The heroes of the equestrian world – and a canine companion – were honoured in a glittering ceremony at the spectacular Buta Palace in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku.
Representatives from Azerbaijan’s equestrian federation welcomed hundreds of delegates who had attended the FEI General Assembly earlier in the day. Delegates donned tuxedos and gowns for the gala dinner, which was attended by almost 350 guests from National Federations, partners, VIPs and international media.
Attendees were escorted to Buta Palace across the city by police escort through sometimes busy and chaotic traffic. Once at the Palace, delegates were greeted by the high-ranking officials from the Azerbaijan Equestrian Federation, then treated to colourful performances by traditional dancers, the State Chamber Orchestra, a jazz band led by Rain Sultanov, and national opera and modern pop singers.
The venue is one of the principal performing arts centers and music venues of Baku, and its greater hall is a caravanserai-stylized venue, that can accommodate about 2000 visitors. It was the host venue for the semi-finals and finals of Eurovision qualification.
Azerbaijani TV presenter Leyla Aliyeva and retiring FEI Endurance Director Ian Williams were Masters of Ceremony for the evening. Waiters buzzed around until well after midnight, with glasses rarely empty and bringing a never-ending supply of delicious local delicacies.
The FEI Awards Gala 2014 presented by Longines was a special evening for so many reasons; among others, it was the last for Princess Haya as outgoing president, and the first for new president Ingmar de Vos.
After the awards were made, special presentations were made to those leaving FEI headquarters. These included Ian Williams, who retires as endurance director this month, former FEI 2nd Vice-President Pablo Mayorga, and FEI receptionist Patricia Cuénoud, who retired from her post after two decades in the job at the end of October.
A tribute to Queen Elizabeth II was also shown, after she became the first recipient of the FEI Lifetime Achievement award last month as part of this prestigious FEI Awards scheme. She was presented with the award at Buckingham Palace by Princess Haya.
A painting of Princess Haya with a horse was presented to Haya by Azerbaijani equestrian officials, along with several other items.
In his first official duty, newly elected FEI President Ingmar De Vos surprised Princess Haya with a special award. “There have been a number of awards tonight, but there is someone here, a very special person, who deserves to be recognised and celebrated. Your Royal Highness, it is now my turn to surprise you with your very own special award. I hope you will wear it with pride and think of your FEI Family,” as he presented her with a beautiful diamond brooch.
“You have had a lasting effect on every single person in this room, on the organisation, on the FEI Family and on the sport globally. You have led us to new frontiers. You had a vision and you took us on an incredible journey. Thank you once again for everything!”
Princess Haya was joined on stage by her brother Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, FIFA Vice-President, who had flown from Jordan to be with his sister for her final official appearance with the FEI.
In his speech, he brought tears to his sister’s eyes as he said: “There is one question she always asks when she meets someone that she looks up to, but it’s a question she has never actually asked me. She asks ‘If there is someone in the past you would like to see something you have done, and they would be proud of you, who is it?’ I would say tonight that I would love our late father and late mother to come back and see you right now. They would be so proud of you.”
Brother and sister joined hands as they watched a moving video of the key moments of Princess Haya’s family life, her sporting career and love of horses, and her eight years as FEI President.
IOC Honorary President Jacques Rogge also paid special tribute to Princess Haya by video.
Journey and Sydney steal the show
Another show-stealer was the regal Journey, a service dog whose owner, Para-Equestrian Dressage athlete Sydney Collier, was the recipient of the Against All Odds Award.
Journey, a white standard poodle, became famous during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy for being the first dog to get accreditation for a World Championship. He created a buzz again on Sunday night when he arrived on stage complete with bow tie. After travelling over 9000 kilometres from New York, Journey took to the stage to receive his own FEI Award, a personalised dog bowl.
Against All Odds:
Sydney Collier (USA) with Journey
Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Sydney Collier was diagnosed with the rare Wyburn Mason syndrome at the age of seven. The disease has meant that she has been faced with significant obstacles, but these have not prevented her from reaching her goals. The 17-year-old has undergone a series of operations, including three brain surgeries, is blind in one eye, and a stroke at the age of 11 led to paralysis on her left side.
Despite these challenges, she has pursued her dreams, and after competing at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 this summer, is determined to continue training and represent the USA at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. In between training in New York, 10 hours away from her family and friends, she also volunteers once a week to speak, motivate and encourage young people of her age who do not have the same motivation and family support that she does.
Sydney Collier was also recently announced 2014 Junior Equestrian of the Year by the United States Equestrian Federation.
“Winning the FEI Against All Odds Award means so much to me as an individual, and as an athlete,” Sydney Collier said. “Life has routinely thrown speed bumps and curves on my plans, but my passion for horses and their incredible spirit has repeatedly helped me find a way around obstacles that others might have seen as insurmountable.
“In winning this award I now have the incredible opportunity to share with so many others facing similar circumstances that their goals do not ever have to be put aside. The world out there is filled with wonderful opportunities as long as you are willing to push yourself to reach them. I would like to thank the FEI for creating this award to help continue to inspire every athlete, regardless of challenging circumstances, to strive to be their best every day in and out of the saddle. And to my family and my trainer Wes Dunham who have been beside me every step of the way. I wouldn’t be standing here today without each one of you supporting and cheering me on through thick and thin,” Collier said.
