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Nacho: A Polo Star On and Off the Field

Originally broadcast September 20, 2009

New York City - filled with beautiful clothes and beautiful people . . . and among them, one person stands out.

"I met Nacho!" one woman shouted.

Meet Argentine heartthrob Ignacio Figueras, known simply as Nacho.

"Nacho's a typical nickname for Ignacio," he said.

"And it's a memorable name," said CBS News correspondent Serena Altschul.

"I guess, yes. Everyone always called me Nacho. Only my third grade teacher called me Ignacio."

If his name isn't familiar, chances are you've seen his face. It's the face of Ralph Lauren, famous for its Polo brand. His sultry ads are seen around the globe.

With his rugged good looks, it's easy to see why he was chosen as the poster-child for the Polo brand. But there's another reason: In a stroke of marketing luck, 33-year-old Nacho just happens to be the sport's biggest star.

Longtime friend and former polo player David Walentas said it's a perfect match.

"He's been good for the sport of polo, and polo's been for Nacho," said Walentas.

Nacho grew up outside Buenos Aires - considered the polo capital of the world - and started playing when he was nine years old, on a farm with friends.

"I come from a middle class family," he said. "I had one horse that I took care of myself."

And despite his modest upbringing, in a country where owning a horse is common, Nacho dreamed of one day becoming a polo star.

"I had this polo shirt that my uncle gave me for my birthday. I remember it was a white- and green-striped polo shirt, with a little polo player on it. And I thought it was so cool. It was in Argentina, we didn't have that many. They were expensive. So that was, like, my treasured shirt that I had.

"So now, 20-something years later, it's something that's pretty powerful."

Shortly after he came to the United States in the late '90s, a photographer spotted him and suggested he'd be a perfect fit for Ralph Lauren. Soon Nacho's face was everywhere, including on his own clothing line.

"Nacho really leaps from the pages of a magazine," said David Lauren, Ralph Lauren's son. "He's the real deal; you see him in the magazine and he captures your imagination.

"And the idea that you can see him in real life playing the sport, it really brings the ads to life."

Now he's drawing thousands to glamorous places like Bridgehampton, N.Y., to watch him play, and crowd around to take pictures.

"Are you here for polo or Nacho?" Altschul asked one woman.

"A little bit of both!" she laughed.

"We're a fan of Nacho more than polo," another female fan said.

"He's just very engaging he's got great personality, he's got great charm," said Jason Binn, publisher of Hamptons Magazine.

"He brings polo to life. You look across the field, the cars, the amount of attraction that this game gets right now, it's ten-fold what it used to be."

"He is the face of polo on the field now," Altschul. said.

"And off the field, yeah," Binn said.

If you've never seen a polo match, here are the basics: The game is nearly 3,000 years old, beginning in Asia as a sport of kings. Today's version is played on an area nine times the size of a football field, with four players on each team. Typically there are six periods (or "chukkers") during which each team tries to whack a ball through the other team's goal. Each player uses half a dozen horses during the match to keep the animals from tiring out.

Nacho travels with about a dozen horses, and is willing to give even a novice a lesson.

"Your first shot ever, eh?" he said after Altschul whacks one.

"It was exciting!"

"If you can do it, anyone can do it, eh?"

"This is probably true!" she laughed.

Polo has long been considered a sport only for the privileged, but Nacho is trying to change that. He knows it won't be easy.

"Everyone seems to have this perception that polo is just for the elite or for, you know, kings. And I think it's totally the opposite. Polo has given me the opportunity to play polo with Prince Harry, coming from nowhere in Argentina. So, I look at it totally from a different way."

Nacho played against Britain's Prince Harry the past two years in matches Figueras organized on New York's Governor's Island.

"And that's when I said to myself, 'You know, this can be done. All these guys knew nothing about polo. And here they are having a great day, having fun, enjoying the match.' It was just an amazing day for me."

He hopes to promote polo as an everyman's sport through his involvement with non-profit programs like Work to Ride in Philadelphia. It teaches kids responsibility through polo.

"You're responsible for yourself, you're responsible for your horse, and then with polo, you're also responsible for the safety of everybody else on the field with you. So it's not just you out there by yourself," explained founder Lezlie Hiner.

And it's worked for 15-year-old Nasir Bennett.

"Without this program, I probably wouldn't be here, I don't know where I'd be," Bennett said. "I'd probably be in trouble, probably."

"This is the perfect example of how can, you know, polo being such a sport that is seen in such elitist way can help, you know, a kid like those kids," Nacho said.

For Nacho Figueras, all the attention and glamour hasn't changed what's really important:

"I'm first a husband and a father," he said. "That's my most beloved treasure, my kids and my wife. Then my horses and my games, it's what I love the most. That's what I do, that's what really drives me. It's what keeps me focused."

The kid who grew up cleaning barns in a small town in Argentina has conquered the highest reaches of high society . . . right down to the Polo logo on his shirt.

"I like to think that I'm in this world for a reason, and that is to make polo bigger and better," he said.

"This is just the beginning. I really think that there's a lot more to achieve."

For more info:
Bridgehampton Polo Club
Hamptons Magazine
David Lominska
National Museum of Polo
Ralph Lauren Black Watch
Two Tree Farms
Veuve Clicquot Manhattan Polo Classic
Work to Ride

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