Back in the Saddle

St. Regis commissioned The Monogram Studio to embroider the saddlepad and polo jersey shown.

URBAN GARDNER
SEPTEMBER 19, 2011
By RALPH GARDNER JR.

When I signed up for a polo lesson with Nacho Figueras, the polo superstar, Ralph Lauren model, and all around Hamptons heartthrob, my wife asked me a perfectly logical question—had I ever ridden a horse before? Actually, I had. When I was 8 or 9 years old. And again when I was probably 11. Come to think of it, and I don’t know how it slipped my mind, I’d also taken a trail ride with my friend Clare in New Mexico about a decade ago.

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Dominic James Polo star Nacho Figueras at the Greenwich Polo Club.

Of course, there’s a difference between riding a horse who is in her 30s and feels lucky to be alive, and a high-strung thoroughbred polo pony. Also, when I rode Clare’s horse my only assignment was to hang on for dear life. In this case, I would apparently be expected to simultaneously swing a polo mallet while leaning sideways and make contact with a small white ball.

As the big day approached my reservations grew, mitigated only by the fevered reaction of women when I mentioned I’d be riding with the great Nacho. Frankly, I knew nothing about him except that he was supposed to be preternaturally handsome. Also, my daughter seemed to think he’d dated Paris Hilton. I couldn’t find any evidence for that, and Nacho turns out to be happily married to Delfina Blaquier, a photographer and former model, with whom he has three children. I was told more than once that they make the cutest couple ever.

But I was less interested in Nacho’s looks than his temperament. And his reflexes. In particular, would the virile man-god be turned off by a middle-aged girlie man, and how fast would he be able to react if he saw me sliding off the saddle?

I decided to confront the people whose bright idea it was that I take a lesson, making them aware that Frisbee, not horseback riding, was my sport. Or maybe they contacted me first, intuiting my foreboding.

“Just wanted to confirm that you are comfortable getting on a horse and signing a non-liability waiver (this is standard for polo players),” Kate White, a publicist for St. Regis Hotels and Resorts, which was sponsoring a match starring Nacho at the Greenwich Polo Club a couple of days after my lesson, emailed me.

Comfortable getting on a horse? Sign a non-liability waiver?

Getty Images

The Greenwich Polo Club was the site for the St. Regis 1904 Polo Cup event on Saturday.-Getty Images

I replied, careful not to sound like a wimp, but also trying to make it perfectly clear that I was no daredevil. I abide by very few hard and fast rules in life. But one of them is never to mount anything larger than myself. My kids have taken riding lessons, which I suppose is de rigueur if you aspire to be well bred. It falls into the same category as piano lessons and dancing school. But what sane adult would mount a horse post, say, 1910, when they were no longer necessary for transportation?

“It will absolutely be a beginner lesson and horse,” Ms. White attested.

Nonetheless, in the car on the way out to the Greenwich Polo Club, where my lesson was to be held, the publicist fell somewhat short of reassuring. She recalled her family farm in South Carolina, populated by “one-eyed dogs from roaming around behind horses.”

When we arrived at the polo club, tucked among that charmed country’s castles and mansions, I was presented with jeans, a polo shirt and riding boots. Once I’d changed I was introduced to the dashing Nacho. “It’s like riding a bicycle,” he said. “If you’ve ridden a horse before, that’s what happens.”

I was more than willing to defer to the 34-year-old’s equestrian knowledge. But one thing I knew for certain was that riding a horse was nothing like riding a bike, if only because bikes are unlikely, in a Newtonian universe, to take off at a gallop without warning.

I broached the idea of a miniature horse, something that would allow my feet to touch the ground, and then asked my steed’s name, hoping to start the laborious bonding process.

“502,” Nacho responded inauspiciously. Apparently, the animal’s mother was a famous mare named Cincuenta, her spawn the result of genetic engineering. “So they named the babies 501…502…503…”

Nacho, who was planning to captain the St. Regis team that Saturday to commemorate the Greenwich Polo Club’s 30th anniversary, gave me a brief tutorial in mallet technique and shared some rudimentary rules; for example, another rider can never enter the imaginary lane between an opposing player and the ball. Why? “Polo is a very dangerous sport,” Nacho confessed. “Everything that could be dangerous,” in other words that put the players at any additional risk, “is already a foul.”

I asked Nacho whether he’d ever been injured. He pointed to a faint scar over his right eyebrow. “I got hit with a ball,” he explained nonchalantly, referring to an incident in Paris when he was 17. “I was in the hospital for four days running tests to make sure my head was still where it was supposed to be.”

I liked Nacho, even if I didn’t entirely trust him with my welfare. He didn’t take himself too seriously. His head did, indeed, seem to reside firmly on his shoulders.

I managed to mount “502” without humiliating myself by needing a lift or falling off the other side. And I was relieved to discover that the reins wouldn’t be left to me but would remain in the able hands of Alison Kelley, a polo player who herself competes world-wide as a member of the St. Regis polo program.

My lesson went something like this: Nacho would tap the ball out in front of me, I’d lean over, take a swing, whiff it, and we’d try again. 502 never tried to buck me, though she occasionally balked. That was apparently out of boredom and because, Alison explained, she was trying to flick the flies off her.

I felt bad for Nacho. Instead of humoring me, he could have been hobnobbing with Ron Perelman or Christie Brinkley or P. Diddy, or whomever polo idols hang with. At a minimum he could have been shooting his next Ralph Lauren “Black Label” ad, Nacho the face of the fragrance. I asked him to show me how the game is actually played, and he took off at a gallop while simultaneously bouncing the ball at the end of his mallet, before giving it a crisp whack that sent it into lower Earth orbit.

Unwilling to be outdone, I commanded Alison to release the reins. Whatever happened happened. If 502 wanted to trot or canter or even gallop I’d simply have to face the consequences. And what happened is this: 502 stopped. She wouldn’t move. In fact, she might have taken a couple of steps backwards.

I later learned that the horse wasn’t exactly fresh. “She played in a match this morning,” Alison said, choosing her words carefully. “So she’s relaxed.”

When I got home I detailed my heroic exploits to my wife, while confessing that much of the time my horse was being led by the reins.

“You mean like at a child’s birthday party?” she asked.

Pretty much.

Write to Ralph Gardner at ralph.gardner@wsj.com

2016-11-18T11:29:53-04:00 September 4th, 2011|