Horses for courses: Fouaad's silver adds to family legacy


Ali Asker road in central Bangalore, one of the main thoroughfares in town, is named after Ali Asker Mirza, one of the famous early residents of the South Indian city who built much of it in the early 1800s.

On Sunday, great-great grandson Fouaad Mirza added his own name to another bit of history. The 26-year-old became the first Indian in 36 years to win an individual medal in the equestrian events at the Asian Games, clinching a silver in the individual eventing competition. His result would also power India to a silver in the team event.

Fouaad, riding his dark bay gelding Signeur Medicott, was leading after the first couple of days of dressage and cross country eventing at the three-day eventing competition. He made a solitary mistake in the jumping competition on Sunday, dropping a bar on the second gate. That four-point penalty would cost him a gold to Oiwa Yoshiaka of Japan, but not a place in history.

It was perhaps inevitable that Fouaad would go on to make a mark as an equestrian.

"We have at least the past six generations who have been equestrians. It's in his genes," says father Hasnain Mirza, who had travelled to watch his son compete. "His grandfather was the commandant of the Presidents' bodyguard (a ceremonial cavalry detatchment of the Indian army)."

Asian Games 2018 | Schedule | Results | Medals tally|

It was horses that first drew Asker to India in 1824. "Aga Asker was originally from Shiraz in Iran. The family story is that he fought with father and decided to make his fortune in India. So he came to India with 200 horses. He later began trading and constructing, including much of colonial Bangalore city. But he never forgot about horses and always worked with horses. And he made sure that none of our family forgot about it," says Hasnain.

And so Fouaad too started riding horses about the same time as he first started going to school. A serious accident early in his life did little to deter him. When he was five, a horse he was riding was spooked by a passing truck and bucked him. The newly shorn horn slashed the side of his head. A jagged scar still creases his right cheek.

The injury altered his looks but did little to dampen Fouaad's talent in the saddle. He would become India's foremost junior rider, winning age group and then senior titles until 2013, when he decided to shift base to Germany to train under Olympic medalist and former World Champion Bettina Hoy. The shift also gave him a chance to ride on superior European horses, a factor he explains for his improved competitiveness in the international scene.

Born into the privilege of one of Bangalore's old money families, the move also forced Fouaad to fend for himself.

"In India we are very spoiled. But when he was training with Hoy, he was expected to care for and groom the horses himself," says brother Ali. "If that meant grooming the horses or shoveling horse crap for seven hours a day, that was what he did. His lunch is usually a sandwich he will be eating while he is working. Some time ago when my parents when to meet him, he simply didn't have the time to meet them. But that's the life he's chosen."

Fouaad, though, has no complaints. It is also with Hoy that he got the opportunity to ride Signeur Medicott, a 12-year-old gelding that had been ridden by Hoy herself.

"This is a very horse-centric sport. It's a bit like formula one in that a better horse will have a better chance of doing well. He is a great horse to ride. He's very calm and determined," he says.

Unpredictably, Fouad prefers to give the credit to his medal to his horse. "The horse is the real athlete of this competition. This is a sport where you have to ask the horse to perform, you can't demand anything of it. The rider just takes the acclaim at the end of it all. The bond between a rider and his horse is very close. The horse is an individual with its own personality. I'm glad we could do this together."

There will be more to do for them. Following the Asian Games, Fouaad is setting his sights on qualification for the Olympics. The level of competition there will be far tougher. The Olympics is a three star event while the Asia Games is a single star event. "The height of the bars in the gates at the Asian Games is a 1.1m. At the Olympics it starts at 1.3m," says Hasnain.

Indeed, the Asian Games very nearly never happened for the Indian contingent owing to infighting in the Indian federation. But Fouaad was determined to take part.

"If he was pragmatic he would have left it. Because it is only a one star event. But the Asian Games is huge for the country. A performance here doesn't do much for his reputation as a rider, but is huge for the status of the sport in India," says Hasnain.

Now onto the Olympics. Qualifying for Tokyo is still a long way away. Only two Indian riders have ever appeared at the Games and none since Imtiaz Anees in 2000. Yet, Fouaad thinks he can do it. And perhaps even aim higher than a mere appearance.

If he does, Hasnain wouldn't be surprised. "He won't be the first Mirza to find fame with horses."