x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Princess Haya helps pave the way for riders

The equestrian world has traditionally been dominated by Europeans and Americans but with the help of HRH Princess Haya, the Middle East is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Kit Houghton
Kit Houghton

In the early evening of a warm, autumn day Her Royal Highness Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein smiles for pictures in the grounds of Lexington's Kentucky Horse Park in the United States.

Dressed in a simple, black 1950s-style dress with matching black pumps, the Princess has every reason to look happy. For in her professional capacity as President of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), she has spent the last few weeks watching over the latest World Equestrian Games (WEG) - an extravaganza that cost US$100 million (Dh367,000) to stage, and concluded on October 10.

"This Games has been amazing; it's really done the world sport a huge amount of good," says Princess Haya. "The crowds have walked away happy, this city has really embraced this event and we've noticed there's a lot we can do better, so it's blue skies for the future."

The WEG first took place in Stockholm in 1990, followed by stints around Europe. But the latest round at the Kentucky Horse Park - the first time the event has ever been held outside Europe - has opened up the sport up to a new audience: the Americans.

Ticket sales have exceeded targets with 500,000 people attending, and the local economy has flourished under the deluge of horse fans, all eager to watch the eight disciplines of dressage, driving, endurance, eventing, jumping, reining, vaulting and the newest addition, para-dressage. Early estimates predict the Games will have a statewide economic impact of $150m (Dh551m) - not bad for a place more famous for being the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Kentucky Derby.

For the athletes, and the 918 horses flown to the event, the largest horse airlift in history, it's a chance to shine on a global stage, with the Games broadcast fully on NBC Sports, the largest commitment to network coverage of equestrian sport in US television history.

"From the FEI's perspective we all know that what's big in America goes big worldwide so I really am impressed with what's happened here," adds Princess Haya, whose love for equestrian sports stems from a professional career that saw her first represent her native country of Jordan in the jumping event at the age of 13. She went on to compete at numerous shows, with appearances at WEG and the Olympic Games being the highlight of her career.

"The love of horses really has no rhyme or reason; I got bitten by the bug," she says. "I met wonderful horses along the way that gave me great moments that I treasured and each moment built upon another until it was all I knew. But everything in life has a time and a place so I knew when it was time to stop.

"My father allowed me to have a professional career and put aside my public duties during that career so that I would pay back people in my country and region with the knowledge I gained.

"I felt it was time to give something back so I looked at sport administration and this job came along and I got elected."

The Princess became the first Arab in history to occupy the position of President of the FEI, and her four-year tenure, which finishes in November when she hopes to be re-elected for a second term, comes coincidentally at a time when the Middle East is emerging as a new force in the sport.

European teams have dominated the sport for many years, but 2010 saw more medals and more attention being paid to the Middle East than ever before. The UAE Endurance team won three medals this year: gold in the 160km endurance race, led by Princess Haya's husband, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who also won silver in the individual event. Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, the Crown Prince of Dubai, finished third to claim an individual bronze medal.

The UAE also had a presence in the jumping event, with four UAE riders qualifying for the first time in the team championship. Although they finished 24th out of 27 ahead of local rivals Qatar and did not make it through to the fourth day in the individual event where the top 30 best riders compete, that did not deflect from the pride felt nationwide.

"I think the speed at which our UAE teams have achieved results and the learning curve they have had is what you should look at, rather than hold them to a medal count," says Princess Haya.

In jumping, the combination of horse and rider is tested to the limit demonstrating the horse's energy, skill, speed and obedience in jumping as well as the rider's horsemanship. The competitor incurs penalties for exceeding the time allowed, for knocking down or refusing to jump an obstacle.

The key to being among the elite is simply experience, says the top Brazilian rider Rodrigo Pessoa, a businessman and athlete, who has competed for the past 22 years.

Pessoa, 38, has achieved feats such as Olympic gold in Athens in 2004, and winning the FEI 1998 World Championships.

Pessoa agrees with Princess Haya that the Middle East could become a bigger player. "The region has great potential to draw coaches from outside and buy horses which they have done," says Pessoa. "Now they need to get more experience to get into the big league, but definitely it is a region we will see more and more of now."

Pessoa's words came just hours before he cruised into the top four of the competition, alongside a Swiss and a Canadian rider and the Saudi athlete Abdullah al Sharbatly.

And it is al Sharbatly's unexpected success story that has rocked the competition to its core. Having already come eighth in the team event, the 28-year-old Jeddah-born athlete catapulted himself onto the world stage when he secured five clear rounds in a row to win a place in the coveted top four. The fact that prior to the contest, he had ridden with his horse only for six weeks - after it was bought for €2.5m (Dh12.9m) from an Italian rider - made it even more astounding.

Propelled into the limelight from near obscurity, al Sharbatly answers a barrage of questions in the lobby of the Lexington hotel with a constant smile, from teeth in braces.

"I am so proud and happy," he rattles at high speed, "but I was not surprised because my trainer and I had come here to win the gold."

Al Sharbalty, who began riding as a young boy because his family owned several horses, was brought up solely by his mother following the death of his father from a heart attack when al Sharbatly was just seven.

His love for horses grew into a passion for equestrian sports. However, three years ago he thought his career was over when his horse fell on him, breaking his pelvis and preventing him from riding for a year.

At the final, in front of a packed stadium of 30,000 spectators, al Sharbatly incurred penalties in the first round on his own horse but kept his cool during the following three when he had to ride each of his competitors' horses over the course. His confidence won him silver and saw him beat star rider Pessoa into fourth place.

