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As Nacho Figueras dismounts from his horse to greet me at his polo ground just outside Buenos Aires, I cannot help but wonder if he is aware of the effect he has on other people. As I approach this disconcertingly handsome athlete, I am seized by an attack of self-consciousness – suddenly my middle-age paunch seems more protuberant than ever. I can only breathe a secret sigh of relief that a slipped disc means I have had to turn down the chance of one-to-one tuition from Figueras. There will therefore be no photographic record of my pitting myself against the man whom Vanity Fair readers once voted the second most handsome man in the world (behind Twilight star Robert Pattinson).
“Polo is my life. It’s what I live and breathe,” he tells me as we walk to the stables, near the town of Pilar, in an area he calls “the epicentre of the world of polo”. Figueras, 37, grew up on a small farm in the Pampas and started playing aged nine. His was not the moneyed background so associated with the sport, though after nine years of breeding polo ponies he now has some 500 horses, the best of which is worth about $300,000.
Figueras turned professional when he was 17, and has since become one of the most famous figures in polo. It helps that he once ranked among the world’s top 100 professional players but he is also the face of Ralph Lauren Polo fragrance and its numerous ad campaigns. Yet while he may be comfortable in front of the camera, he is uncomfortable talking about it. He says he only became “coincidentally involved” in modelling after meeting a business acquaintance of Lauren’s at a party in the Hamptons.
“I don’t feel identified with my modelling career,” he says. “I’ve been lucky to have an amazing brand that has so much to do with polo, and it has been a great partnership for me, enabling me to get more money for my [polo] career and gain recognition to help promote what I love.
“My aim has always been for polo to grow. The only way for polo to become more mainstream is through corporate sponsorship. That’s the future of polo … Polo today is what golf was 50 years ago. You had to belong to a club, wear smart clothes and so on. Angel Cabrera [the Argentine golfer] had to caddy to get enough money to play.
“What happened to golf could also happen to polo – the next best player could be working in a barn grooming. But without developing the culture, that’s not going to happen.”
Figueras reckons that by raising awareness of a game that in the UK alone is estimated to be worth £200m a year, it could grow five or even 10 times over the coming decades. Everyone is capable of feeling that “sense of beauty” as horses charge around the polo ground, he says. But there is something else that will have to change. “Adolfo Cambiaso has dominated the sport for years,” says Figueras, referring to Argentina’s top player, currently ranked number one. “About 95 per cent of the best players in the world are Argentines. That’s great for Argentina but it’s like shooting yourself in the foot. The fact we are so dominant means that polo can’t grow elsewhere. It’s a bad thing for the sport.”
Figueras himself currently has a handicap of six, down from his peak of seven. Polo players are ranked by a goal-based handicap system that ranges from minus-two to 10. The very best players have a handicap of 10 but, at the moment, only seven active players enjoy that distinction. Nevertheless, Figueras’ BlackWatch team has won a number of tournaments, reaching the finals of the US Gold Cup in 2004. He regularly takes part in charity matches with players like Prince Harry, and arrives in the UK next month to captain his team in the St Regis International Cup at Cowdray Park, opening the English season.
Figueras’ wife, Delfina Blaquier, a photographer and former model, comes from one of Argentina’s most distinguished families. (The couple have two sons and two daughters, and the family often travels the global polo circuit together.) Yet, even if he does rub shoulders with the rich and beautiful, he appears not to care so much for the glamour of the scene. “Some people think that polo is just about ladies in high heels and the Queen giving out trophies, but there’s so much more to it than that. They are just seeing the icing on the cake and not the huge amount of preparation that it takes to get that cake ready. Polo means getting up at 5am on cold winter mornings, it means tirelessly training and exercising horses all year round,” he says.
“[People] don’t know how hard it is to go 35 or 40 miles an hour on horseback and try to hit a tiny, bouncing ball accurately with a long stick, as someone else is charging towards you. You can die.” He’s not joking. In February this year, his friend, the Mexican Carlos Gracida, was killed in Florida when his horse fell on him after it was struck on the head with a mallet. Gracida was a 10-goal player who had won more tournaments than any other player in the history of the game.
“It’s a reminder of how dangerous polo is. I don’t think that people realise that we are risking our lives every time we go on to the polo field.”
Tickets to the St Regis International Cup on May 17 are available at www.stregis.com/polo.
Benedict Mander is the FT’s Southern Cone correspondent
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