Only keen students of Middle Eastern politics have probably heard of the intriguingly named Dr. Sheikh Sultan, but 2016 could be the year in which his body of admirers spreads far outside the Emirates and into the world of endurance.
First, though, some background for those whose geography etc. is a bit scratchy.
The UAE comprises seven sheikhdoms (or emirs), of which Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the most powerful, ruled by the Nahyan and Maktoum families respectively.
Dubai is perhaps the more famous, as a business hub and tourist magnet and because of the stratospheric profile of its Thoroughbred racing through the involvement of Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai. However, the overall UAE presidency is with the Al Nayhans, currently Sheikh Khalifa. So Sheikh Mohammed is not the quite the most senior person in the Emirates, being overall UAE vice president and UAE prime minister.
One of Sheikh Mohammed’s daughters is married to famed soccer patron Sheikh Mansour Al Nahyan, UAE deputy Prime Minister, though despite this romantic alliance there is rivalry between the two families.
Mohammed and Mansour also own the two busiest endurance venues – Dubai International Endurance City (DIEC), due to host the 2016 world championships unless the UAE gets suspended again, and Al Wathba.
One Sheikh is moving mountains to reform endurance. Sadly it’s neither of these two.
Our unsung hero is His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan Al Nahyan, a former deputy UAE prime minister, Mansour’s much older half-sibling and three-quarters sibling of president Khalifa. Sultan was part-educated outside the UAE, including a spell at Millfields, a famous British school renowned for its sporting prowess and values.
Sheikh Sultan is keen on endurance too, and owns the UAE’s third busiest venue, Bou Thib.
For eons he has despaired about the evolution of the desert racing and yearned for “classical” endurance, or indeed anything that doesn’t view the horse as expendable. But he was a voice in the wilderness, quite literally.
Anyway, the catalogue of doping, fatal injuries, cheating and horse ID frauds finally prodded the FEI to suspend the UAE in March 2015 for four months. The FEI then drafted in independent personnel to supervise UAE rides under tighter FEI rules. Two senior figures were provisionally suspended for falsifying CEI results on an industrial scale. All UAE riders and trainers had to attend a FEI seminar before the start of the 2015-2016 winter season.
However, Sheikh Sultan had limited faith in these measures, and announced something bold and original for Bou Thib – the “Top Condition Challenge.”
His rides still adhere to FEI rules and appear in FEI results, but the official speed-related winners receive only 30 per cent of the prizes. The other 70 per cent goes to those meeting Sheikh Sultan’s own strict, welfare-orientated criteria, leaving the “official” winner extremely short-changed.
Thousands of pages of official FEI and other reviews and recommendations must have been written on the endurance crisis, but on just one sheet of paper Sheikh Sultan has encapsulated everything that is wrong with desert endurance, and how to win over hearts and minds.
His core requirement is a maximum average speed of 20kph. He has also set out tough metabolic parameters, with horses to be presented to the vets within a timeframe that works against the crews who are up to no good at the gates. He has also banned mobile crewing – the constant sloshing of horses by riders from bottles provided by the accompanying motorcade. This is being “policed” by actual police officers, who can fine those in breach. Instead, Sheikh Sultan wants riders to stop and let the horse have a drink. Now there’s a radical thought!
Aside from scrutinising the results, there a reliable progress report here from Francois Kerboul, the French judge helping Sheikh Sultan with this initiative. The Google translation isn’t ideal, and starts tongue in cheek, but you’ll soon get the picture.
By a not very amazing coincidence, a return to the old values has reduced attrition beyond recognition. The first two weekends of rides at Bou Thib enjoyed completion rates of over 67 per cent, with no horses spun for the more serious metabolic issues requiring “invasive” treatment that are par for the course elsewhere. On the last weekend of 2015, just one horse needed a 10-litre drip, with no additives.
Goodness knows why the FEI still feels it needs a detailed study to understand why injuries occur; just try taking your foot off the gas.
Initially riders moaned, but those who are sticking with it are enjoying an epiphany. After the December 31st Francois noted an “unprecedented atmosphere of surprise, satisfaction, analysis and research, intellectual ferment mixed with a previously unknown joy.”
