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Nacho Figueras, Model Polo Player, Brings Sport To New York (PHOTOS)

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NEW YORK (Associated Press) - Whatever it is you think you know about polo, Nacho Figueras wants you to forget it.

Figueras is one of the world's best known players – perhaps the best known among those not wearing a royal crown – even though he's hardly a household name.

His face and wavy dark hair might be a different story, however, since he's parlayed his polo career into a gig as a Polo model for Ralph Lauren.

He shows up for a recent interview impeccably dressed in a black suit, skinny black tie, cufflinks and a pocket-square. But, Figueras insists, that's because he's skilled in dressing appropriately for an occasion. Really, he'd rather be in the casual clothes he wears to the beach or around his ranch.

Figueras, 33, has spent his whole life around horses, growing up in Argentina with the not-that-uncommon dream of being a polo player. It's the local equivalent of a boy from New York fanaticizing about taking centerfield for the Yankees, he explains.

Now living his dream, Figueras has made what he calls one of his "life missions" to promote polo and spread his enthusiasm for the sport to audiences around the world. That starts, he says, with erasing the stigma that it is somehow stuffy and only for the well to do.

"People are always very nervous about what to wear, `Am I invited? Am I not invited?' It's totally the opposite. Polo is the most inviting sport I've ever seen," Figueras says. You'll find his own three children watching the match with one eye, and keeping the other on all the balls and Frisbees being tossed around.

He'd like to see people think of polo as a family-friendly Saturday afternoon activity in the way that they would a baseball or football game. It was that way back in the 1920s and '30s, he says, but real estate costs eventually pushed matches out of cities and into more spacious suburbia, which happened to often be more upscale communities. Some of the most active polo communities are, for example, Greenwich, Conn., Santa Barbara, Calif., and Palm Beach, Fla.

That led to fewer fans, and, without fans, fewer people interested in playing.

"I always say that polo, for you to pursue a career, mainly any sport, you have to be born in the right place. If you're born in Hawaii, you surf. If you're born in Austria, you probably will ski. If you're born in Argentina, you most likely ride horses and have a chance to play polo."

Figueras spends most of the summer playing in the Hamptons in Long Island, N.Y., but will be part of a special match, the third annual Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic, on Governor's Island in New York Harbor on Sunday. He faces off against British Prince Harry in the fundraiser for American Friends of Sentebale, part of the charity co-founded by Harry to support impoverished children of Lesotho in southern Africa.

Madonna and Kate Hudson were among those who attended last year.

This isn't the norm, though, he says. Often there isn't even an entrance fee, let alone a VIP section.

Figueras says he's growing more comfortable moving among the celebrity set, doing photo shoots and being recognized on the street, but even his fashion-modeling gig as the face of the Ralph Lauren Fragrances' World of Polo and Lauren's Black Label clothing collection is linked to his passion for the ponies. "The concept pretty much goes together with what I do and my life, Polo Ralph Lauren, polo player, wife, kids, family, horses. It's perfect, it's effortless. It's a good fit."

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