“It means even more to me to have my special service dog Journey by my side to accept this award. When Journey was granted his credentials at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games a world of opportunity and education was opened. Together Journey and I are now able to share with others the special working relationship and independence that service animals grant their handlers. The icing on the cake? Journey loves horses as much as I do!”
Winners at the FEI Awards Gala 2014 presented by Longines:
Reem Acra Best Athlete Award:
World Jumping champion Jeroen Dubbeldam (NED)
With an impressive track record including individual gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games during a career spanning 25 years, Jeroen Dubbeldam has had an exceptional 2014, scoring individual and team gold at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 and helping the Netherlands clinch the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup Final just weeks later.
“I’m very honoured to receive the Reem Acra Best Athlete Award,” said Jeroen Dubbeldam. “I’m very proud of it! Looking back at 2014 I am full of pride for my horse, Zenith SFN, and the way he competed, as this was the first year at this top level, filling in the gap of my former horse, Utascha SFN that was sold.”
International fashion designer Reem Acra flew in specially for the gala dinner to present the Best Athlete Award to Jeroen Dubbeldam. “It is an honour to have again been asked to present the FEI’s Best Athlete Award”, she said. “Since I started participating in the FEI World Cup Dressage series, I have come to appreciate even more the incredible level of talent required to reach the top in equestrian sport. Every recipient of this award has spent countless hours creating the amazing harmony between humans and horse that is so beautiful to watch.”
Longines Rising Star Award:
Vaulter Lambert Leclezio (MRI)
At just 17 years of age, Lambert Leclezio became the first athlete to represent Mauritius at World Championship level when he stepped into the Vaulting arena at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy. An impressive sixth place finish in the individual category was the culmination of years of dedication to his sport. Coming from a country with limited training facilities and Vaulting horses, Lambert received support through the FEI’s global sport development programme, FEI Solidarity, to qualify for the 2014 Games by training and competing in Europe. Training on a former racehorse in Mauritius, Lambert continues to practice and compete throughout the year, both in his home country and Europe, while completing his studies in Mauritius.
“Thank you so much to everyone who voted for me”, Lambert Leclezio said. “It’s a great honour to receive the Longines Rising Star Award. I made lots of sacrifices to get here, and so did everyone who has been helping me. I would like to say a special thanks to the FEI for organising this beautiful ceremony for the equestrian family, and for the huge help from FEI Solidarity, which allowed me to compete at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy and made my dream come true. I’m very happy for all that has happened to me in 2014.”
Juan-Carlos Capelli, Longines Vice-President and Head of International Marketing, said supporting the up-and-coming athletes in the sports Longines is involved in has been a high priority for the brand for the past few years.
“These young talents are the future of their discipline and will be part of the development and influence of the sport across the globe. To encourage these promising sportsmen and women to reach their full potential and fulfil their dreams is one of the most rewarding efforts a brand can make and we are very proud of that,” he said.
Best Groom Award:
Jackie Potts (GBR), groom to Eventing world No.1 William Fox-Pitt
After spending the past 22 years as groom and right-hand woman in the stables of world eventing number one William Fox-Pitt (GBR), Jackie Potts is one of the most well respected grooms on the circuit. She has groomed at four Olympic Games, four FEI World Equestrian Games and eight European Championships, on top of countless three-day events around the world. Jackie is the consummate professional, managing all aspects of Fox-Pitt’s yard and horses from training to veterinary care. Her extensive knowledge of horse management and training means her advice is often sought by other grooms as well as Team GBR.
“It is so exciting and an absolute privilege to be here to receive this award tonight,” Potts said. “I feel like I am accepting this award on behalf of all other grooms, who are so hardworking and equally deserving,”
“It is a hugely deserved and very prestigious award,” William Fox-Pitt said by video message. “Jackie has a profound empathy with horses, and horses love her. She is fantastic at motivating her team, and is generous in the sharing of her knowledge and expertise.
“There are few grooms in the world that rival her experience, and her dedication is proven by her 22 years as my yard manager. After all she has achieved in her profession, nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see her being rewarded tonight,” he said, adding “Please come back.”
Equine therapy centre Equal Ark (SIN)
Launched in 2011, the Singapore-based Equal Ark (Equine-Assisted Learning for At Risk Kids) is a programme of horsemanship lessons for children experiencing a range of difficulties at home and at school. The initiative has already helped 800 children who have failed or dropped out of school at an early age. Equal Ark provides children with a greater chance of success in their school, work and family lives while developing a love for horses. Equal Ark will enrol 400 students annually from 2015, and is aiming to double this from 2017.
“Recognition from a prestigious international organization now puts EQUAL and our island of Singapore firmly on the global equestrian map”, chairman of Equal Ark Melissa Tan said. “The FEI Award allows us to recognise and acknowledge our appreciation to the team of volunteers and staff who have contributed to its success.
“This award affirms and cements our dedication to reach out to even more children whose lives can be inspired by the beauty and magnificence of our treasured equine partners.”