Global Champions Tour: Tops-Alexander seeks showjumping history

Edwina Tops-Alexander of Australia rides Lintea Tequila during the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Story highlights

  • Qatar hosting showjumping finale
  • Duo fighting for overall title
  • Australian trails Swede in standings

(CNN)Thirty-four years after going for her first ride at a neighbor's house, Edwina Tops-Alexander is on the cusp of showjumping greatness.

The Australian is locked in a tense title race with Rolf-Göran Bengtsson as she chases a record third Longines Global Champions Tour (LGCT) crown at this weekend's season finale.
    Total bonus prize money of almost €1 million ($1.1 million) is on offer at the state-of-the-art Al Shaqab arena in Doha.
    "I feel good, my horse is in fantastic shape -- she was at the Olympics and came third in a show a few weeks ago," Tops-Alexander told reporters in Doha this week.
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    Pressure

    Edwina Tops-Alexander has been to three Olympic Games.
    The 42-year-old started riding when she was eight, on a horse owned by her neighbors. She fell in love with the sport straight away and eventually convinced her parents to buy her a horse.
    Tops-Alexander and her experienced 13-year-old bay Holstein mare Lintea Tequila trail Bengtsson by just five points, with their only win coming at April's season opener in Miami Beach.
    "I have a lot of pressure but that's what makes our sport so exciting," said Tops-Alexander, the overall winner in 2011 and 2012. "I have to try to do my best and stay very focused."

    Third time lucky?

    Bengtsson has won two of this season's 14 rounds so far -- in Paris and Valkenswaard, the Netherlands -- with his 17-year-old Holstein stallion Casall ASK.
    "I've been in this position twice before so I'm hoping it'll be third time lucky," said the 54-year-old, who was pipped to the 2012 title by Tops-Alexander and was also runner-up in a similarly close battle with Scott Brash in 2014.
    The Swede is a two-time Olympic silver medalist -- as an individual in 2008 and in the team event four years earlier.
    "Edwina is an amazing rider so I know it'll be tough. But Casall is better than ever and I know together we'll pull out all the stops at Al Shaqab," added Bengtsson, who worked as a mechanic for nine years before becoming a full-time rider.
    Founded in 2006 by former Olympic champion Jan Tops -- Edwina Alexander's coach and husband -- the Global Champions Tour for the 30 best showjumpers in the world has grown into the sport's most prestigious event.
    Staged in glamorous locations in 15 venues across the world from Mexico City to Rome and Shanghai, it has a prize money pot of almost €10 million ($11.1 million).

    Al Shaqab

    The tour's season finale will be staged at the luxurious Al Shaqab Equestrian Center in Qatar for the third year running.
    Founded by Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani in 1992 "to preserve and perpetuate the Arabian horse in Qatar," according to the Al Shaqab website, it has since become a major international equestrian facility for showjumping, dressage and endurance riding.
    The vast showjumping arena at Al Shaqab.
    Located at the Al Shaqab battle site where Bedouins fought a key battle for Qatar independence more than a century ago, its 980,000-square-meter, horseshoe-shaped design has a central water feature, green areas and a large main arena.
    The 5,000-plus horses stabled in Al Shaqab live in the lap of luxury with air-conditioned stables, an equine hospital complete with swimming pool for animals recovering from injury, and vast indoor and outdoor arenas. The site also has a hotel and restaurant.

    Qatar's ambition

    Ruled by the Al Thani family since the mid-1800s, Qatar declared itself independent from the United Kingdom in 1971. Located on the Persian Gulf, its vast oil and natural gas reserves have made it one of the world's wealthiest countries per capita.
    In recent years, Qatar has become a major hub of international sports events as it tries to boost its profile on the global stage. Twice the size of Delaware -- the second-smallest US state -- it controversially won the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and is a key backer of British flat racing.

    Gender equality

    Showjumping is one of the few professional sports where men and women compete against each other and receive the same prize money.
    Tops-Alexander has not won a medal in three Olympic appearances, but was the first rider to win more than €1 million on the LGCT and is its career leader with €3.3 million.
    Bengtsson, who has won nearly €2.7 million overall, was third last season after a close battle with two-time defending champion Brash of the UK and eventual winner Luciana Diniz of Portugal.
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    Tops-Alexander, nicknamed "Weeni" due to her diminutive stature of 5 foot 5 inches, sees her gender as an advantage when it comes to steering a 700-kilogram animal -- whose instincts tell it to run away at the slightest hint of danger -- over bright-colored fences the size of a small car.
    "In showjumping, the horse is the athlete, so everybody needs to have a very good horse," the Monaco resident said on her website last year. "Horses used to be much heavier and stronger, not so delicate or light-footed, and the equipment and ground were different. I think now it is actually in favor of women because we are generally softer and we adapt more.
    "As a rule, we give our affection more and horses thrive on that; they know when you get on or if you are mad or unhappy. So there are a lot of advantages for women. I don't see it as me competing against men. I see it as horses competing against each other."