How equestrian clears historic hurdles in Shanghai

The Longines Global Champions Tour and the Global Champions League heads to Shanghai, China this weekend. The latest leg of the world's premiere show jumping circuit starts Thursday.

(CNN)The third leg of the Longines Global Champions Tour and Global Champions League sees the riders and horses travel to Shanghai for the most eastern event of the season.

Two specially-chartered planes fly in some of the very best jumping horses on the planet to compete at what is a pioneering event on China's mainland.

Historic hurdles

Strict quarantines rules previously made it impossible to fly international competition horses in and out of China.
    But, thanks to a landmark arrangement, the Global Champions Tour broke new ground in 2014 with the hosting of its inaugural event at the China Art Palace.
    It took years of collaboration between the Chinese Government and European Commission to come to an agreement on quarantine rules allowing European horses into the country.
    The cooperation between the two authorities led to the creation of a special quarantine zone at the competition venue in Shanghai.
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    The international horses' stables, exercise arenas and competition zone are all within this specially-monitored area so that contact with the local horse population is prevented.
    Jan Tops, the founder of the Global Champions Tour, worked hard to make the event a possibility.
    "We were basically the pioneers in bringing the international horses here for the first time," he explained to CNN last year.
    "It took many years to plan and to get the correct permission to overcome the quarantine rules on mainland China.
    "It was not even possible for the equestrian events as part of the Beijing Olympics to be held here which is why they had to go to Hong Kong."

    Enthusiastic crowds

    Less than one week after Formula One hit town for the Chinese Grand Prix, sports fan will once again gather to watch elite international competitors.
    And the Shanghai grandstands make for a unique atmosphere.
    While events held in Europe and America take place in front of crowds who are well versed in equestrian sport, spectators in Shanghai are often seeing show jumping for the first time.
    As a result, the riders are cheered and applauded whether they jump clear or knock down poles.
    Jump-offs against the clock are noisy affairs with gasps coming from the crowd as horses clear fences which can be up to 160 centimeters high.
    There might be spontaneous applause during a round which, like cheering a golfer on a green or a tennis player mid-point, is usually not encouraged.
    But in Shanghai the crowds enthusiasm is appreciated and enjoyed by the riders.
    "Our event in Shanghai goes from strength to strength each year and it is fantastic to see the passion of the audience," adds Tops. "It is great to see fans queuing before the gates open for the competitions and the Exhibition Shopping Village is always packed.
    "I know the riders love to come to this event and feel the warmth of the people and their admiration for these top horses."
    Spectators dress to impress in Shanghai.

    Rise of Equestrian Sport in China

    Equestrian sport is seen as an aspirational pastime for many Chinese, so the event is not just one for fans of the sport.
    It's also a big social occasion, with visitors' outfits similar to those seen during day at a horse racing meeting. Think big hats and smart attire.
    Associated with a luxury lifestyle, China's burgeoning middle class has contributed to the growth in horse ownership and the participation in equestrian.
    "The rise in interest in equestrianism has been considerable," says Tops, and figures back this up.
    According to the latest China-Europe equestrian seminar, in 2014 there were around 200 equestrian or riding clubs in China.
    Now the figure is over 1,500, and rising, with club membership totally nearly one million.
    "We are proud to be here and look forward to building a strong future for our sport in China," says Tops.
    A view of the arena at the Shanghai Arts Palace.

    Return of the champion Harrie Smolders

    Having missed the two opening events in Mexico City and Miami, the 2017 Longines Global Champions Tour overall champion, Harrie Smolders (NED), will make his first appearance of the season in Shanghai with his top stallion Don VHP Z.
    Smolders, a winner of the Shanghai Grand Prix in 2015, will be looking for a bright start to his 2018 challenge. After two events, the leaderboard is topped by a pair of two-time LGCT champions in Britain's Scott Brash and Edwina Tops-Alexander of Australia.
    Both riders are dreaming of an historic third overall crown.
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    In the Global Champion League, it's 2016 champions Valkenswaard United who lead after the opening two rounds.
    Miami winners, Prague Lions, sit second while the Mexico City winners, Miami Celtics, are in third.