CONGHUA, China (AP) — In an operation to rival any quarantine operation anywhere, all of the horses in these misty green hills of southern China have been blood tested and microchipped — the zebras too.
The Guangzhou Asian Games featured China's first-ever international equestrian event, the result of painstaking efforts to create a zone completely free of equine diseases.
And it has already had a positive outcome: China on Monday transported horses off the mainland for the first time in 60 years.
The first batch of 26 competition horses left on a plane bound for Europe, the first time since 1949 the international community has accepted horses from mainland China.
Even though equestrian events have a tiny following in sports-mad China, the competition has been earning high marks from its well-heeled participants.
"We were shocked at the facilities here and with the organization. The services they have here are high-end," said Majid Al Qassimi, a sheik from the United Arab Emirates who is competing in the jumping competition which continued Monday. "You can compare it with the highest international events."
Outbreaks of equine disease and substandard quarantine procedures had previously prevented China from hosting high-level competition. Competitors could get their horses into China, but not out. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, equestrian events were held in nearby Hong Kong, which has a prominent horse racing scene.
"Last year for the All-China Games, we brought our horses from Hong Kong to China for the competition. Afterward we had to sell them all because we couldn't bring them back," said Gerald Kuh, manager of the Hong Kong equestrian team.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club partnered with Asian Games organizers to help with equine related expertise and planning for the venue nestled among forested hills in this area known for its hot springs and sweet lychee fruit. One of the first tasks was ensuring the health of the approximately 2,000 horses in the area, as well as the 30 or so zebra at the local zoo. That's a massive undertaking to protect the 108 horses imported for the equestrian competition.
"You've got to go in and blood type them, we do tests on them. Those tests are ongoing, every six months. Those horses are now microchipped ... including the zebras. We understand the health status within the whole zone, of every equine that comes in and goes out," said John Ridley, the club's director of racing operations.
Strict rules around the competition area help prevent outbreak of disease. Anyone entering the stables must walk across a disinfecting mat and thoroughly wash their hands. Fly screens have been installed to keep out bugs that might carry germs. Most horses were quarantined in Germany before flying to China.
To keep track of what's going in and out, competitors had to provide packing lists, right down to the hoof picks in the tack box.
"It was strict but it's good for the sport ... because for an epidemic to spread, everyone will blame the Chinese for not doing their job. So this was very good for our horses," Al Qassimi said.
The establishment of a world-class venue is a major step toward nurturing interest in equestrian sports in China, where it is so foreign that assistant venue director Chang Wei had to tell fans: "Do not shout or yell, like at football or basketball ... I kindly remind spectators not to scare the horses."
The South Koreans have gold in dressage at the Asian Games, while the Japanese took the top spots in eventing. Saudi Arabia wowed the crowd with near-perfect jumping in the team competition on Monday, with individual finals on Wednesday.
The competition is not top-level — equestrian remains dominated by Europeans — but it has brought together an eclectic group of athletes that includes a Saudi prince and other Arab royals, a gold medal-winning Buddhist monk from Japan and Korean teen heartthrob actor Kim Seok.
Perhaps most importantly, the competition has been broadcast on Chinese state television, which reaches almost every household in this country of 1.3 billion people. It is sure to find fans among urban Chinese who find the gentility and traditions appealing — in no other sport do athletes compete while "Waltzing Matilda" is softly piped through the arena speakers.
"Equestrian is getting more publicity here over the last two weeks than it's probably had over the last five years. So it all helps the sport grow," Ridley said.
Chinese jumper Zhang Bin says it's a good start but much more investment is needed for his country to truly develop an equestrian culture. Teammate Yang Hua has said his team bought a horse for him in Germany last year for "very cheap."
"This event is different from ordinary sports like swimming, athletics or pingpong, where there's not much of an initial investment," Zhang said. "But with equestrian, it's impossible to do it without the investment. It's like F1, you just can't tell Michael Schumacher to race in a regular Mercedes."