What a difference a year-and-a-bit makes. Or rather, what a difference it makes when a picture of an endurance horse perched on two shattered forelegs causes a global public relations disaster, and when a national federation is exposed as so cavalier it fobs off the international governing body with fabricated results.
In February 2014, not a single Middle Eastern federation sent delegates to the FEI endurance forum, convened as a direct result of the welfare and cheating crisis the UAE has caused.
Wind on to October 2015, when 1,347 UAE trainers, riders and officials attended educational workshops, prior to the start of their winter FEI season. This was a non-negotiable condition of the FEI lifting their suspension which, lest we forget, was imposed for “major” horse welfare issues – the first time in history any horse country has been so shamed.
It’s said that when you have got someone by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow. I am not convinced just yet. Remarks in the FEI press release that these sessions were “successful” and “effective” seem premature. We can only say that if we reach the President’s Cup next February without having seen another Splitters Creek Bundy or a Marmoog, and no positive dope tests.
However, it’s a start. The FEI is responsible for letting endurance get out of control in Group VII in the first place. However, as well as new education and supervisory programs, the FEI is moving mountains behind the scenes to plug many gaps.
One common factor in the “faked” rides fiasco was their very late addition to the FEI calendar. Many last-minute schedules were signed off by the FEI, even when key details like location and organiser were omitted.
Showing just how lax all this was is the FEI’s “much stricter” approval process. Checks will be made on all proposed officials, who must also attend a course before they can officiate. The event director must be named. Results will be delivered to the FEI by the timing company within one hour of ride completion. CEI entries will be made through the FEI online entry system, and for national rides through the UAE federation IT system, which has been rebuilt under FEI supervision.
As for culpability in the faked rides scandal, a second senior personality has now been suspended – head of the UAE endurance department, Abdul Aziz Mohd Yasin Sheikh, who the FEI states has been “consistently failing to observe the FEI Rules and Regulations at a number of events from which duplicate results were submitted.” Last month, the UAE federation’s head vet, Dr. Hallvard Sommerseth, a top judge and former FEI bureau member, was grounded indefinitely.
Readers who have followed this saga will recall I was tipped off that a UAE ride purported to have taken place on January 21st did not. It “qualified” an astonishing number of horses for the President’s Cup three weeks later (all now disqualified.) Voluntary researchers found that its results were cut and pasted from an earlier ride, and helped me identify 12 further qualifiers since 2012 where the same scam occurred. The FEI’s subsequent enquiry found 16 duplicated rides in all.
It will have been impossible for Quest, the official investigators, to determine whether all or any of these rides took place in some shape or form. How do you prove a negative?
As long as the hapless horses remain “professionally” trained and paired-up with hire riders on the day, welfare issues will occur. This same practice also means it’s highly likely the stable jockeys genuinely can’t remember where they were or what they rode on any particular day, especially as none would be making their own entries. The FEI says there is no evidence of the January 21st CEI not taking place, though they couldn’t say categorically that it definitely did.
Sommerseth and Sheikh appear to have admitted that for the purposes of these qualifiers, no timing systems were used and the results were merely copied.
It remains to be seen if these gentlemen will appear before the FEI Tribunal for further sanctions. FEI punishments for fraud include a life ban. Both FEI announcements emphasised that the FEI president, Ingmar de Vos, “fully supports” their suspensions.
Dr. S and Mr. Sheikh managed to get themselves appointed to the various ground jury and other roles that are required to send post-ride reports to the FEI. After all, honest persons would have kicked up a fuss when they spotted no timing systems in place. However, these two were not the only officials implicated – another four regularly appear listed in these key positions at the 16 rides.
But it looks as if punishment for the riders involved will stop at disqualification. If the phantom rides hadn’t occurred at all, that would be understandable, as many jockeys could argue they never looked at the FEI database and had no idea their names were being taken in vain.
But if we accept there was a gathering of some sort of the days in question, and the only thing faked was the results, this sheds new light on complicity.
The FEI says disqualification is appropriate as it’s not the riders’ fault that timing mechanisms were not used, and that the very high completion rates seen would be expected in qualifying rides (compared to the piss-poor completion rates in un-faked rides).
Perhaps the official investigation didn’t look into all of the same aspects as I did, but I think it’s extremely fishy that one qualifying ride was populated by horses from a single stable. And while we might expect the IDs of very old horses to be used when creating a start-list for a totally fictional ride, what is the explanation for these same veterans suddenly being dragged out of retirement after six years, for a real ride? Or, indeed, for a rider to be in two places at once?
And if UAE riders really are this disinterested in/oblivious to their personal timings and results, what an insult to the rest of the world’s riders that painstakingly produce and compete their own steeds.
I have only ever had one long in-person conversation with Dr. Sommerseth, which pre-dated my starting to write about the various scandals. This was at a cocktail party during the inaugural FEI forum of April 2012. Like all journalists, I am intrigued when someone wants to give me their take on a controversy before I’ve even mentioned it – Dr. S wanted me to know that the UAE had many positive doping results simply because they did more testing pro rata than anyone else! Anyway, soon we will know if that is true, too.
Until now, only two European regions participated in the FEI’s full-blown medication control programme and had all their negative results published. That’s why FEI online archive shows who was sampled at the WEGs in Aachen 2006 and Caen 2014, but not at Kentucky 2010.
It’s also why we can’t read about the zealous amount of testing carried in the UAE as claimed by Dr. S.
Though it’s also why we can read that in his own 18 European CEI starts since 2005, Sheikh Mohammed’s personal winning or top-placed horses were tested just twice (both negative), and that 15 of his starts were at his own sponsored venue in the UK, Euston Park, which was attended by FEI sampling vets just 11 times in 27 FEI fixtures.
The FEI is getting on top of this now, too. From January, all global dope testing falls under its supervision. And this means all results will be published.