At the young age of 38, Nacho Figueras is arguably the most famous polo player in the world. He learned the sport at the age of nine and is currently one of the top 100 players in the world. The Argentinian born Figueras lives in Buenos Aires with his wife Delfina, and their four children.
I sat down with Nacho prior to the annual Veuve Polo Classic in Los Angeles, where he has been the main attraction for several years. He is in fact partners with Veuve in the events which are held in California and New York. His leading man looks have inspired a legion of groupies and his passion for Polo has inspired fans across the globe.
About a decade ago he began breeding first-class polo ponies at his Cria Yatay stud farm outside Buenos Aires, selecting from the bloodlines of the world’s top-ranked mares and stallions to produce his Thoroughbreds. He is involved in rearing the ponies and works closely with his team of trainers as they prepare each foal to achieve its full potential on the playing field.
In addition to breeding horses in the traditional fashion, Figueras’ farm performs state-of-the-art embryo transfers, enabling it to produce more ponies using surrogate mares. When the horses reach 3 years old they are gently broken in and then transferred to Figueras’ second farm, El Yacare, which includes four polo fields where the horses are eased into the sport.
Figueras Polo Club combines both fields from Cría Yatay and Figueras Design Group (FDG), The Architecture and Design Studio founded in 2003 by Nacho Figueras. He was in charge of coming up with the idea and supervising the construction of a stable with unique features at El Yacaré. This avant-garde project expresses an innovative design while maintaining the functionality of horses care.
Nacho Figueras: I started the breeding operation in 2004. I began buying embryos from the leader of polo pony breeding and polo in general, Gonzalo Pieres. He has an organization called Ellerstina that he started with the late Australian billionaire Kerry Packer. (Kerry Packer’s son James Packer’s recently sold off the ponies stabled at the property due to other business pursuits.)
Back in the nineties Gonzalo was playing polo with Kerry all around the world and they started this very big polo operation with a breeding operation in Argentina in the nineties. I was playing with Gonzalo’s two kids in the U.S. with my team BlackWatch. So I created a great relationship with the kids. In 2004, I bought embryos of the best mare that Ellerstina had, which became the foundation of my breeding operation. I started it with very good blood lines.
Forbes: How many did you start out with?
Nacho Figueras: Ten embryos from the best mares. The real foundation of my breeding ended up being those ten embryos which were really good.
Forbes: Was your farther the person who inspired you to get into this business?
Nacho Figueras: Yes my father inspired me to play polo and he was always very supportive but no the breeding business was my decision. I saw an opportunity and when you have the baby, the horses are not really polo players until they are seven years old. You buy the embryo… eleven months for them to be born… seven more years of training and it becomes an eight year process. The tricky part is that… in those eight years, while you wait for those ten embyros to become great polo ponies you have seven more generations.
Nacho Figueras: Can be, yes. Back in the day, in 2004, it wasn’t so expensive and it was not trendy to buy bloodlines from the best horses and mix them. When Gonzalo Pieras started doing his auctions, that is when the bar was really raised. His first auction was Ellerstinas first auction in 2006 and he brought 20 or 30 two year olds and he auctioned them like they do in Kentucky with yearling sales. The auction was very successful.
Forbes: If I wanted to buy an embryo how much would it cost me?
Nacho Figueras: For very good ones it could be between forty and up to a hundred thousand dollars. The goal is to get a mare that will have a baby in a year. If you go buy the two year olds in the auction when they are already born they’re already round and beautiful and straight and you see that they are very healthy, they could go all the way up to 180 even 200 thousand dollars. With the embryo you pay the high price and have to wait two to three years, but once you wait for then to be two years old you pay for time but you pay more money.
Forbes: How much would an embryo cost to make?
