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Spot-the-Marmoog – The New Christmas Party Game for all the Family!

A couple of posts ago, I remarked that anyone who searched rando

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A couple of posts ago, I remarked that anyone who searched randomly through the FEI database was likely, within 20 minutes, to chance upon a horse whose provenance did not stack up. This followed revelations about the failed FEI investigation into whether dressage horse Wily Earl and the three-years-younger Golden Coin were one and the same, a case drawn to my attention after the collapse of the Marmoog horse-swap enquiry on a legal technicality.

Quite a few of you took my 20-minute challenge seriously, and have referred me to horses who seem to have started their careers rather late in life. Others who have caught Marmoog fever tell me they’ve scoured endurance pictures on the internet in search of mid-ride horse swaps. There’s certainly a buzz when you think you’ve spotted a ringer. (This new-found party game has quickly gained popularity thanks, no doubt, to Christmas TV schedules rarely living up to expectations, or running out of things to say to your elderly aunt. It’s fun for all the family, with no prior horse knowledge required – all you need is normal eyesight).

Following the Marmoog affair, the FEI acknowledged “loopholes” in its horse ID systems. During the London International Horse Show (Olympia) I found myself in the same hospitality box as John McEwen, the FEI’s ex-vice president. He talked me through many new measures to thwart passport fraud and horse-swappers that are in the rules for 2015. We were not alerted to these revisions in missives from the FEI General Assembly the previous weekend. Having now read them online, I am not surprised the FEI was reluctant to spotlight them. The relationship between microchip and passport was not so much of a loophole as a sink-hole!

Policing the sponsor – a world first for endurance!
The FEI recently handed out its first yellow card and disqualification for a mid-loop rider swap, to a German competing in the UAE. If someone from a “traditional” endurance country can pick up bad habits competing in Group 7, can the reverse also be possible? That’s what Endurance GB (EGB) is hoping will be the outcome of its proposed three-year sponsorship by Sheikh Mohammed’s Meydan corporation.

The deal covers all FEI rides (and notably the three at the Dubai squad’s British base, Euston Park), new technology, training grants and more, but controversy has raged for months about the wisdom of allying the unsullied UK with the emirate at the heart of the endurance scandal. You can read the back-story here. EGB is in the middle of a members’ vote after being threatened with an extraordinary general meeting by opponents of the deal. The campaign has been tense, with both Yes and No lobbies shouting foul play. Then on the eve of the poll, EGB appointed an independent group to “review performance against the agreed sponsorship contract focusing on standards of horse welfare and fair play.” Yes, you read that correctly. In what must be a world-first (and most probably a world-last) for any sport, a brave quartet has accepted the thankless task of monitoring the behaviour of the sponsors’ associates throughout the British season.

That such supervision is required appears both desperate and damning. It also implies that FEI rules and officials are insufficient to contain cheating. To add to the confusion, some assumed that because World Horse Welfare is represented on the review group, WHW thereby is in favour of the Meydan deal. WHW hastily posted a statement setting out its position. For sure, desert endurance must remain in the FEI family, if only to make a small difference to equine wellbeing; the pros and cons of exiling it were debated at the FEI endurance conference in February. But surely UAE riders must be seen to behave better during their current winter season, which ends on March 19, before being allowed to buy respectability from the UK?

EGB no doubt believes that inclusivity is key to reform, that it can lead by example and that officials will be rigorous in applying FEI rules wherever Group 7 competitors turn up in England next summer. Yet EGB doesn’t seem to realise it has already fallen at the first hurdle. Meydan says their offer is not open-ended and the decision can’t wait till spring. Because EGB has not called its bluff over the time-frame, Meydan has already underlined who’s in charge.

Meanwhile, anyone hoping the UAE recognises the need for change should watch this video from a 100km ride earlier this month. The cameraman helpfully shows the accompanying car’s speedometer at 45 – let’s hope its kph, not mph. You can’t race a Thoroughbred at this speed without specialised training and a licence of competence. No indication yet that Group 7 is bothered that the key objective of the FEI Endurance Strategic Planning Group was to slow riders down.

