Equestrian: Masters of the universe

Masters of theThe world's top showjumping riders and their horses will compete in Hong Kong early next year in the first leg of a 'grand slam' circuit

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 5:18am

Hong Kong's status as the equestrian capital of Asia will be cemented early next year when the Longines Hong Kong Masters takes centre stage at the Asia World-Expo. The city, well-known for its world-class horse racing, will play host to a high-octane showjumping event, featuring the world's best riders and horses showcased before an almost exclusive crowd in an intimate indoor setting.

Sound mouthwatering? It is when you hear Matthieu Gheysen, the event's director, expound on the concept and reason for bringing the first five-star showjumping event in Asia to the city that stepped up to the plate to help the 2008 Beijing Olympic organisers with the equestrian competition.

Therein lay the seeds of the idea of having a competition for the best-of-the-best riders and horses in exotic destinations around the world. And not only is Hong Kong as exotic as it gets, but it is also one of the few cities in Asia where quarantine rules allow the entry of horses from overseas.

"The plan is to create a grand slam circuit like tennis. We want to have three of four events a year around the world, all in iconic places where fans will get to see the world's best showjumpers and their horses competing for huge prize money," says Gheysen, who is also the vice-president of European Equestrian Masters Asia.

After a false start - the Hong Kong Masters was scheduled for early this year but had to be postponed as title sponsors Longines came on board only a few months beforehand - Hong Kong will host its biggest equestrian event since the 2008 Olympics from February 28 to March 2.

It will be the first leg of a three-stop grand slam circuit, the other two being New York in October and Paris in December. There are plans to extend it to a fourth city in 2014 with Gheysen revealing a city between Europe and Asia, one in South America and another in the United Arab Emirates are candidates. So the most likely cities bidding to join the circuit in 2014 are Ankara, Buenos Aires and Dubai.

While Paris has had a number of Masters events in the past - next month the Gucci Masters will welcome the world's 30 best riders at the Parc des Expositions - it will be the first time Hong Kong and New York (at the Brooklyn Nets' Barclays Centre) come on board as organisers try to marry capitals of high fashion and luxury with equine elegance.

"In tennis we have had a Rafael Nadal or a Roger Federer winning two or three grand slam titles every year. We want to do this with showjumping, too, where we could possibly see one rider winning all three slams. It is harder of course because you have to take into account the horse, but if someone was to do it there will be a bonus for him or her at the end of the year," says Gheysen.

London Olympic gold medallist Steve Guerdat of Switzerland (ranked third in the world), silver medallist Gerco Schroder of the Netherlands (21), world number one Rolf-Goran Bengtsson of Sweden and Britain's Nick Skelton (world No 2) are all due to take part in Hong Kong, which will feature the world's top 25 riders. All could be in the running for the bonus prize money. And winning in Hong Kong will give them a share of the US$1 million prize money on offer.

"We have also invited other celebrities like [Queen Elizabeth's granddaughter] Zara Phillips. She is an eventer but we have asked her if she would turn up in Hong Kong," says Gheysen. "While this will be a top-end show of the world's best riders, we haven't forgotten Hong Kong and have room for one local rider in the five-star event."

That will be a decision for the Hong Kong Equestrian Federation. In the past, Kenneth Cheng has taken part in a Paris show. But in addition to rubbing shoulders with the top riders in the CSI ( Concours de Saut International or International Jumping Competition) 5-star category - who will jump hurdles of the Olympic height of 1.60 metres - there will also be a CSI 2-star category where an additional 15 riders will be invited to participate. This category (jump height between 1.35 metres and 1.45 metres) will see more local riders being given the opportunity to show their skills.

All the horses, for both categories, will come from Europe. The top riders will be permitted to bring two of their own mounts. There could be 80 horses on show which means 80 stables, all to be purpose-built at the Asia World-Expo in Chek Lap Kok.

"It is a huge undertaking. We will take over four halls with a total floor area of more than 30,000 square metres and turn them into a lavish arena that will include the showjumping arena, a paddock, spectator stands, hospitality areas that will have 100 tables for VIPs, stables for the horses and so on. But we are used to doing this. In Paris, we have 100 riders and 350 horses so this is something we can handle easily," Gheysen says.

In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, the world governing body for equestrianism, the FEI, knew they would have problems hosting the competition in or around Beijing due to the mainland's strict quarantine laws where any horses brought into the country would not be allowed to leave. The Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong Jockey Club offered the Beijing organisers a solution - move the equestrian competition to Sha Tin, where quarantine rules permit horses to compete and return to their country of origin.

While Hong Kong is a financial hub and a capital for luxury goods - both taken together translating into the corporate clientele the Hong Kong Masters wishes to attract - the ease with which horses can move in and out of the city was crucial.

"We were also very impressed with the way Hong Kong organised and embraced the 2008 Olympic equestrian event. That showed us there is interest in this city for a top-end equestrian show and it is down to this legacy of the Olympics that we are here," said Gheysen.

Organisers will be spending an arm and a leg. Some estimates have it at US$8 million, which will include the US$1 million prize money. So what do they get out of it? The sale of public tickets - costs ranging from HK$150 to HK$450 - will account for just a small part of the revenue as there are only 2,500 seats available. A bigger income will come from the sale of 100 VIP tables to corporates who can buy them at HK$150,000. Each table seats eight people, allowing 800 guests to be wined and dined at each session - there are afternoon and evening sessions on each day.

But the real money is expected to come in from sponsorship as well as advertising rights on television. The event will be broadcast around the world. The Gucci Masters in Paris, next to the Olympic equestrian events, is the most globally televised showjumping competition in existence. "The worldwide TV coverage will reach all five continents and nearly 500 million households. We will telecast live, and in total will have 1,800 hours of TV coverage. It will be massive," Gheysen said.

Already nearly 60 per cent of the VIP tables have been sold, a large part of it to overseas corporations who wish to have a presence so they can network with local businesses. Public tickets will go on sale on November 15 through Cityline.

"All the riders are excited about coming to Hong Kong. They all had a great experience here during the 2008 Olympics and want to come back. Hong Kong is a great environment. It is a vibrant city and has all the right ingredients to be a perfect host for a Masters event," Gheysen said.