x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Polo in full swing in the UAE

How two men are taking the 'sport of kings' to a wider audience.

Nacho Figueras and members of his Black Watch team, which is sponsored by Ralph Lauren, play against rivals in Nespresso in California. John Sciulli / Getty Images for Veuve Clicquot / AFP
Nacho Figueras and members of his Black Watch team, which is sponsored by Ralph Lauren, play against rivals in Nespresso in California. John Sciulli / Getty Images for Veuve Clicquot / AFP

Nacho Figueras, all chiselled cheekbones and swarthy good looks, is talking a bout the 80 babies he is having next year.

That's right, 80. His stunning wife Delfina Blaquier, 32, will only give birth to one, a girl, in January; the rest are of the four-legged variety and will be born at the breeding centre he runs on farmland near Buenos Aires in his native Argentina.

But judging from the way he talks about his polo ponies - he had 350 at the last count, nearly one for every day of the year - they are as beloved as his own children.

"I know their mothers by heart and decide which stallion to pair them with when they are born," he says when we meet in the lobby of the St Regis Saadiyat Island hotel in Abu Dhabi, where he has been galloping across the sands, all flowing locks and open shirt.

"I name them, feed them and decide everything for them. And I know every one of their names."

With a fourth child on the way to join his two sons and daughter - Figueras jokes he will soon have a full polo contingent - the heartthrob polo player and Ralph Lauren model is set to disappoint a legion of female fans.

But the 35-year-old Argentinian, dubbed the David Beckham of polo, is singularly credited with popularising the sport once deemed the preserve of the elite and wealthy.

When he played at the Veuve Cliquot Manhattan Polo Classic in New York in 2009 opposite the UK's Prince Harry, his celebrity friends, including Madonna, Marc Jacobs and Chloë Sevigny, turned up to watch.

The prince playfully sprayed him with a mouthful of champagne after beating him. Figueras, who once trumped Brad Pitt to the title of second sexiest man in the world in a Vanity Fair poll, has only warm words for his rival: "The princes are great, they have been riding their whole lives and know the sport really well. Harry really cares about his charity work and uses polo as a platform for those causes."

That mission is one close to Figueras's heart. A keen sportsman, he realised he had a knack for the game at a young age after taking it up at nine years old and turning pro at 17.

And when he was spotted by a model scout in 2000 and invited to be the face of Ralph Lauren's World of Polo fragrances, he saw the potential of tapping into an audience which might not have come across the sport otherwise.

"I looked at it as an opportunity to promote the sport I love," he says. "All of this is about creating relationships with brands to raise awareness of polo."

In a way, Figueras, on his first trip to the UAE, is preaching to the converted. The nation has long had an affiliation with polo and a love of equestrian sports stretching back years.

The late founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, opened Ghantoot Racing & Polo Club in 1994 as a royal facility while horse racing enthusiast Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, won the prestigious Gold Cup at Royal Ascot in the UK earlier this year.

"What I like about the culture is that there is a big connection with horses. That is a passion I share," Figueras says.

The game's sweeping reach was apparent at the Coutts Polo at the Palace tournament last month. The 1,000 spectators who gathered for the event in the grounds of the Emirates Palace covered a wide cross-section of the UAE's population, from Emirati businessmen to picnicking expatriates enjoying the spectacle on a sunny day.

Figueras's visit comes too early to play for the Argentinian side in the tournament, but as an ambassador for the St Regis hotel chain he often captains its polo team, which plays around the world.

When we meet, he has just played in China. In five days, he will cover nearly 22,000 miles as he zips between Buenos Aires, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Miami and back home on a gruelling schedule which includes promoting both polo and fashion.

"I have no time to be jetlagged," he says ruefully. He packs as much as possible into short trips so they do not interfere with his first love, polo, and with his family life.

The day he lands, he will be back at his stables - where he breeds fine-honed specimens using the latest embryonic transfer methods - to check on his horses before saddling up the next day.

"I compress everything into a crazy schedule so it does not interfere with the polo I am playing in Argentina," he says.

Earnest and softly-spoken with a dry wit, Figueras's success speaks of the universality of the sport.

