Two days ago, the FEI wrested its latest second/third/fourth-chance agreement from the UAE over the breaking of endurance rules and the breaking of horses.
There is no black and white solution. After 20 years of doing exactly what they want, the UAE was never going to roll over in a matter of months.
At first glance, the Emirates federation (EEF) is still bluffing the FEI. The “new” measures agreed on February 13 for the rest of the winter season are a partial re-hash of extant rules that the UAE has cheerfully flouted for years.
But the UAE still hasn’t been quite brave enough to walk away and start its own desert racing governing body (I use the word “governing” loosely.) We can assume they want to stay in the FEI, and so I hope stripping Dubai of the 2016 world championship event remains a live threat that can yet have an effect.
I recently asked the FEI if the likely difficulty in finding a replacement championship venue was influencing its handling of the crisis. I received an unequivocal No.
At least the rest of the horse world is quietly waking up to Middle Eastern endurance and the reputational risk it poses to all horse sport. Several Olympic riders have signed a petition requesting the championship be relocated.
From comments posted thus far, many signatories would rather the 2016 world title event was completely cancelled than took place in the country with the distinction of being the only one suspended for horse abuse in the history of the FEI.
It is still hard for outsiders to grasp the lawlessness of Middle Eastern endurance. For folk steeped in disciplines that are ruled by a rod of iron, FEI-UAE endurance occupies a parallel universe.
I don’t mind going along with the story that the EEF itself has taken the initiative over the latest “reforms,” if feeding this delusion reaps a positive result.
The reality is, though, that many of the measures are lifted from Bou Thib, where the success of the visionary Sheikh Sultan Al Nahyan’s “local” rules is well documented though no-one was ever going to concede this in print. The ruler of one Emirate will not easily hand the moral high ground to the brother of the ruler of another.
Nonetheless the FEI was disingenuous to convey, in its letter to all national federations on Friday, that the EEF is proactively thinking out of the box; where it wasn’t copying Bou Thib, the EEF has largely re-packaged extant FEI rules.
Alas, too, the pre-agreement changes set for Saturday’s 160km President’s Cup flattered to deceive.
In the end, a reduced heart-rate recovery parameter applied only to the last loop; Sheikh Rashid won, recording an average speed 2kph faster than the winning speed in the other 160km race staged in the UAE this season. As for the hideous motorised cavalcade, the only difference I spotted was Sheikh Mohammed driving alongside the field of play instead of on it.
The FEI press release referenced “all horses crossing the line in good health.” That is an odd thing to say, as 140 of 190 starters in the President’s Cup were vetted out during the race, and thus did not cross the line at all. The vetting was undoubtedly rigorous, but the 26% completion rate shows the penny is far from dropping with riders about what is required to get a sound horse home.
What I find soul-destroying is that the FEI has again made a considered decision to let the season run on when the UAE has flagrantly breached last year’s “binding” agreement, when the FEI has now openly linked speed with fractures, has certain knowledge of the extreme drudgery of a UAE endurance horse’s life, and certainty more horses will die or suffer career-ending injury before April. Anyone know of a re-homing scheme for institutionalised Arabian horses with buggered joints and compromised vital organs? No, I didn’t think so.
The least the FEI could do is stop cut-and-pasting its standard mantra about horse welfare being paramount into its announcements about the UAE.
We also await news of the four horses listed FTC in the President’s Cup, the notation often attached to starters who disappear mid-loop.
Horses that openly die during rides are now listed CI (Catastrophically Injured) but that doesn’t tell the whole story. In last year’s race, Shardell Azreyn – one of 500-odd horses whose qualifying results had been fabricated in the “phantom rides” – was listed FTC. His FEI record now shows him as dead the next day.
Being spirited off-site before you expire does not make a horse’s death any less competition-related, unless we are asked to accept that Shardell committed suicide in his stall the moment he got home. Which we well might be asked to believe, I guess, as credulity-stretching is vying to become the FEI’s latest discipline.
The “new” measures (my thoughts in italics):
1. Reduced number of events for the rest of the season. With fewer opportunities to qualify, riders just might take more care, I suppose.
2. Horses per event limited to 150. Idea borrowed from Bou Thib.
3. Heart rate presentation times reduced to between 56 and 60 bpm for all loops in one-star competitions, and in the final loop for two- and three-star CEIs and CENs. 60 bpm was enforced at Bou Thib for two years before Sheikh Sultan concluded a 56bpm limit was more efficient. He applied it to all loops and all star levels to kill the speed during all phases, not only the last. At Al Wathba and Dubai International Endurance City, the two UAE venues not yet entering into the Bou Thib spirit, the upper limits will surely always be chosen unless there is a strong set of veterinary officials. I expect the FEI to keep niggling away about this, though its likelihood of success is diluted even before it starts by the failure to link prize-money allocation to the best condition criteria, a central plank of the thinking at Bou Thib.
4. Recovery time reduced to between 10 and 15 minutes for all loops in one-star and in the final loop for two-and three-star. Ditto
5. Rest periods reviewed by Veterinary Officials to determine whether 50-minute holds are more beneficial. Yep, as at Bou Thib.
6. Access to last 2-5 kms of the final loop by cars or crews prohibited. Vehicles can thus continue their harassment of horses up to 2km from the finish, if the 5km limit is just an option. At Bou Thib, only one crew car is allowed per five horses.
7. In the final loop, cooling water bottles allowed only at designated crew points every 2-5 kms. This works at Bou Thib.
8. In all CEI 3* and CEI 4* events, all horses confined in Secure Overnight Stabling, in accordance with FEI Regulations. As it’s already a rule, are we to assume that to date horses (and maybe their doubles) have come and gone as they please?
9. The official broadcaster’s footage is to be a record of the event and actions may be taken against rule-breakers viewed on it. This already applies to TV shots and accredited photographs under FEI general rules. I would be worried about heavy editing. Lately, YAS, the live-stream provider, has become cuter about pulling incriminating clips from its Twitter feed, as happened after the “Al Wathba Five” horse-beating fiasco on January 30.
10. Crews will be identified with numbered bibs matching the horse number; upon elimination, bibs will be surrendered immediately. Also not new: used at WEG 2014. A reiteration of something else that wasn’t working.
11. A briefing will be held at each event … failure to attend shall result in immediate elimination. The rider briefing is sacrosanct in other parts of the world. At Bou Thib, briefings take place in the inspection area and the bibs are only delivered afterwards, to ensure folk attend.
12. All officials will now be appointed by the EEF instead of Organising Committees. I thought the FEI itself was already approving these appointments to deflect conflict of interest? Well, whatever…