Nacho Figueras: To make the embryo is $4,000, for a mare of a stallion, The embryos I would buy would be from a very famous mare and would range from $40,000 to $100,000. You buy that and receive a recipient mare that you take to your farm and eleven months later you have a baby. Now you have to take care of the baby until it becomes a champion. The foundation of my breeding is the embryos I bought through Ellerstina and the mares that we were playing through the BlackWatch years. What you do is you take all those famous great blood brood mares and take them to the embryos center and every 21 days when they cycle they inseminate the mare and nine days later they have an embryo. Then they flush the embryo back into a recipient mare, because out of a very good mare, in 21 days you want to do the same thing. That allows you to have four babies out of the same mare in one year. Then 59 days later the specialist can tell you if it is a boy or a girl. You always want a girl because they learn faster and are worth more in auctions and in their career once they play, if they get injured they still have some value which is their ability to reproduce. Having stallions in polo is very difficult, you don’t have many stallions because they get too aggressive, so most stallions that play are gelded.
Forbes: Who is the most sought after mare?
Nacho Figueras: There is one very famous mare who is quite old right now called Cuartetera, and she has been cloned through Adolfo Cambiaso. The process of cloning intrigues and interests me and it frightens me. (Through their company, Crestview Genetics, Cambiaso and two wealthy polo enthusiasts—the founder, Texan Alan Meeker, and Argentinean tycoon Ernesto Gutiérrez—have created more than 25 clones of Cambiaso’s champion polo horses and around 45 clones in total.) Cambiaso has cloned Cuartetera ten times so he can have 40 babies.
As a matter of fact, I just cloned the best mare that I have and her name is Sue Ellen who was bred in the United States by Tommy Wayman, and she was a champion horse in England. I bought her and took her to Argentina where I bred her and most of my great horses come from her. She is 26 years old now and I can’t get any more babies from her.
Cloning is very complicated. What you do is you take a lot of shots to maybe get one to work. They take genetic information from a cell in the neck, then they cultivate that DNA and they make millions of cells. Eventually you will have an embryo from the mare that you are cloning.
I now have two Sue Ellen clones as well as the original Sue Ellen and all of this happened two weeks ago, so it’s a very new experience for me. I still don’t know how I feel about it. In a way I am very excited and so happy that she is back and they really look alike. I am now looking at 20 years of taking embryos from possible future champions. They will always remain with me and will not be for sale.
Forbes: When someone visits your ranch to buy a pony how does it work?
Nacho Figueras: People come to the farm to talk about what they are looking for. It’s more romantic than just coming and shopping. It has to be special. I care about the horses that I breed so I want to know what buyers are going to do with that horse. If you come to my farm and say I want to buy a 100 horses from you and take them to Australia to race them or breed them to take care of their cattle, no matter how much to want to pay, I don’t want to do it. I want that horse to have an opportunity. Out of the 60 or 70 babies, I hold an auction now in April every year.
Forbes: Tell me about your new stables that you have designed in Argentina.
Nacho Figueras: I am almost finished with my new stables. There are 44 stalls with a very special design. It really looks like a museum. What I told my architects when we were designing this is that I didn’t want to just create a barn for horses. I consider my horse’s pieces of art and I want to have a place where I can showcase my art. The barn is very long, made of concrete and has beautiful views. The lighting is also very special and the roofs have grass on them.
Forbes: How would someone arrange to visit you on the ranch?
Nacho Figueras: Potential vetted buyers can contact me on the website and arrange to come to the farm to see what we can do. The best thing is to go there and buy into the experience. The experience is 50 percent of the joy of buying a horse from me. You would fly into Buenos Aires and stay at the Alvear Palace Hotel and my farm is a 45 minute drive outside of the city or you can helicopter directly to the farm. If you play polo we can practice together, have a BBQ and go to the breeding farm to see the babies.
Forbes: You are in Los Angeles for the Veuve Polo Classic, tell me about your connection to Veuve Clicquot.
Nacho Figueras: The first time I worked with them was in 2008 when we did the first Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic in New York. We discovered that polo was often played on Governor’s Island at the military base in 1942 so we got permit to come in one day and hold an exhibition polo match. We contacted Veuve Clicquot and they agreed to sponsor it. The event ended up with 100 people in a white tent in pouring rain. After the event a gentleman in charge of Moët Hennessy came up to me and said he wanted to make the event bigger.