I’m sip­ping a glass of Cham­pagne

Barons de Roth­schild

Hong Kong Tatler - - Features -

AND RUB­BING SHOUL­DERS WITH BLOOMBERGS, SPRING­STEENS, AGAS­SIS AND ROCK­E­FELLERS IN THE VIP SPEC­TA­TORS’ LOUNGE OF THE IN­AU­GU­RAL LONGINES LOS AN­GE­LES MASTERS. SUD­DENLY, THE STA­DIUM’S STEADY HUM OF CHAT­TER, CLINK­ING OF GLASSES AND PO­LITE PALM-CLAP­PING ES­CA­LATES INTO WHIS­TLES AND CHEERS AS JEN­NIFER GATES—DAUGH­TER OF MI­CROSOFT BIL­LION­AIRE BILL GATES—CAN­TERS INTO THE ARENA DRESSED AS A RACE­CAR DRIVER.

Gates has joined the fray of fa­mous names who are com­pet­ing in the Los An­ge­les Masters’ Char­ity Pro-am—a crowd-pleas­ing race in which colour­ful, cos­tume-clad celebrity am­a­teurs team up with pro­fes­sional showjumpers to com­plete a fence-pep­pered re­lay in the name of phi­lan­thropy.

Next up are the Pink Ladies from Grease, cow­boys and In­di­ans, and even Las Ve­gas show­girls. Jessica Spring­steen, daugh­ter of rock legend Bruce Spring­steen and a cham­pion rider in her own right, dons hip­pie garb as she and her part­ner speed around the ring, cast­ing daisies into the au­di­ence. Themed mu­sic ac­com­pa­nies each ride and sends the dis­tin­guished au­di­ence into fits of singing along. It’s a thrilling, de­light­ful af­fair and a fun, frisky foil to the event’s oth­er­wise el­e­gant and so­phis­ti­cated tone.

Wel­come to day three of the Longines Los An­ge­les Masters—one in a tril­ogy of an­nual in­door showjump­ing Grand Slams, which also in­cludes the Gucci Paris Masters and the Longines Hong Kong Masters. This four-day event has trans­formed the Los An­ge­les Con­ven­tion Cen­tre into a hub of equine beauty and ex­trav­a­gance and lured rac­ing roy­alty and high so­ci­ety from all cor­ners of the globe.

The Masters oc­cu­pies two are­nas: the com­pe­ti­tion sta­dium it­self and a vast main hall that houses the warm-up pad­dock and ex­ten­sive red-car­peted fa­cil­i­ties for vis­i­tors—a bar, var­i­ous ca­sual din­ing op­tions, a lounge area, nu­mer­ous leather­goods bou­tiques, spec­tac­u­lar sculp­tures and a stage with con­stant live mu­sic. Har­lequin en­ter­tain­ers weave through the main hall on stilts.

As we en­ter we’re drawn im­me­di­ately to the warm-up pad­dock, which sits cen­tre stage. Sleek stal­lions in shades of ch­est­nut and ebony trot around the ring, re­hears­ing their leaps for the im­pend­ing chal­lenges. I find my­self grip­ping the bar­ri­cade to watch, mes­merised, as th­ese mas­sive, ma­jes­tic

beasts launch them­selves off their bony, twig-like legs and project their gi­ant bod­ies over fences that stand taller than me. At such close range you can see their taught mus­cles rip­ple, and hear them snort and nicker as they pound the sandy, fi­brous sur­face be­neath them. It’s a won­drous in­tro­duc­tion to the event, sure to beguile even those who have no prior knowl­edge of the sport.

Dur­ing the four-day eques­trian ex­trav­a­ganza, there are some com­pe­ti­tions—or classes, as they are re­ferred to in horse-speak—that are con­sid­ered un­miss­able. One is the Longines Speed Chal­lenge. Ea­ger to catch ev­ery mo­ment, I ar­rive early as the pre­vi­ous class is end­ing. Sud­denly the lights dim in the rac­ing arena and, in an in­stant, a swarm of in­dus­tri­ous course groomers are zip­ping around the ring, comb­ing the tram­pled sur­face and erect­ing slim ver­ti­cal fences as well as wider, more in­tim­i­dat­ing hur­dles known as ox­ers. Once the course is set, the rid­ers flood into the arena on foot, pac­ing around the wind­ing course and count­ing the num­ber of foot­steps be­tween each fence. This will help them gauge the time their horse has be­tween each jump.

