I meet HRH Princess Haya bint Al Hussein in a sun-filled, wood-panelled office in the historic Real Club de Polo de Barcelona. She is tired; she was up all night looking after her son, who has a fever, and has spent the last half hour fielding questions from a room full of journalists – many of whom were keen to discuss her recently announced decision not to seek to extend her presidency of the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) for a third term. “It’s the right thing to do, it’s the decent thing to do and it’s the only thing to do”, is the crux of the response from the wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
But there is cause for jubilation, too. It is the second day of the first-ever Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup Jumping Final, which will stand as part of Princess Haya’s legacy when she steps down as FEI president in November 2014, and so far, everything is proceeding to plan. The sun is shining, the Real Club de Polo de Barcelona is a picture-perfect setting and there’s a steady stream of spectators pouring into the stands to witness some of the highest-calibre showjumping in the world.
Outside, priceless horses stand patiently as they are tended to by industrious grooms; others canter round the all-weather track that circles the club’s lush polo field; and riders in their distinctive whites flit between the arena and the stable buildings. In spite of the sport’s elitist reputation, the crowd is a low-key mix of little girls in jodhpurs, teenagers snacking on ice lollies, and families carting around toddlers and lazy Labradors. With tickets on sale for €15 (Dh75), it’s a casual affair – a fun-filled day in the sun with the added bonus of watching one of the most spectacular sports in the world.
That’s not to say that this isn’t still a rich man’s pursuit. We spot Athina Onassis, granddaughter of the late shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, exercising her horses, and a Spanish princess is rumoured to be milling in the crowd. A cursory glance at the GCC teams, in particular, is telling – Ali bin Khalid Al Thani for Qatar, and HRH Prince Abdullah bin Miteb and HH Prince Faisal AlShalan for Saudi Arabia. In the GCC, at least, this is still the sport of princes.
On the first day of proceedings, I watch the riders ‘walk the course’. Colourful team jackets are removed and slung over shoulders as, under the baking Barcelona sun, the riders measure strides, calculate angles and study sequences. Built by the Spanish designer Santiago Varela Ullastres, the course is brimming with nods to its host city, including a jump shaped like Gaudí’s iconic Sagrada Família.
The diversity of the athletes is refreshing – old, young, male, female, short, tall, skinny and less so; one of the beauties of this sport is its lack of regard for age or gender; the only things that matter are your level of skill and the calibre of your horse. “It’s a very special sport,” comments HH Prince Faissal bin Abdullah bin Muhammad Al Saud, chairman of the Saudi Equestrian Fund board of trustees, when we meet the next day. “It is almost holy to me. It’s the only sport where two spirits compete.”
While the FEI Nations Cup has a history that dates back more than 100 years, this weekend at the end of September is the culmination of a complete revamp of the series, spearheaded by Princess Haya, which has resulted in a new format and, for the first time, a dedicated finale. The Princess was also instrumental in brokering the lucrative sponsorship deals – including a nine-figure deal with the watchmaker Longines and a €16 million (Dh79m), four-year sponsorship package with the commercial arm of the Saudi Equestrian Fund, Furusiyya – that now makes the FEI Nations Cup the event with the biggest prize pot in the sport, a whopping €2m (almost Dh10m).
With that kind of money on offer, it is hardly surprising to see that the 18 qualifying countries have brought their best riders, and horses. The line-up includes European stalwarts such as Great Britain, France and Switzerland, countries from farther afield such as the US, Brazil and Australia, but also teams from less-established showjumping nations, such as Japan, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Germany is the only surprise omission. The first day sees all 18 teams compete, with the top eight going through to the final. The remaining 10 teams battle it out the next day in the Consolation Cup (which, with a prize pot of €300,000 [Dh1.5m], is some consolation indeed).
The aim, ultimately, was to make the event more international and, in turn, make the sport more accessible to more people around the world, says Princess Haya. “Looking at ways to repackage a traditional sport is absolutely what the FEI is about. We want to keep the traditional essence of our sport but find a way for it to reach places it hasn’t reached before. Definitely what we want to do is pitch the sport in the five continents. We have to have a footprint that is global.”
And with Princess Haya at the helm of the FEI, Furusiyya providing a much-needed cash injection, and the Saudi team enjoying increasing success on the circuit, including a bronze medal in the team competition at the London Olympics, the GCC is becoming increasingly prominent in this more global landscape.
