Moneyed Classes Sparing No Equestrian Expense

MTOne of the riders who trotted out to show off some nonstandard riding gear after the awards had been handed out.
Its hooves kicking up clods of brown earth, the black stallion launched itself over the last obstacle, the rider perched on top with a look of determination etched into her face.

Landing, her red nails glinted in the sun as she rode past a bored audience of movie stars and cigar-chomping businessmen sitting in the sun at Saturday's Jaguar Cup Amateur Show Jumping Competition.

In an economy fueled by high global commodities prices, Russians are reviving a pastime little seen in the country since the demise of the nobility in the early years of the 19th century, sometimes spending millions in the process.

"It's expensive, but Russians have the ability to buy the best and most expensive horses and trainers," said Ksenia Marchenkova, who described herself as an "ambassador" for the Moscow Polo Club. "They can afford to enjoy themselves in this way."

"The fact that it is prestigious is important, but people also love the animals," said Olga White, a successful businesswoman who has been riding for more than 10 years, the last five in amateur competitions.

The organizers of the weekend jumping event, Moscow Stud Farm No. 1, definitely play on the sport's prestige factor. "Renewed interest in equestrian sports and enthusiasm for horses is becoming a part of the life of the new Russian aristocracy," read the news release for the event.

Because of the attraction and ready cash, "there are heaps of new stables being built," White said. "It's a growing sport."

One stable, Otradnoye Horse Club, bought 29 hectares of land west of Moscow from the state in an attempt to expand earlier this year for 1.95 million rubles ($82,500), significantly below market price. The deal has been put on hold, however, as part of a larger investigation into the sale of public land along the ritzy thoroughfare.

Horse riding has become a flashier pursuit for the moneyed class, something borne out by the fact that, while the more technical dressage competition enjoyed greater popularity in Soviet times, the simpler and more exciting show jumping now holds top place, White said.

Prestige brands have caught on, and the event at Moscow Stud Farm No. 1, one of the city's oldest stables, was sponsored by Jaguar and Courvoisier.

The stables, founded in 1924, cover more than 1,000 hectares of prime real estate to the west of the city -- in an upscale residential area where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's dacha makes him just one of the area's many elite residents.

The complex, remodeled since Soviet times at great expense, houses around 500 horses, about 200 of which are privately owned, said Alexander Filin, the director of the stud farm's riding hall.

Owners pay between $500 and $1,500 a month for a stall, maintenance and fodder, White said.

And that's relatively inexpensive, given the value of the animals themselves.

"How long is a piece of string? A good horse can go for any price," White said.

Typically, Olympic-caliber jumping horses are sold for 3 million to 5 million euros ($4.6 million to $7.7 million) while a "top-flight grand prix horse," just one step down, runs anywhere from 300,000 to 1 million euros, she said.

The starting price for one horse at a recent auction at the stud farm was 1 million euros.

"When you have horses like that in this country, that means the level of horses is rising," Filin said.

But the 1 million euro horse didn't sell, a fact that may have been connected to a broader trend: Like other prestige items, the Russian elite seems to prefer buying its horses abroad.

Although wealthy buyers can be found alongside Arab sheiks at auctions as far away as the U.S. state of Kentucky, famous as horse country, most Russians go to Germany to purchase thoroughbreds such as the Trakehner, a breed native to East Prussia, annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II and now the Kaliningrad region. The Germans evacuated most of the breeding stock as they retreated in 1945, but the horses remain popular in Russia.

"We see that the number of guests from Russia is increasing," wrote Wiebke Rosenthal of the Trakehner Verband, an auction house for the breed.

Rosenthal said that a 2 1/2-year-old Trakehner stallion sold to a Ukrainian bidder in 2006 for 25,000 euros, while another, less impressive stallion sold for 8,000 euros.

"In the early 1990s, Russia lost a lot of its good horse stock when it was sold off because the government had no money to take care of them," said White. "Now the stock is being rebuilt. But most horses are coming from Germany."

Back in the sun-drenched stands around the show jumping ring, only the Russian Polo Club's Marchenkova wore an elaborate hat -- one with white feathers and soft fabric. Apparently, the "new Russian aristocracy" has not yet caught on to this intrinsic element of the horsey set.

"It's an amusement. Every little girl wants a horse," Marchenkova said, sitting among her friends, including actors Anna Semyonovich, Andrei Nosik and Konstantin Kryukov.

After the competition had ended and the winners had received their trophies, the music was turned up and famous film and television personalities entered the ring.

They rode around on their own horses, showing off outrageous outfits they had designed especially for riding -- many apparently taking their cue from Queen Guinevere of Arthurian legend, wearing gowns with trains long enough to cover the whole horse.

Asked if he would be interested in buying a horse, Kryukov said: "No, I have allergies. I just came to watch my friends."

While the stars paraded in the ring, Yekaterina Vozyakova, the head of the Detskiye Serdtsa, or Children's Hearts, charitable foundation, watched on with a look of surprise and bewilderment.

"I have two horses here," said Vozyakova, who has been riding for many years. "Prices are rising, but I couldn't live without them."

"They have a better character than humans, sometimes," she said.