Reality bites for Ridley & Co at the enormity of the equestrian project

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2008, 12:00am

Last Sunday at Beas River, 11-year-old Clarissa Lyra and her friends sat along a metal bench bordering the main competition arena, watching horses go around a set of jumps. In less than three months, that bench will no longer be there.

It, along with much of Beas River, will be transformed into the cross-country venue for three-day eventing, the first sets of medals to be awarded during the Olympic equestrian events.

Today, the work is far from over and it is still debatable how much interest the city is showing towards the one sport it will be hosting.

At the same time, those who ride, either at Beas River or at any of the other riding schools, have applied for their tickets and are now playing the waiting game. Some are excited, some anxious and others, like Hong Kong Jockey Club head of racing operations John Ridley have realised just how close they are to August 8.

'I'm looking at what we have to produce,' Ridley said. 'A hundred days is getting to the point where people realise this is getting very close, they understand how much work has to be done. I'm not sure we'd say [we're] excited. It's starting to hit home, the enormity of the task we have in front of us.'

That task involves building the arenas, stables and support buildings at the core venue at Sha Tin and configuring the Beas River venue that includes part of the Jockey Club facilities and about 18 holes over two courses of the Hong Kong Golf Club at Fanling.

The work involves more than physical structures - there is transportation of horses, quarantine issues and working with delegations from 38 different countries.

Ridley, who said the Jockey Club was on target to meet the May 26 completion deadline, called the assignment a 'big ask'.

With 100 days to go, he dashes from meeting to meeting, and his countdown does not finish at August 8, but sometime in mid-September when both the Olympic and Paralympic medals have been awarded and the some 225 horses have left Hong Kong. His sentiment is different from Clarissa's, different from Edwin McAuley, who owns a potential Olympic horse, and different from Kelly Anderson, who rode in the local competition of the test event.

Clarissa ticked off names of Brazilian, Canadian and German showjumpers. She wants to cheer for 2004 Athens gold medallist Rodrigo Pessoa, because he, like her family, is Brazilian.

She hopes to see German Ludger Beerbaum, who has four Olympic gold medals and was disqualified in Athens after his horses tested positive for a prohibited substance.

She has tickets for all of the jumping days. 'I'm excited,' Clarissa said. 'I don't do dressage or cross-country so it's mostly the showjumping that I want to see.'

But, she said, it wasn't everyone who was looking forward to the Olympics.

'All the people here who ride will go and watch, but at school I don't know many who are going to go,' Clarissa said.

McAuley, also at Beas River last weekend, flirted with the idea of going to the Badminton Horse Trials which start tomorrow. He has his plane ticket, a hotel room, but said nerves may stop him going to watch Australian eventer Clayton Fredericks compete with Nullabor.

McAuley, who is vice-president for the Hong Kong Equestrian Federation, owns both Nullabor and Ben Along Time, both of which have qualified for the Olympics.

Fredericks, a frequent visitor to Hong Kong who has taught many of the Beas River riders, is ranked fourth in the world in eventing.

'I'm starting to get excited,' said McAuley. 'Both of the horses are fit, and we're very hopeful they will be selected for the Olympics and we will be able to support our rider Clayton Fredericks.'

Kelly Anderson said she was hoping to see Fredericks and his wife, eventer Lucinda Fredericks, in Hong Kong, in part because both had given her some coaching during their visits to Hong Kong.

'They're such good riders and they have amazing partnership with their horses,' said Kelly, 15, adding she was most looking forward to watching the cross-country day.

As the Jockey Club shifts from a construction mode to an operational one, Ridley acknowledged they were working 'out of the box'.

Experienced as they were with race meetings, taking the horses from Sha Tin to Beas River and holding 75 eventing horses in temporary stables among high levels of stress was not going to be simple.

'We only get one go at this. We don't get to practice, we don't get to rehearse it, and we never get to take 75 horses up to Beas River in one go with tonnes of gear and equipment, so it's not easy,' Ridley said.

'It's a lot planning. I've got huge faith in the team but it's not going to be easy.'

Though Ridley is mostly concentrated on what needs to be done, he did say he was starting to see a greater general interest in the city.

Kelly says she would think of the Games each time she saw television commercials advertising the Olympics.

'At the moment they're at the back of my head, but when I think about it, it's like, yay, they're almost here,' she said.

Horses for courses

During the equestrian events in Hong Kong In August, this many horses will be strutting their stuff: 225