If there are reservations about this growing influence, nobody’s saying so, at least not outright. But I get the feeling that, in a sport that is highly traditional and has long been dominated by western Europe and North America, this changing dynamic may not be to everybody’s liking.
The one thing that people will openly admit is concern that once Princess Haya’s presidency comes to an end, some of the sponsorship deals that she was so key in attracting may dry up. But she is quick to rebut any such suggestion.
“Legal contracts are written when sponsorship deals are made. A lot of people have flattered me, and it is great flattery indeed to say that I could bring in a sponsorship just because it was me. But I’m afraid that’s not the way the world works today. Not even I’m that good! People just don’t pay that kind of money for a smile.”
I chat to Ramzy Al Duhami, who was part of Saudi’s medal-winning team at the Olympics, before he rides out on day one. He is unsure whether his team can replicate the same level of success that they enjoyed in London. His best horse, Bayard Van de Villa Theresia, which he rode to Olympic victory, is recovering after an accident and out of action, as is one of the team’s other top mounts.
“You don’t know what to expect until your horse goes in the arena and starts jumping; only then can you feel whether he is ready or not. But we are going to go out and try. We are just looking to represent our country the best we can. The main thing is that we are here.”
His fears, it transpires, are founded. By the end of the first day, the Saudi team has notched up 35 faults, putting it in 14th place. Luckily, day two brings better luck, with the team eventually placing third in the Consolation Cup.
I run into Al Duhami after the prize-giving and congratulate him on his team’s performance. He is happy to have redeemed himself after his disappointing start, he says, when he “wished the ground would have opened and swallowed him up”. We chat for a few minutes, until his phone starts ringing and he has to excuse himself. It’s his mum, he explains, calling to congratulate him.
So why has the Saudi team enjoyed such success on the showjumping circuit, as compared to other countries in the region, such as Qatar and the UAE, which have as established an equine tradition and equally expansive budgets at their disposal?
“I think they are all going to enjoy the same success,” says the ever-diplomatic Princess Haya. “For example, you have Sheikha Latifa in the UAE, and fantastic showjumpers across all the emirates; and you also have a huge movement in dressage. There is so much to look forward to. I think that everybody around the world knows that the Arab world and Asia move very fast when they want to do something, and that is a wonderful thing for a governing body such as ours to work with. The future is very bright. The fact is that the Saudis started much earlier in these three Olympic disciplines.”
The Saudi team started young and rose through the ranks together, training in Europe and the US, and competing first at the regional and pan-Asian levels before moving onto the European circuit and, eventually, on to the Olympics.
“In order to develop, you have to create your own heroes; people that can really lead the sport at an international level. In the UAE or Qatar, they have great riders but they are still young. They have all of this coming, but maybe later on. With horse riding, it takes so many years to build something,” says Al Duhami.
It could also be a question of attitude. One of the official FEI Nations Cup photos speaks a thousand words. One member from each of the 18 teams was asked to pose for a group picture in front of the Sagrada Família. It is a stunning shot, featuring the rock stars of the showjumping world – Olympians, sporting legends and national treasures. Out of the 18 team representatives, only one, from Qatar, failed to show up.
On the final day of the Nations Cup Final, I watch the last few rounds from the balcony of Furusiyya’s double-storey hospitality lounge. I am with the Saudi team’s chef d’équipe, Rogier Van Iersel, and we are sitting directly across from the final jump, a 1.60m behemoth that has been proving troublesome for some of the riders.
The stands are packed and the crowd is five deep around the arena. The space reverberates with good-natured whoops of joy when riders do well and collective groans of disappointment when they don’t.
It’s a thrilling spectacle and in the end, it comes down to the wire. The margins are so fine, as I am repeatedly told; the difference between winning and losing in showjumping can be a matter of seconds, or millimetres.
The French clinch it at the last minute, with eight faults, while the Brazilian team comes in second with nine and Ireland follows with 13 faults.
Van Iersel is pleased with the final line-up. “It’s nice that you see a country from South America in the top three because the globalisation of the sport is underlined. It’s not a surprise, Brazil is always strong, and it was close – they could have won; it came down to one pole. But at this level of competition, it’s good to see that it’s not only three European teams up there. I would say that the goal to make the Nations Cup a global event has already been achieved in this first season.”
I imagine that would make Princess Haya happy.