He began playing on a pony borrowed from friends of his middle-class family (his father was an agricultural engineer, his mother, a housewife) who lived on a neighbouring farm.

"It was owned by my father's best friend from college," he says. "We started going every weekend to visit them so I started playing polo with that family."

As a teenager, he was a champion hurdler who played tennis, football and skied but it was only at 15 that he saw the career potential of being a polo player.

"I thought, this is what I want to do and I can make a living out of it. When I started playing professionally, I made money which I invested in horses and my career so it started paying for itself," he says.

He played in France and Spain before joining the team White Birch in Bridgehampton, New York, a "career changer" as it gave him a chance to lure American spectators, who had lost interest after the Depression and Second World War, back to the game.

He now captains and co-owns Black Watch, with American businessman Neil Hirsch. After taking up modelling in 2000, he became the face of Ralph Lauren Black Label in 2005 while the designer has created a Black Watch line of polo shirts.

He is savvy enough not to care whether it is his looks, his dapper attire or his ability that is driving thousands to discover a passion for the game.

"It is not frustrating, it is the recognition that allows you to have a say," he shrugs. "I want Black Watch to be what Ferrari is to Formula One or the Yankees to baseball. I am trying to make a billion-dollar brand."

He says the knock-on effect is the growing popularity of the game: "It has been my mission to raise awareness of the sport and I think people are responding to it."


Polo at the palace

Few have been as instrumental in transforming the game's image as Rory Heron.

Like Figueras, the chief executive of City Events, which staged the recent Abu Dhabi tournament with Coutts, has been working hard to make the sport of kings accessible to as many people as possible.

Two years ago Heron revived Hurlingham Park's status as a London inner-city polo field for the first time since the 1930s. It now attracts 30,000 fans to Polo in the Park, the biggest audience for polo in Europe.

And with the game's newfound popularity, the borough authority, Hammersmith & Fulham Council, launched an initiative offering free lessons to state school pupils. Victoria Grace, of the Ascot Park academy behind the lessons, describes it as "cheaper than five-a-side football".

"In London, we have completely opened up the game to a new audience," says Heron. "Here in the UAE, it is much more select."

Hence, the sponsors of the Emirates Palace polo weekend, where the hotel provides a stunning backdrop to a lush playing field sown with rye and meadow grass, veer toward the high end, from the Queen's bankers Coutts, to Maserati and watch manufacturers Hublot.

To give spectators more of a level playing field of appreciation, Maserati invites a group of novices - myself included - to a polo experience day led by instructors from Dubai Polo Academy, who promise to teach us in an hour what it normally takes three weeks to learn.

"Forget you are on a horse," barks our tutor Steve Thompson. "This is not a riding lesson. The horse is there just to enable you to play."

All very well but when I find myself bouncing uncomfortably on top of Tattoo - even those who have never ridden a horse before are expected to canter and gallop in our hour-long lesson - it is all I can do to stay in the saddle, let alone think about swinging a polo stick without doing myself or my horse grievous bodily harm.

First though, we are taught the basics of stick and balling (practising hitting the ball with a mallet) on terra firma. Once we are used to the pendulum action of the stick and the motion necessary to hit the ball, we are ready to meet our horses.

Putting the theory into practice is one thing while standing on a grassy lawn; trying to remember the sequence of strokes and safety rules is another when your horse is charging along at 35 miles an hour.

I find myself misjudging the lunging action necessary to hit the tiny ball with a stick which doesn't seem quite long enough and more than once, nearly catapult myself over my horse's head.

It gives me a newfound respect for the skills, dedication and training needed for the gruelling sport, made to seem effortless by the teams taking part in Polo at the Palace.

But like Ascot, the Dubai World Cup and other equestrian events, half the fun of polo championships is to turn out in your finery, to see and be seen, and to enjoy the ambience of a sunshine-filled day out at the ground.

Inner-city schools might be getting a taste of the game, and the likes of Figueras might be keen to democratise it but polo is still associated with luxury and a certain kind of lavish lifestyle - and that will take some time to shake off entirely.

According to Umberto Cini, a former showjumper and the overseas director for Maserati, fast cars and horses belong to the same exclusive club.

"They give an aura of a glamorous lifestyle," he says. "Both are about performance, style and access to another world."