A delegation of Chinese and U.S. equestrian officials will meet this spring at the Kentucky Horse Park to discuss establishing a new international competition — the Friendship Cup — that would alternate between Kentucky and China.
The Lexington Equine Leadership Summit will bring together the U.S. Equestrian Federation and the Chinese Equestrian Association, the government ministry over horse sports in China.
The Chinese group has signed a letter of intent with Sai Ma Sports, an American group, to work on ways to fill the "enormous latent demand for equine sports in China," according to a release from Sai Ma.
In addition to the Friendship Cup, the group will negotiate an agreement for the U.S. Equestrian Federation, or USEF, to help the Chinese Equestrian Association jump-start its horse sports to quickly bring them up to international standards.
"They are very interested in getting modern," said John Long, USEF executive director. "And they're very keen on putting together a big show."
While in Kentucky, Chinese officials will be getting an in-depth look at everything "horse," from hay suppliers to farriers to vets to athletes and officials, and even a visit to Keeneland.
"It think it's a neat opportunity and one we're kind of excited about," Long said. "Equine diplomacy is a fun thing, especially for countries that have that tradition in common. ... It will literally give them a leg up on how to put on one of these things."
Kentucky Horse Park president John Nicholson said the Chinese were impressed by the park and the state during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington. The Horse Park also hosted an exhibit in 2000 on the history of horses in China, which established enormous good will.
"There is an ancient relationship between horses and mankind in China. ... They are very enthusiastic about this in China," Nicholson said.
Now the Chinese are focused on modernizing their skills and bringing China into the big equine leagues in a hurry.
The Chinese plan to develop horse sports, which are relatively rare in China, as a recreation option. And they want to be able to take on the world's best equestrian athletes at the Olympics and other world-class competitions. Only one Chinese athlete has ever qualified to compete at the Olympics — an eventer who did not finished the 2008 competition. But that undoubtedly will change.
"They plan to field teams and they are making a big effort," Nicholson said.
Coming to Kentucky for equine expertise made sense and was another outgrowth of the Games, he said.
"They are undertaking a significant plan to substantially grow equine sports in China," Nicholson said. "That affords us a new market for Kentucky horses and our industry expertise. ... Lexington and Kentucky have become such an important part of equestrian sports, so they look to us as great place to begin. I think it's got enormous potential for Kentucky as well. ... I think it's clear horses and horse sports are going to expand in China this century, and we should be in a position to benefit from that."
The Chinese officials probably will be visiting April 27 to May 3, to see how organizers run the annual Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, one of only a handful of four-star or Olympic-level competitions held worldwide every year.
According to Emmett Ryan of Sai Ma Sports, China will rebuild equestrian sports virtually from scratch. "The equestrian industry in China is underdeveloped," Ryan said.
One problem: Because of the scarcity of equine veterinary skill, horses cannot be exported from China. That was one of the main reasons equestrian competitions during the 2008 Beijing Olympics were held not on the mainland but in Hong Kong, which has a large and expert veterinary community thanks to the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
Last year, China imported about 2,000 horses for recreational purposes.
Several of those came from Georgetown Quarter Horse breeder and trainer Bennie Sargent. Sargent said he has another shipment ready to go into quarantine to ship next month.
The interest primarily has been in barrel racers, he said.
"They're very big into barrel racing. It's the only Western discipline they have so far. ... We've tried really hard to promote all the others, but we can't get them off the barrels."
Altogether, he has sold a handful of reining horses. But it is hard for other sports to get traction with the hundreds of "horse clubs" springing up across China, he said.
Show jumping also has a following, but the export restrictions make it difficult for foreign riders to get enthusiastic about competing in China.
That's where the Friendship Cup comes in.
Ryan, with Sai Ma, said the plan is to build a team show-jumping competition that pairs U.S. and Chinese riders against those from other countries. In the beginning, the Chinese probably would ride horses loaned from other countries. But that would change as their expertise builds.
The competition could be attached to an existing event, such as the Alltech National Horse Show, with significant prize money from sponsors to draw in riders, Ryan said.
Because sports sponsorship opportunities are rare in China, "we think this is going to become an extremely attractive opportunity," he said.
Ryan hopes that the first Friendship Cup could be in 2013; the second might have to be in the United States as well as China develops its equine infrastructure.
Ryan said that by 2015 the event could be in China, where the goal is for it to become the largest equestrian event in Asia.
Long, of the USEF, said he thinks this ambitious plan has a strong chance of success.
The Chinese "want to be perceived as influential internationally, and sports plays a very big role," Long said.