A perfect partnership

Melanie Ho

Tara Delaney saw lights. She saw flashbulbs, television cameras and a mob shouting at her.

'Were you in that crowd?' she asked, referring to the media throng that assembled after she won the Hong Kong rider competition at last month's Good Luck Beijing/HKSAR 10th Anniversary Cup.

'I've never had so many cameras on me. The press conference was more overwhelming,' she confessed.

It was there, in a makeshift room in the basement of the converted Hong Kong Sports Institute that Delaney admitted it was just her second time doing cross-country, the enthralling and occasionally dangerous second phase of three-day eventing. It was at this press conference, where Delaney, on 'such a high' after winning the competition on Gagnant, said she was so happy she wanted to do the test event all over again the following weekend.

That was not a possibility. She went to Italy for a holiday.

Back in Hong Kong and having started teaching a new term at City University Community College, Delaney is preparing for a set of horse shows focusing on showjumping.

There won't be the same commotion.

Next weekend, the Hong Kong Equestrian Federation will host its first of four qualifiers for the Southeast Asia League for the FEI World Cup, with the remaining three competitions taking place throughout October. Combined with the previous qualifiers in Malaysia, the overall winner in the international class will advance to compete in the showjumping World Cup next April in Gothenburg, Sweden. Along with the 18 rider/horse combinations in the international class, there are 13 national classes, one of which Delaney will enter.

These competitions are a first for Hong Kong and while the small equestrian community is excited about the events, it is not something Hong Kong will experience en masse. 'I think [the success] depends on how well they're marketed,' Delaney said. 'If no one educates the public, then no one's going to come.'

On a quiet Wednesday morning, Delaney is at Beas River Country Club working Gagnant out over some jumps. He makes a lot of noise.

It's a partnership, Delaney said of the horse/rider relationship. Because a stranger can't understand the variances in Gagnant's neighs, Delaney articulates for him. 'He's really frisky today,' she says.

Gagnant happily eased into a low St Andrews Cross, before moving into uprights and oxers. He's been on relative vacation since the test event and throughout the workout he continued to talk, mirroring his attitude in the stables when Delaney first greeted him.

'I don't know another horse who talks that much,' Delaney said.

Other horses make noise near meal times, but Gagnant neighs constantly.

As one of two sites during the Olympic test event, there are still competition remnants at Beas River. The jumps have been disassembled (a shame, Delaney said), the makeshift tents are gone and there is no more mud to slosh through, but the jumps' decorative wooden figurines are placed throughout. A painted wooden panda - Hong Kong's version of a garden gnome - watches as Delaney and Gagnant get through their workout.

That these qualifiers, Hong Kong's first shows where international competitors arrive with their own horses, are being held as the Olympics near was not a purposeful collaboration.

'It will help the Olympics,' said Stuart Mitchell, the equestrian manager at Beas River and the organiser of the shows. 'But when we tried to set this up and do it we didn't have the Olympics in mind.'

The goal, Mitchell said, was to expand the World Cup league in Asia (the Hong Kong qualifiers mean that there are four more points-earning competitions) and to promote the sport in Hong Kong. New grandstands are to be added and the space at Beas River will accommodate 1,000 spectators. In the smaller local classes there could be 40 entries; the higher ones will be sparser with about 10.

Though there is often a false correlation made between the popularity of horse racing and equestrian sports, the two are intrinsically related through the horses themselves.

Gagnant, for one, lost people a lot of money. 'He's terrible as a racehorse,' Delaney said. 'I've seen videos of him. There's the whole pack and then there's him. They're all at the finish line and he's not even on the screen.'

He proved to be too laid-back to be a successful racehorse, but six years ago, fresh off the track at the Lo Wu stables, he gave Delaney the flutters of love-at-first-sight when she was looking to get a horse and start riding again. In Gagnant she saw personality and potential.

It was a partnership a couple years in the making.

'I didn't realise there were horses here,' said Delaney, who moved to Hong Kong eight years ago. 'It took me two years to work out there were horses to ride.'

In a narrative typical of a young English girl, Delaney started riding as a six-year old at the local riding school and her first pony was kept in the family's backyard in a converted garage. But to vary the story, her family bought a livery yard when she was 11 because opening a horse business was the only means to keep Delaney riding.

On her five ponies (30 horses were kept on livery, which means the feeding, stabling and care of horses), Delaney was able to compete at a high level, skipping school in favour for three- or four-day shows. 'The school gave me the two days off,' Delaney said. 'It was good advertising for them when I got into the newspaper.'

Examinations, university and work in Indonesia and Israel eventually halted her riding and it wasn't until she moved to Hong Kong and found Gagnant, her first thoroughbred, that she started competing again.

Gagnant knocked over a fence.

'You lost it that time,' Mitchell said.

Delaney had pushed Gagnant into four strides instead of five and while the canter was to be active, the pair needed to wait for the jump.

'She's quite competitive,' Mitchell said of Delaney. 'She has a very good horse, but it would have been nice to have him as a younger horse because now he's got a bit of age and it's hard to change.'

Still, Delaney and Gagnant have made a good pairing. They don't get many chances to compete in the higher classes and Delaney (who plans to enter either jumps set at 1.1-1.2 metres or 1.3-1.4m) is excited by the opportunities they provide. The difference, however, is that if she wins next weekend and asks for a do over, Delaney will get her wish. In fact, she'll get it multiplied by three.

To encourage spectators and to introduce the public to equestrianism, the Hong Kong Equestrian Federation will put on a carnival adjacent to the showjumping ring at Beas River Country Club. The carnival will run from noon to 6pm on both Saturday and Sunday (the show itself is from Thursday through Sunday) and organisers said the carnival would have equestrian demonstrations, games and pony rides for children. The actual competitions will run daily from 2-6pm with a dressage competition on Saturday morning. The carnival and competition are both free of charge.

Tried and trusted

Tara Delaney first started riding

Gagnant this number of years ago: 6