Facebook commentators variously describe it as “barbaric” or “admirable.” The clip was posted by Mariano Salinas who posts elsewhere: “Congratulation to my team F3 [Fazaa 3] 5th position with Terminator Te 28.8 km/h last loop 32.8 km /h.” A UAE-based Argentine veterinarian of the same name officiates in FEI. Is a vet really condoning such high speeds? Actually, it’s just dawned on me that horse-swapping maybe better for horse welfare after all… a fresh horse has a better chance of breaking the land-speed record before he breaks himself.

My New Year’s resolution for press officers. Or rather, for the bosses who tell them what to write, probably against the press officers’ better judgment
When I asked the FEI about Wily Early and Golden Coin, their one-sentence reply ignored my query about whether there had been any contact between the horse’s previous rider and the investigators (the rider tells me there wasn’t). When I asked the FEI if it was true the FEI endurance committee recently discussed reducing the world championship format from 160km to a 2* 120km or a 3* 80km (partly because of the PR disaster at WEG, partly because Group 7 has bought up so many 160k horses no-one else can be competitive), the FEI told me no changes were planned, while failing to confirm or deny whether the committee had discussed it, the point of my enquiry.

So my wish for 2015 is that press officers and/or spokespersons of governing bodies will try/be allowed to answer the question that is actually asked. Cut-and-pasting something you sent someone else on a different matter and hoping it will do merely just fuels our cynicism and thus that of our readers. Here are questions I sent EnduranceGB. They are about the “review group” mentioned above, though media colleagues around the world will recognise this as typical of exchanges they too have had with their governing bodies.

1. WHW has posted up this statement (link below), so it’s fair to regard the existence of the new review group being in the public domain. Has the setting up of the review group been discussed with and/or agreed by Meydan? I have never seen or heard any acknowledgement by parties associated with the UAE that their conduct of endurance is the subject of considerable concern to the rest of the equestrian community. Were they curious as to why this review group is deemed essential?

2. What effort did EGB make to supply all voters with the “No” lobby’s rationale? To date, the reasons against can only be read on the closed EGB forum, which not all potential voters have access to. As I understand it, the information made available sets out only the reasons in favour of the deal and also strongly recommends a Yes vote.

EGB’s initial answer:
“Between 22nd December 2014 and 5th January 2015, all Endurance GB Members will have the opportunity to vote on a proposed sponsorship package from Meydan, via an online and postal ballot. All eligible Members have received objective information regarding the proposed sponsorship agreement. The Board of Endurance GB is recommending a yes vote, in the belief that it offers significant benefits to EGB Members and will contribute to the long term development of the sport of endurance in Great Britain.

“In order to reassure Members that highest standards of horse welfare and the integrity of endurance in the UK will be paramount, the EGB Board has appointed an independent Review Panel that includes Roly Owers, CEO of World Horse Welfare; Lynn Petersen, CEO of The British Horse Society; Iain Graham, CEO of British Showjumping and the respected endurance vet Rod Fisher. The Review Panel, which will be operational in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, will review performance against the agreed sponsorship contract focusing on standards of horse welfare and fair play, working to clearly defined terms of reference. The result of the ballot will be announced on the Endurance GB website as soon as possible after the votes have been ratified by the Mi-Voice online voting system.”

I was about to offer a bottle of champagne to any reader who could spot an actual answer in the above when, 24 hours after I’d asked EGB to re-visit, I received this:

“Our proposed sponsors are aware of all details with regards to how we would manage the agreement. The EGB Forum is not available to all Members although the majority of eligible Members for the ballot have access to it. We believe all Members can make an informed decision as they have been provided with information regarding the agreement which is objective, and considers Members’ concerns.”

That’s a little bit more like it. And not really that difficult, surely.