Meanwhile, how’s it been going at Al Wathba and DIEC? At least five horses have officially perished so far, presumably not including those who may have been surreptitiously written-off after they got home. Seven have been listed on the new Catastrophically Injured (CI) notation in official FEI results. The FEI says two CIs were later advised as “mistakes.” Let’s hope their resurrection was indeed a miracle and not the unintended consequence of a new FEI rule that will penalise barns with a habit of killing horses.
Completion rates over 25 per cent are still a rarity. At DIEC on December 12th, just 13 horses finished out of 76 (17 per cent). The same day at the Al Wathba CEN 100Km, the top five all recorded final loop speeds over 30 kph.
At Al Wathba’s seasonal opener in November, 21 warning cards were handed out for illegal crewing. But only a handful have been recorded since. This seems incredible when so many clips posted online by live-stream provider YAS inadvertently (I assume) show something untoward – “mobile crewing,” unauthorised assistance, grooms spectacularly in excess of the FEI’s five-per-horse limit. There were certainly more than five bodies working on Sheikh Hamdan’s horse at the big 160km ride last Saturday, the Sheikh Mohammed Cup, which, naturally, he won, with a final loop speed of 31.81 kph and average speed of 24.44 km/h on Ajayeb, a 15 year old mare whom he hasn’t competed before in FEI but which has a brilliant record under other riders.
There were 250 starters, which seems rather a lot under the new FEI constraints. There was a 36 per cent completion rate among UAE-trained horses, but only a 25 per cent completion rate among the 50 contenders flown in from abroad, including just one of the nine American horses, Denire with Jeremy Reynolds (71st). The sole British visitor to finish, Nicki Thorne, placed 80th at just over 14kph.This all tells us a lot about the likelihood of any culture change in the UAE.
Earlier this season, the suspended rider-trainer Ali Al Muhairi was filmed on the field of play, a type of rule breach for which he has “form” going back to 2011. When handing down his record four-year doping ban, the FEI Tribunal expressed their “abhorrence” he had ridden a horse for 160km on etorphine, the drug veterinarians use to drop an elephant. On Facebook, a FEI vet posted his smiling picture taken with Ali during a recent ride; for sure they might have been the correct side of the rails on this particular occasion, but in any circumstance, never mind the grave history of UAE endurance, should an official flaunt his or her association with a noted doper? Just as astonishing is the roll call of those “liking” that post, European and British officials included.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Mohammed has missed the opportunity to be the first to lead by example this season, and participated in rule-breaking himself. YAS has filmed him following directly on the piste at three different rides this season. Here’s one such example. Watch for the white Mercedes from 30 seconds onwards, and who is indisputably shown in the car at the end.
The FEI tells me it has asked the UAE federation to address illegal vehicles on the field of play, but reminds that field of play rule-breaches cannot be punished unless reported within the 30-minute deadline after results. No yellow cards for Moh and his driver, then.
The FEI also said that the first time the white Mercedes was seen on the piste, in late November, the ground jury had allowed mobile crewing because of the extreme heat. Here’s another radical thought: if a ride cannot be run under the correct rules because of horse-averse conditions, why not merely cancel it?
Hilariously, Gulf new agencies recently reported a Dubai municipal initiative to “preserve the desert environment” and that “a large amount of debris, primarily plastic water bottles, have been removed.” Talk about not joining up the dots! If you are new to desert endurance and don’t know what slosh bottles are, try this YAS clip.
In the past, Sheikh Mohammed has tended throw money at “reviews ” by third parties whenever aberrations within his horse interests inconveniently make the news; a minion or two then fall on their swords, but I doubt much changes in reality.
Sultan is directing his money into manipulating a positive turn of events. Apparently he was ready to close Bou Thib if things did not get better. Happily, now he has now felt confident to schedule an extra fixture this season, to boost this early momentum.
Sultan is clearly very well-connected in the extensive hierarchy of Sheikhdom. If he can’t readily persuade his peers to effect change, heaven help the mere mortals trying to do it from long distance! The long-standing rivalry between Abu Dhabi and Dubai also suggests the Top Condition initiative will be resisted elsewhere, purely as a matter of principle.
But if the handful of riders buying into Sheikh Sultan’s vision turns into a horde, it will become difficult for anyone, senior Sheikhs included, to dismiss the small revolution at Bou Thib as a mere stunt.