Riding high on home support

SINGAPORE - When Singapore last hosted the SEA Games in 1993, equestrian riders Cheong Su Yen and Nicola Hammond were not even born.

But these young equestriennes are certainly looking to feature when the biennial event is held here in June next year.

In fact, after team-mate Janine Khoo's rare gold in the individual showjumping event at last December's SEA Games in Myanmar, public interest in their sport has grown.

The 16-year-old's feat was Singapore's first equestrian title at the Games since the 1995 Chiang Mai edition, when Sumana Rajarethnam, James Ng, Catherine Oh and Peter Abisheganaden won the three-day eventing team gold.

"There's definitely more interest now," said Nicola, 15, noting that more have been coming to apply for lessons since.

She had teamed up with Sasha Thorburn to win the Concours de Saut International (young riders) (CSIY-B) team event yesterday at the National Equestrian Centre.

Sasha holds a British passport but competed in Singapore colours.

The Republic's other team, made up of Su Yen and Janine, finished second after a jump-off. Thailand's Jaruporn Limpichati and Supanut Wannakool were third.

The growing interest in equestrian is a big change from what these riders have been used to over the years.

Said Su Yen, 18, a St Joseph's Institution student who trains five times a week: "A lot of people have misconceptions about riding, they think the horse does all the work. But it actually takes a lot of core strength."

Added Nicola, a student at the United World College of Southeast Asia: "People underestimate it. They don't think it's a sport, they think it's just fun."

They are well aware there could be even more attention next year, when Singapore takes on host duties of the SEA Games from June 5-16.

Equestrian Federation of Singapore president Melanie Chew said about 10 riders - its biggest team ever at an international competition - are likely to be fielded to compete in what will be the first major event at home for many.

"There's nothing like being on home ground," said Chew. "We are aware that we have a lot of public education to do, so we're looking into having ambassadors to educate spectators about the scoring, and explain how the scores are coming in in real time."

For the riders, many of whom compete only overseas, or only in front of family and friends in local tournaments, the prospect of riding in front of a partisan crowd at home next year is as exciting as it sounds daunting.

Said Su Yen, who rode in the team showjumping event in Myanmar: "I've not really competed in a major event at home before.

"There's probably going to be a lot of pressure if you compete in front of home crowd, but there's also a lot more support. I think it'll be a good thing. Having the crowd cheering for you will be more encouraging."

Nicola, whose mother Fiona also represented Singapore in showjumping and took gold at the 1996 ASEAN Showjumping Championships, is even dreaming of going where no other Singaporean rider have ventured before: the Olympics.

She missed out on a spot in the SEA Games team last year because she had not met the minimum age requirement of 16.

Said Nicola: "We don't have anyone riding at that level (yet), but I want to try and go as far as I can in representing Singapore, see if I can try and get up there."

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