Then things kick off. One after the other, 47 of the world’s most dec­o­rated showjumpers gal­lop and weave their way through a se­ries of hair­pin bends. The au­di­ence holds its breath be­fore ev­ery leap, breaks into con­cerned “ooohs” when a horse fal­ters and bursts into re­lieved, roar­ing cheers when a rider clears an ob­sta­cle. Jane Richard Philips, a pe­tite 31-year old Swiss rider, stuns ev­ery­one with a light­ning round and tri­umphs to be crowned win­ner.

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to ob­serve the chem­istry be­tween the horses and their rid­ers. After ev­ery round, even if their horse staged a tantrum and re­fused to jump, the rider leans for­ward and lov­ingly rubs the neck of their steed as if to say “Good job.” While train­ing and phys­i­cal fit­ness is crit­i­cal in showjump­ing, much of this sport is men­tal, both for the rider and the horse. Suc­cess ul­ti­mately rides on the strength of bond be­tween the two.

“Some­times the bond isn’t im­me­di­ate, but we work every­day with our horses; we spend a lot of time with them,” says French rider Pa­trice Delaveau, who dom­i­nated the Hong Kong Masters ear­lier this year, win­ning four of the six com­pe­ti­tions. So far his re­sults at the LA Masters haven’t been as stel­lar. “It’s just like a per­sonal re­la­tion­ship—some­times you have to work at it, some­times it’s like love at first sight, but the bond can de­velop and strengthen over years and years.”

Kevin Staut, a hand­some French Olympian who is also here to com­pete, agrees. “You must try to have a good re­la­tion­ship with the horse—to make the horse trust you. Oth­er­wise, I think there’s no chance to at­tain su­perb re­sults.”

On the fi­nal day of the Masters, the sta­dium is a full house. Ev­ery­one has come to watch the Longines Grand Prix, where rid­ers com­pete over two rounds for the US$475,000 purse. Fences are set at the max­i­mum height of 1.6 me­tres. The fi­nal

“SOME­TIMES YOU HAVE TO WORK AT IT, SOME­TIMES IT’S LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT, BUT THE BOND CAN DE­VELOP AND STRENGTHEN OVER YEARS AND YEARS”

win­ner is de­ter­mined by ac­cu­mu­lated penal­ties in the first round, then the fastest time in the sec­ond round.

Ev­ery­one is on the edge of their seats to see if Delaveau, who won the 2013 Longines Hong Kong Masters Grand Prix, will re­peat his feat in the City of An­gels. This time, how­ever, it’s a ris­ing star, 19-year old Bel­gian Jos Ver­looy, who soars into first place, fol­lowed by Swiss pow­er­house Steve Guer­dat in sec­ond place, and Ge­orgina Bloomberg, the daugh­ter of for­mer New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, in third.

Next up on the cal­en­dar is the Gucci Paris Masters in De­cem­ber, fol­lowed by the 2015 Longines Hong Kong Masters, which will take place from Fe­bru­ary 13 to 15 at Asi­a­worldExpo and prom­ises to be a sim­i­larly grand af­fair. Dozens of the world’s best rid­ers, many of whom com­peted in LA, have al­ready con­firmed their trips to the Fra­grant Har­bour.

Staut, who just misses out on a top spot to­day, is an avid sup­porter of the eques­trian Grand Slam. “Th­ese events are fan­tas­tic for our sport. Showjump­ing is still con­sid­ered a lit­tle sport and com­pe­ti­tions like th­ese re­ally help us de­velop our pop­u­lar­ity. The Masters show the best of equestrianism—here you have a mix of glam­our, beau­ti­ful things, art and top sports peo­ple. A lot of rid­ers come here with their best horses, which proves it’s a big deal. I’m truly happy to have the op­por­tu­nity to ride in this type of com­pe­ti­tion.”

JOY RIDE From left: Jessica Spring­steen dressed as a hip­pie dur­ing the Char­ity Pro-am; stilt walk­ers en­ter­tain guests in the main hall

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