The large Saudi Arabian contingent of fans went wild - waving their national flag, chanting songs and dancing - a fiesta that was later continued at the medallist's hotel.

Their carnival-like celebrations were a far cry from the more sober reactions of the typical fans - a good looking crowd that attracts royals; heiresses such as Athina Onassis Roussel, there to support her Brazilian athlete husband, Alvaro Alfonso de Miranda Neto; and model groupies.

In the riders' circle the dress code is decadent with sunglasses, and skinny white jeans tucked into high-heeled boots for the women - an attempt perhaps to mirror the athletes' garb - and designer belts, polo shirts and slicked back hair for the men.

And it was these fashionista fans whose feathers were ruffled by al Sharbatly's unexpected success. Some whispered they didn't like the new order while others felt his win proved that you can win anything with enough money; the Saudi Equestrian Federation allegedly spent €15m on its team's horses.

And while the more experienced riders raised their eyebrows at one another as al Sharbatly stumbled his way through the press conference - like an American Idol winner sitting among veteran rock stars - no one could deny that this young man who won a place on the podium with the least experience was a true champion.

Later as we chat at his hotel, al Sharbatly is constantly interrupted by congratulatory calls and requests from his army of Middle Eastern fans to sign dollar bills - his eyes darting around as he takes in his new celebrity status.

Offering me his medal to hold while we pose for a picture, he exclaims: "The King has called to say congratulations and he is very happy. This medal will raise the profile of the sport in the Middle East and everybody will work harder. It was a dream to win silver. "

But the Saudi success is just a tiny part of the relationship between this region and the WEG. Perhaps the most effective ambassador of the equestrian sports in this region is Princess Haya. Her decision to compete 20 years ago at a time when prominent Middle Eastern athletes were hard to find put the sport on the map regionally. But rather than take the credit for her achievements, she deflects the glory to her father.

"My father allowed me, and promoted me to sport and sport to me," she says. "And in those days in the Middle East, sport was something that was done by lower or middle class people - you never had upper class participation and definitely not female participation.

"He faced a huge amount of criticism over allowing his daughter to go into sport and really support her in that. And he was very brave and incredibly supportive and he put pressure on me to do it right and be very serious about it. He made it very clear that I must finish my university education and he didn't allow me to approach it as a hobby. It was his example that allowed other parents to do the same."

But despite the new prominence of the Middle East at the Games - the heart of the sport still lies in Europe, which is home to all the Middle Eastern teams, including the UAE, because of its proximity to the best trainers and events. There, the unique combinations of rider, horse and owner are nurtured to create a winning formula at international level. For it is not just the rider-horse relationship that is important but also the equestrian lover who stumps up the cash to buy the top horses that can cost as much as €7m (Dh35.9m).

Christian Baillet, the French owner and the chairman of the newly formed Jumping Owners Club, believes his role in the process is crucial. Without owners like him, many riders would not be able to afford to buy a prize-winning horse to compete with.

Baillet, a financier, became involved in the sport as an amateur rider. When he realised his ability was limited, he indulged his passion by buying horses for other riders to compete.

Today, he has three studs with more than 60 horses, 20 at competition level, 40 that are breeding and another 15 retired animals that he looks after as gratitude for their hard work. "If you are a real horse owner with a passion for participating in the sport it is absolutely impossible to make money. The prizes don't cover the cost of buying the horse.

"The only way to cope is to sell the horse when it is at the top but if you are a horse owner you have dreamt of that success all your life, so the last thing you want to do is sell it. It's a passion not a business."

Even the Brazilian rider Pessoa, one of the sport's finest athletes, does not own his horses and has been working with an American owner for the past 15 years.

Baillet points out that owners who dispense with their riders at the first sign of failure in the same way football club owners ditch managers after losing a game don't understand the long-term nature of equestrian sports.

Rolex, the premier sponsors of WEG's jumping event, mirrors this long-term approach. The luxury watch brand has been associated with the sport since 1957 because of its nobility and the "majestic" relationship between horse and rider.

With the high cost of participation coupled with the association with high-end sponsors such as Rolex it's easy to see why the sport is more often associated with the wealthy.

While the FEI is working hard to ensure the sport reaches those who may not have access to wealthy owners, Princess Haya is quick to point out that losing its status as a luxury sport is not something they actually want.

"Having an elite product is part of the vehicle of selling it and there is a lot of merit in the fact that being involved in the equestrian family as an athlete is a status symbol," she explains. "We are working very hard to get the message across that it's not just a rich person's sport but at the same time we're not trying to obliterate that reputation."

Rich sport or not - the average American fan turned up in jeans, trainers and T-shirts and feasted on pizzas and hamburgers. They walked around the massive 1,000 acre site on foot while better-connected fans who whizzed past in golf carts and enjoyed fine dining and expensive drinks in the Rolex chalet.

But Pessoa insists it's not all glitz and glamour. "If you want to be successful you have to make the sacrifices. There's not too much free time but it's a lifestyle choice.

"I drive the truck or tack up a horse if it's necessary. I was here at 6.30am riding and checking the horse and getting ready for the competition tonight."

So what's next for the WEG? Normandy in France has secured the 2014 bid, but what about the Middle East? Princess Haya laughs at the suggestion, saying she will be too busy in the near future to bid for such an event. But it's possible and the UAE's interest in the sport means there are high hopes for the future.

"As far as the UAE is concerned - you couldn't ask for any more investment than the ruling family has already put in," adds Princess Haya. "The families and nations of the region have a very solid strategic plan at a grassroots and national level - you couldn't ask for anything more than that."