “No, I am never scared while playing polo because if you are you cannot play who the control and to the best of your true ability”. The record tells the tale. The man sitting before me sports a facial scar beneath his eye and has broken upper torso and facial bones in pursuit of his passion for polo. As the number two player his job is to make plays and support the defense of his team against opposing team players across a playing field that is 300 yards wide and 2-3 times larger than a soccer field. However he maintains Polo is not an aggressive game according to Figueras. His role is both tactical and strategically demanding to team victory. A polo game can last up to two hours or more. Depending on the level being played it can contain four six minute chukkas or up to eight seven minutes chukkas. But for sure much lower body strength is needed for this sport at this level. No doubt he has cultivated a strong physical presence. “You don’t need huge biceps for this sport but you do need good overall conditioning, he admits “I don’t have a particular exercise program to keep in shape so I use a variety of exercise programs to avoid getting bored. I will use any excuse to play tennis”.
The father of a young family and a recent addition to the family he is all too aware of the joint demands of a sporting and family life. “My family and I travel as often as possible together when I am on the road, but with school and the stability required for the children I like to get back as much as possible and spend time at my home outside Buenos Aires with my family on the farm where we live”. His wife has an equally great passion for horses and has ridden all her life while also growing up in Argentina.
When he is not competing ‘Nacho’ as he in known by peers has adoring female audiences amongst celebrity groups and dedicated followers of the game. Asked about his moniker and how he acquired it he’s very matter-of-fact about it. “It’s a nick name from school days amongst my friends growing up in Argentina. Just a short version of my name Ignacio”, he explains, pointing out that few people accept his second grade teacher call him by his first name. I am quieted and amused at the same time. In 2009 he was voted the second most attractive man in the world by Vanity Fair magazine. His personal style and earnest manner has placed him amongst some of the most recognizable people on the planet. This top 100 ranked polo player is an out and out businessman whose whole passion has become his total work and love. His passion for the sport is evident when he leans in to engage questions during interview. He is started modeling for Ralph Lauren in 2000. He had been plying his horseback skills in Argentina and the United States when he was spotted and introduced to the legendary designer by photographer Bruce Weber. In 2005 a shot of entrepreneurial opportunity, his talent for horsemanship and good looks- not forgetting polo- placed Ignacio in a chance meeting with Ralph Lauren. A co-owner of his own polo team named Black Watch in United States both he plays and maintains a stake in the team’s operation in Miami. His steely vision for making the Polo Black Watch a billion-dollar brand by suggesting placement of his now classic number two on the back of Black Watch Polo shirt made him the face of a leading fashion brand communicating luxury, confidence, adventure and aspiration. More recently Ignacio has used this platform to align his personal brand with more progressive elements in around polo in terms of and the sport’s development and outreach.
POLO’S WIDENING APPEAL
Sport has always galvanized people for social or competitive reasons, however access, resources, time, opportunity for exposure and traditions all influence sporting choices that can run generations deep. Figueras is challenging that position by exposing polo to diversity. He believes in the transformative power of equine polo and a sport in movement that is played in no less that 77 countries globally today. “There is no doubt that polo has its challenges when it comes to widening out its playing audience but I am personally aware of the number of programs where inner city kids are being introduced to playing polo. “A young man called Kareem Rosser and he is the first African-American to play on a competitive polo team that won a US polo competition and in the United States. In addition he has gone on to attend an Ivy League university”. Other initiatives he is currently involved with have allowed polo to be positioned as a sport for all that can be played and watched by all. Figueras has been active widening polo’s appeal and access by bringing it to less traditional and ‘hard to access’ sites. Such locations such as New York City’s Governor Island off Manhattan Island and across the Hudson River have formed the backdrop for a great day out and more mixed participation from New Yorkers as spectators. Such programs bring the sport closer to the people who wish to play and watch the game. Since patience, attention to detail and an eye for talent are all features of this star polo player’s repertoire we can only wonder to where what billboard or glossy magazine he’ll be cantering off next.