When I was growing up, I was on a first-name basis with Polo, Ralph Lauren's line of preppy staples. But I've come to understand that the little mallet-wielding man on a horse embroidered on my shirts is more than just a logo; it's a symbol of one of the world's most storied sports. And polo is becoming an increasingly popular leisure pursuit, thanks in large part to canny marketing and the crossover appeal and tireless efforts of star players like Nacho Figueras, himself a Ralph Lauren–brand ambassador and model. As captain of the Lauren-sponsored Black Watch team, Figueras has propelled himself into the nexus of New York's social and fashion scenes. His celebrity exploits—he's a frequent guest on the Manhattan-Hamptons party circuit—are tirelessly chronicled in gossip columns and glossy magazines. The sport's self-styled spokesperson, Figueras sees his widespread visibility as part of a larger effort to rebrand polo as the sport of choice not just for the privileged set, but for a more mainstream audience as well.
Polo has always been popular with the elite. The first recorded game took place in Persia around 600 B.C., and it was soon embraced by the nobility. It spread to the Indian subcontinent, where it was taken up by the maharajahs and their royal courts. During colonial times, British occupiers imported polo to their homeland, where it became a favorite pastime of the landed gentry. Today the game is still largely played out in the glare of paparazzi flashes; dashing figures such as Figueras and Prince Harry, and the support of socially prominent billionaires such as publishing magnate Peter Brant, attract attention from high-profile audiences full of celebrities and socialites, not to mention the tabloids and lifestyle titles that love them.
Polo remains wildly popular in India, Argentina, Britain, and Dubai, among other countries, where, thanks to tourist-friendly schools and resorts, it is no longer the exclusive province of the landed gentry. In India, for example, the city-state of Jaipur is famous for its polo legacy, thanks to the late Maharajah Man Singh, whose team won the World Cup in 1933. For modern-day enthusiasts eager to learn to play, the Jaipur Riding and Polo Club offers all-inclusive, intensive polo clinics consisting of room, board, daily practice, private lessons, and potential tournament play for the reasonable price of $350 a day (jaipurpolo.com). In Britain, the Ascot Park Polo Club and Academy, set on 49 hectares 40 minutes outside London, is the world's largest polo training institute. Its large range of classes include two-hour introductory lessons, for individuals or groups, and clinics designed to improve one's swing, using a mechanical wooden horse (www.polo.co.uk).
For those in search of the ultimate polo vacation, some destinations combine five-star luxury with easy access to the best polo fields in the world. The Madinat Jumeirah resort in Dubai houses the Dubai Polo Academy, which offers holiday packages for beginners to experts (dubaipoloacademy.com). In the Indian city of Jodhpur, the exquisite deco-era Umaid Bhawan Palace will arrange an impromptu match or coordinate a polo itinerary for guests (tajhotels.com). And at the 1,500-hectare Estancia Villa Maria in Buenos Aires, the expansive grounds, set in the beautiful Argentine Pampas landscape, are ideal for practicing horseback-riding skills (estanciavillamaria.com).
If Figueras has his way, polo will soon recapture the popularity it used to enjoy in the United States, where during the 1920s and '30s an average of 30,000 people would attend matches in the New York area. "Polo, as a sport, is a multibillion-dollar industry just waiting to explode," he says. "Making it appealing to a wider audience is key." The two biggest stateside events are the Manhattan Polo Classic—an exhibition match launched in 2008 on Governors Island that is open to the public at no cost and where Prince Harry played opposite Figueras last year—and the Mercedes-Benz Polo Challenge at Bridgehampton Polo, a key stop on the Hamptons summer social circuit.
More free-to-the-public tournaments are in the offing. The Black Watch team plays at the International Polo Club in Florida from January to April, with free tickets all season except on Sunday, when they cost $15. In the Hamptons, weekday games are free, and cost only $30 per car on Saturdays. And for this year's Manhattan Polo Classic, which will take place on June 27, Figueras's goal is to give away 30,000 tickets.
If the bright minds behind polo's public campaign have their way, the sport will further infiltrate public consciousness via a slate of brand extensions that present the pastime as aspirational, yet accessible. Ralph Lauren plans to expand the small Black Watch clothing brand globally, to include designs for women and children. And, in perhaps the most significant sign of the sports' arrival on the pop-culture scene, Figueras appeared as a guest star on this season's premiere of Gossip Girl, the cult-favorite TV show that chronicles the foibles of Manhattan's prep-school set. An unusual new fan demographic may be in the works: expect to see a lot of teenage girls at the next big exhibition match.