Role Model

Ralph Lauren’s muse, Nacho Figueras, talks the sport of kings and being the David Beckham of polo

WORDS Cathy Whitlock
May 2017
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On a sunny Argentinian morning about an hour from Buenos Aires, Nacho Figueras embarks on his daily ritual.

After breakfast with his family, he jumps in his dusty truck (complete with a Rolling Stones bumper sticker) and heads to his polo field less than five minutes from his home. Practice and training occupy the next hour as our crew enjoys a front-row seat to the exhilaration (majestic horses and skillful riders) and danger (riding at adrenaline inducing speeds while hitting a ball with a mallet) of the oldest team sport: polo. It’s just a typical day in the life of one of the world’s most recognizable faces. While many people think of polo players as athletes by day and dashing playboys by night, Nacho is far from the stereotype. Sure, there are the accolades (he was voted one of the most handsome men in the world by Vanity Fair), the fame and the glamour, but none of that appears to matter. In the “Sport of Kings,” polo player Nacho Figueras is Everyman.

For the uninitiated with regard to the finer points of polo, Ignacio “Nacho” Figueras is one of the top players in the world. Growing up in a middle-class family on a small farm, Veinticinco de Mayo, his father put a mallet in his hand when he was just 9, and the proverbial die was cast. His professional career began at the age of 17 in Paris, followed by circuit play in the United States. Today, the 6-handicap player is the captain of Blackwatch, a tournament-winning team he co-owns with businessman and Telerate founder Neil Hirsch. In addition to his athletic prowess on the field, fate played a hand when his good looks caught the eye of photographer Bruce Weber at a dinner party in The Hamptons in 2000, and he was cast as the face of Ralph Lauren men’s fragrances and Black Label line. (The designer also sponsors the Blackwatch team.) While his involvement includes two to three campaigns a year for the line synonymous with polo (it’s as if the iconic logo of a polo player on a horse was designed with the 38-year-old in mind), Nacho does not think of his career as that of a model, per say, but rather as a way to draw attention to the sport. “This is a perfect bridge to help me achieve my dream and my vision of polo becoming a bigger, more visible sport,” he says. “With power comes responsibility, and my job is to use that power.”

Nacho’s endorsements (he is also a spokesperson for St. Regis Hotels) help to support his primary goal of democratizing the sport while still retaining the glamour. Often compared with another poster boy, soccer’s David Beckham, he explains, “I think Beckham democratized soccer and brought it to the dinner table, especially in America. I think I have done that for polo in America. I want to elevate the sport into something everyday Americans care about.”

In 2008, Nacho conceived of a tournament that would feature top players and offer free admission to the public. He teamed with the French Champagne house Veuve Clicquot to form a Polo Classic on New York’s Governors Island against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty. “My idea was to bring polo to the people,” he explains. He estimates that about 150 attended the first annual Polo Classic. One year, Nacho was pitted against friend and fellow polo player Prince Harry in a match that benefited the royal heir’s Sentebale charity, an organization that aids at-risk orphans in Africa. Today the event is held at Liberty State Park and tickets are scooped up in minutes.

Los Angeles was next on his radar, with the Will Rogers State Historic Park in Pacific Palisades as a beneficiary. “I was reading an article about polo fields in decline in Los Angeles, where there is only one polo field left out of 20 fields,” Nacho says. Held in conjunction with Veuve Clicquot in the fall, the event is open to the public, drawing local celebrities and fans alike. “Will Rogers played polo there with Walt Disney, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. During World War II people stopped playing polo there because it was a different world.”

Clearly polo is Nacho’s life, as he eats, breathes and lives the sport. His love of horses is secondary to his love of polo. Years of breeding have resulted in a stable of more than 500 horses, impeccably housed on his 200-acre ranch. While he scoffs at the idea of being a “horse whisperer,” horses are an integral partner of his success as he explains, “They are a very important part of the game. Without good ones, I will lose. Seventy to 80 percent of the game is having a good horse.”

He has named every one of his horses and can recall them all. “I make mistakes on the young ones, but once they get older, I remember every one. I named them after rock stars (Lady Gaga, Madonna, Rihanna and Janis), hotels (Hotel Costes, St. Regis), magazines, artists and museums.” They are so revered that 44 of them will get to live in his new modernist-style barn that “will be functional but will also have the feeling of a museum.” He is actively involved in every detail, and the design of the property features a studio for his wife and a pampas-covered roof ideal for viewing polo matches below.
 

Over salad and sandwiches at his new co-owned restaurant, Tack Room, at the stables, Nacho shares his great affinity for his brood. “Polo players love to watch horses. After we play, we like to sit and drink a lot of mate (a native herbal drink sipped from a gourd) and talk about horses. We look at them again and again and say look at the ass on that horse, look at the way the leg goes, etc.” So great is his study of all things equine, he is adding a blank stucco wall with benches at his barn to use as a backdrop for afternoons of observation.

A family man, Nacho says it was love at first sight when he met his wife, Delfina Blaquier, a former model and photographer, at — where else? — a polo match. Today, the couple resides with their -children — Hilario, 15; Aurora, 10; Artemio, 5; and Alba, 2 — in a contemporary tan stucco house on the ranch. Their home is filled with books, artwork — a pair of black-and-white Steven Klein photographs of Madonna in a Bridgehampton stable grace the walls alongside Delfina’s work and Nacho’s abstract paintings — an enviable closet of Ralph Lauren cashmere crew necks in every color, a chicken coop and life-size birdcages for the doves.

Speaking of art, painting apparently provides a creative outlet away from the competition, business and responsibilities that a life in polo can bring. Influenced by his favorite artists Kandinsky, Klimt, Pollock and Rothko, Nacho details, “I love to paint. There is no expectation, and I don’t put pressure on myself. When I play tennis, in business, and in polo, I put pressure on myself. With painting I don’t have to perform! It’s the one thing I can do without having a goal or a purpose.”

Avid polo player and former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill once said, “A polo handicap is your passport to travel,” and the nomadic life certainly applies to Nacho. Polo is a family affair for this tight-knit group as they travel from India, Dubai and England to summers in The Hamptons during polo season with kids and tutors in tow. “My life is pretty much polo. The game is my main focus in life.”

As the sun sets on the pampas, the 38-year-old Everyman draws a bath for his youngest son and reflects on his storied career and future. “At 45, you are already getting old for the game. You start pushing your luck,” he says of the often-dangerous sport that sidelined him with a broken pelvis two years ago. And while retirement is not in the distant future, there is no doubt he will pass the mallet and reins to his son Hilario. “He is 15 and will probably start playing professional polo soon. Maybe it is time to let my kid take over!”

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