A New Era

Victoria Goff finds out more about Al Shira'aa, the title sponsors of the Hickstead Derby 

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There was something different about the prizegiving for last year’s Al Shira’aa Derby. Having won the class on Golvers Hill, Nigel Coupe was presented with two trophies instead of just one - the Boomerang Trophy, which famously shows Eddie Macken’s four-time winner descending the Derby Bank, and a second trophy that he could take home and keep, a lasting memento of his long-awaited win.

The Al Shira’aa Trophy was commissioned to commemorate the new sponsorship deal between this United Arab Emirates-based company and Hickstead’s most iconic class. It showcases Al Shira’aa’s logo, which is drawn in Arabic calligraphy and incorporates the design of both a wind sail and a horse’s head. The symbol reflects Al Shira’aa’s ancestry, when the sea and pearl diving was the focus of its trading business, and its passion today, the horse.

This is where Al Shira’aa differ to some other sponsors: its partnership with Hickstead is fundamentally about promoting the sport and benefiting the horse world, particularly through improving the standards of horsemanship. It’s an ethos that is hugely important to Al Shira’aa’s founder, Her Highness Sheikha Fatima Bint Hazza Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Al Shira’aa is the public face of this private and reserved horsewoman, who spends a substantial amount of time and effort rescuing animals, particularly horses and dogs, in the UAE and across Europe. 

The main base for Al Shira’aa Stables is in Abu Dhabi, where they have a five-star luxury yard that’s home to retired horses as well as top competition horses. In the past few years, the company has expanded into Europe with further sites in Ireland, Germany, Spain and the UK. Their main competition focus is showjumping, but they’re also involved in a range of other disciplines including dressage, showing and racing. Al Shira’aa’s breeding operations include not just sport horses but also PREs (Pure Spanish Horses) and Arabians.

In particular, the company strives to promote the sport of showjumping in the United Arab Emirates at all levels, from grassroots up to the peak of international competition. As a nation, the UAE has shot to prominence in the sport in recent years, qualifying for the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ Final for the first time in 2017, where they won the Longines Nations Challenge Cup, the consolation final. Having provided funding for the team’s travel and European base in the run up to Barcelona, Al Shira’aa is now the formal sponsor of the senior UAE showjumping team, adding to their existing support of the junior and Young Rider teams.

The UAE has its own international jumping tour at the beginning of the year, and a pivotal fixture in this is the Al Shira’aa International Horse Show, held at the Al Forsan International Sports Resort in Abu Dhabi each January. First taking place in 2017, the four-day CSI4* show has a prize fund of €200,000, including four Longines World Ranking classes. It offers qualification opportunities for the FEI World Equestrian Games, and gives Emirati riders the chance to compete against some of the sport’s leading international riders.

Al Shira’aa was keen to develop this brand new fixture, so when the opportunity came up to take on the title sponsorship of the Hickstead Derby, they felt it could have far-reaching benefits for both parties and for the sport itself. This burgeoning new company would be associated with Hickstead’s historic, established class, while it was hoped that more British and European riders would make the return journey to compete in the UAE.

“The Company’s founder is a keen and enthusiastic horse rider, and it is their love of horses that drives the ambition to develop and influence this sport. What better way of supporting this ambition than the sponsoring of one of the most famous show jumping events in the world?” said Tom O’Brien, UK Manager for Al Shira’aa.

Last summer’s Al Shira’aa Derby was the first of a three-year sponsorship deal. “We particularly enjoyed seeing Nigel Coupe win after such a thrilling jump-off,” says Kate Moisson, Special Projects Manager for Al Shira’aa. “It was so satisfying seeing such a great horseman, who first competed in the Derby 27 years ago, finally win.” Following his long-awaited victory, Nigel was rewarded with an invitation to compete in the Al Shira’aa International Horse Show, which he duly took up last January. Several other Hickstead regulars also travelled to the UAE to compete, and so it seems the goal of improving links between the UK and the UAE is paying off.

One of the UAE’s top showjumpers was also given the chance to compete at last year’s Al Shira’aa Hickstead Derby Meeting. Hamad Ali Al Kirbi had a superb first visit, qualifying for both the British Speed Derby and the Al Shira’aa Derby itself.

At this summer’s Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ leg at Hickstead, the UAE team is due to compete, and it is hoped that some more of the riders will compete at this week’s Derby Meeting in order to familiarize their horses with the International Arena. Meanwhile, the winner of this Sunday’s Al Shira’aa Derby will be invited to take up to three horses to compete on the UAE international tour, an incredible opportunity and a trip that will be fully funded, thanks to the generosity of the title sponsors.

Al Shira’aa’s British base is in Surrey, where they have various farms that are home to a mixture of youngstock, broodmares and competition horses. “There are many special horses at our UK base,” explains Kate Moisson, who works closely with Tom. “These include Cupido, who competed at the Hamburg Derby and is now living out an idyllic retirement here in Surrey. One to watch is Hendrick (Joy Ride), who was purchased from the Equine Elite Auction in Holland in 2016, who is a sublime four-year-old KWPN by Davino. The company’s founder loves the genuine kindness of the Spanish horses, and Eclipse XIX (Novelero XVII x Dergano), a now-retired 17-year-old PRE born and produced in Spain, is the horse who inspired that passion.”

The farms are run by Tom O’Brien, who has worked with the company since 2013. Co Wexford-born, with a strong hunting background, Tom came to England about a decade ago and worked in a variety of eventing yards in England before training at the Talland School of Equitation, where he developed a love of dressage. Both Tom and Kate train with Grand Prix dressage rider Sarah Millis, who is based not far from the All England Jumping Course.

Following their successful sponsorship of the Hickstead Derby, Al Shira’aa has taken on several new sponsorships for 2018, including the CDI4* dressage at last month’s Royal Windsor Horse Show, and the new Elite Foal UK Registration Tour, which has been set up to encourage the breeding of quality sport horses in Great Britain. “Al Shira’aa encourages the development of the horse and rider through competition at all levels, and this includes our sponsorship of various high-profile events in the UK,” explains Kate. “But there remains very strong ethos of horsemanship in the brand, because this is the most important aspect of competing – the desire to win must be tempered with essential horsemanship, care and compassion.” 

The participation of women in sport is an aspect the Al Shira’aa team feels particularly passionate about. “The company like to see women being successful in what is often perceived as a male-dominated sport,” explains Kate Moisson.

The interest in women’s participation in equestrian sports runs deep through the family – the founder’s grandmother Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak is the President of the General Women’s Union, the Chief Executive Officer of the Family Development Foundation and President of the Higher Council for Motherhood and Childhood and four-time ‘Mother of the Nation’. She founded the Fatima Bint Mubarak Academy (FBMA) International Show Jumping Cup, a competition that provides a special platform for women riders, who form the majority of Emirati participants. “There is a keen desire to increase the presence of women in sport, and the founder would like to encourage as many women as possible to come out and compete,” Kate adds.

As we look ahead to the second running of the Al Shira’aa Derby, it will be interesting to see if one of the female competitors can take the title – with three-time runner-up Harriet Nuttall and last year’s third placed Derby debutante Holly Smith among those who are in with a good chance. Whatever the outcome, the Al Shira’aa Derby continues to be a historic class with a very bright future, thanks to the vision and dedication of this forward-thinking equestrian company.

This article first appeared in June 2018. 

 

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