London Olympic gold medallist Ben Maher will be among the top riders and their horses vying for the "biggest purse" in world show jumping at the Longines Hong Kong Masters which gets under way this evening at the AsiaWorld-Expo.
The three-day event, the biggest equestrian show in town since the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games equestrian competition, is the first step of an ambitious plan to create a grand prix series offering big bucks - a minimum of US$1 million in prize money for each leg.
"While the Olympics and the world championships are all about the prestige of winning a medal, this event offers the biggest purse in equestrian sport and that is why we have a world-class field who, with their horses, have turned up in Hong Kong," said Matthieu Gheysen, vice-president of EEM Asia (Equestrian Event Management).
A total of 64 horses - the biggest plane-load of horses to arrive in Hong Kong - touched down last Sunday after a 13-hour flight from Liege, Belgium. Among the valuable cargo was Triple X III, the mount Maher was on board as he won the team gold medal at the London Games.
Eight of the world's top 10-ranked riders are in the fray for the near-sold-out event - only a handful of tickets are available for today's opening day - led by world No1 Christian Ahlmann of Germany, champion French rider Kevin Staut and the top-ranked women's rider, Edwina Tops-Alexander of Australia.
"The money is a big draw and, of course, the fact that this is the start of a new grand slam concept," said Gheysen. "This year we have three stops, but our plan is to make it four, just like the grand slam events in tennis."
Hong Kong is the first leg followed by New York in October, and the Gucci Masters Paris in December. All events are sanctioned by the International Equestrian Federation and are in the highest CSI 5-Star category.
A massive 30,000 square metres at AsiaWorld-Expo has been transformed into an equine wonderland with stables and a village. The centrepiece is a competition arena flanked by 2,500 seats for the public on one side with the other side laid out for 700 VIPs who will be wined and dined with food prepared by Michelin-starred chefs.
"We are building on our success in Paris and now have extended it to Hong Kong and New York, two of the world's financial centres. The world's best riders, the world's best horses and big prize money - it is an easy concept for everyone to understand," said Christophe Ameeuvw, chief executive of EEM World, who came up with the ambitious grand prix idea.
The Hong Kong leg was originally intended to be held last year, but was postponed apparently because sponsors Longines got on board at the last minute. This led to the series being pushed back a year, but organisers were relieved that finally the big day had arrived.
"It has always been my dream to give our wonderful and spectacular sport of showjumping the focus and visibility it deserves. The event will be broadcast to a huge global television audience and equestrian fans all over the world," Ameeuvw added.
Maher, who took part in the Beijing Games in 2008, said: "I'm really glad to be back again. This [Masters Grand Slam] is an exciting concept and we are all looking forward to it."
The event is backed by the Major Sports Events Committee's M-Mark scheme, which a top Hong Kong Equestrian Federation official hailed as creditable. "Other sporting events take a long time to get M-Mark status but in this first year, the Longines Hong Kong Masters has already been recognised," said Angela Kong, HKEF general manager.
Kong added: "The 2008 Olympic equestrian event in Hong Kong was a huge success and we are all confident that this one will also be equally successful."