LONDON (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s surprise bronze in Olympic team show jumping means a slightly mysterious organization called Saudi Equestrian has achieved a goal set in 2009 - to buy great horses and succeed in London.
Saudi Equestrian has bought top jumpers from the United States, Great Britain and continental Europe in the past two years - the horse power that helped propel Prince Abdullah al Saud, the king’s grandson, and his team mates to Games success.
The Saudi team were in front after Sunday’s first round when even reigning world champions Germany failed to make the cut.
Then they defeated reigning Olympic champions the United States and stalwarts such as Sweden and Switzerland in the second to win their first-ever team equestrian medal.
Their best prior Olympic result in horse sports came when rider Khaled Al Eid won individual jumping bronze at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, something the team described as inspirational.
Chef d‘equipe Rogier van Iersel, a former international judge from the Netherlands who has been working with the Saudis since 2006, said his goal was just to get to the second round. What happened was well beyond expectations.
“I had seen for a long time that we had top-level riders but we lacked the horse power,” he said. “And horse power comes with finding the right resources to buy these horses.”
It was to bring these resources to bear that Saudi Equestrian was formed with King Abdullah as its patron. The six riders selected to form its talent core then began combing the world for horses they thought would do well.
The horses had to be ready for the top, because Saudi Equestrian was on a clock if they were to reach the London goal.
“The policy is not to buy young horses and to hopefully have them develop to a good level, because then you have a lot of disappointments. The target is to buy proven quality,” said van Iersel.
If a chosen horse was for sale - and not every one was, regardless of price - it would be vet-checked and then tried by the rider to see if they’d suit since the match between rider and horse is as important as the skill of either.
To buy Olympic-level horses can run into millions of dollars. But Saudi Equestrian won’t give on money matters.
“Anyone knows that the horses we have are not cheap horses,” van Iersel said. When asked about his purchase budget, he said money issues were the province of the board of directors.
He said he hasn’t been told where the funding comes from.
Many riders from top equestrian nations buy horses or, more often, have horses bought for them. The difference is they usually buy younger and train, but Saudi Equestrian didn’t have the time.
“They were not the only ones to buy new horses. If you go to such an event you have to have right horses. They had to spend on them and bring them from Europe, we cannot breed those horses in our countries,” said Abdulla al-Marri, a member of the United Arab Emirates show jumping team.
Margaret Liningon-Payne, director of standards at the British Horse Society, said the horses had to be European.
“The Saudi equine heritage, the Arab horses that they have, aren’t really suitable for the equine disciplines found in the Olympics. So they would need to look elsewhere for their horses,” she said.
“It can take more than 10 years to produce a top-class horse.”
Ramzy Al Duhami’s mount Bayard Van de Villa Theresia was one of the first horses bought by the organization, in early 2010 in Belgium. Noblesse des Tess, ridden by Kamal Bahamdan, was previously the ride of Colombia’s Rene Lopez.
Saudi Equestrian bought Prince Abdullah’s horse Davos from American show jumper Candice King in June last year. Abdullah Waleed Sharbatly’s horse Sultan came on board in January, after being ridden by top British rider Bruce Menzies.
Training and stable management expertise also came from the West - trainer Stanny Van Paesschen from Belgium, stable manager Peter Aitken from Canada and van Iersel himself.
Van Iersel said horses and money are no guarantee of success and that he knew the Saudi riders were good, with all but one of the team possessing previous Olympics experience.
Still, given their current international rankings, some eyebrows were raised when they took the bronze.
Al Sharbatly, a silver medalist at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, is the highest-placed Saudi show jumper at 59 on the Rolex ranking while the others sit at 150 or below.
Yet for the Saudis, only one show counted.
“To be in the top ranking, it’s also something. But you know it’s not so easy for us coming from Saudi, trying to compete in these big shows and collect points,” said Al Duhami, who is ranked 264th.
“So we had one focus in mind - that was the Olympic Games.”
Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas, Martin Dokoupil and Asma Alsharif; editing by Jason Neely