Well, as an American endurance chum put it, that was as useful as a bucket of warm spit.
I don’t know a single sceptic who wouldn’t have been ecstatic to be proved wrong about the efficacy of the “strong new measures” put in place on February 13th for the remainder of the UAE winter season.
There has been no dancing for joy this week among the “clean” endurance community, though. The FEI’s stated aim is to reduce the speeds associated with catastrophic injury. But at the first two rides last week under the “new” constraints, some of the fastest aggregate speeds of any national or FEI 120km ride this season were recorded, with completion rates as dire as ever.
Endurance is about training horses for recovery, and thus a mystery to most other horse disciplines. I have only recently grasped enough of it to appreciate why the correlation is so fascinating and absorbing to those who love classic endurance.
But in the UAE, it’s taken to extremes. They can afford to buy the very best selectively-bred Arabian super-horses. Their agents round the world target horses who are not just fast but that can present at vet gates within minutes, a trait the UAE trainers then refine through methods the rest of us can only imagine.
But presumably the FEI’s own endurance experts don’t understand it, because otherwise they would have foreseen this: if you set a lower heart recovery rate (60bpm in final loop compared with 64 before), but with no other complementary constraint as enacted at Bou Thib, riders will simply delay a few minutes in presenting, having belted along even faster on the loops!
The first ride under the “new measures” was the 120km CEN Gamilati Cup for mares on February 18th, where winner Sheikh Rashid Dalmook Al Maltoum’s final loop speed was 32.11kph, average speed of 27.05. The third-placed horse’s final loop was 37.03kph, average speed 26.86. Only 42 finished of 125 starters.
Then on February 19th was the 120km CEN for juniors and young riders. Winner’s final loop speed 34.43kph, average speed 27.77. Just 21 of 70 completed.
An experienced vet explained to me: “The population of horses they own are genetically pre-selected metabolic freaks, i.e. marathon athletes that are cardiovascularly supremely fit. These measures are unlikely to influence ride speeds. Vets fiddled with these experimentally about 10 years ago with similar conclusions.
“The (welfare) limiting factor is the structural strength of the appendicular skeleton, i.e. the limbs, and the biomechanic robustness of the associated soft tissue structures: muscle, tendons and ligaments. Here we have reached the biological limit under the training and racing conditions in Group 7.”
Sheikh Rashid has won his last two rides – this mares’ race and the headlining 160km President’s Cup – by front-running at high velocity. It’s disappointing, while predictable, that the Maktoum family still cannot make any kind of gesture towards reform. I guess it’s Sheikh Rashid’s “turn” to win a world championship (his father-in-law won in 2012, cheerfully riding alongside a ringer piloted by Rashid’s brother-in-law Hamdan, who went on to win in 2014). Hamdan has been slightly off the radar in recent weeks, but as an owner he has clearly issued no instructions. The second and third riders in Friday’s ride both came from Hamdan’s F3 stables, also with final loop speeds over 34 kph.
One of these was teenager Saaed Ahmaad Jaber Al Harbi, who infamously had two mounts die in his consecutive rides in Europe in 2013. Both scandals received a lot of publicity at the time.
At the world youth championship at Tarbes, Al Harbi rode Eclipse, who crossed the line in second place, but was eliminated for lameness. He died in the clinic two days later, after the French vet looking after him was stood down by representatives of the owner. Several leading French vets then published an open letter about their concerns – but have been quiet, in media terms, ever since.
Then in December 2013, top French magazine L’Eperon carried rider Morgane Payen’s astonishing statement, which has never been retracted. She said: “The horse [Eclipse] was led by his armada of grooms outside the [official] grooming area ….They put the leg of the horse in a bucket of ice, but I saw a person with a syringe putting his wrist in the bucket. A friend of mine filmed the scene [using Payen’s phone], but then I was put under pressure to stop. Somebody even offered me to buy my phone for 150,000 euros.”
Meanwhile, at his next outing in a Maktoum-sponsored event in Sardinia, young Al Harbi finished third on Django de Vere. He had an average speed of 25kph, which is going some for over undulating terrain at a 120km ride in Europe. Django then collapsed, was taken to a vet clinic and died.
The Italian Horse Protection Association demanded an autopsy and asked the state authorities to get involved. However, the region had economic ties with Dubai and, needless to say, the cadaver was promptly destroyed.
The FEI did not get round to an investigation of sorts till the October, and by December told me they had only received reports from one of the two Maktoum-owned barns concerned. I guess they quietly let it drop.
I revive the tales of Eclipse and Django for two reasons. First, people new to the UAE endurance saga often assume the concerns spring only from incidents that have gone wild on social media – Splitters Creek Bundy last year, the Al Wathba horse-beating incident last month. These are not one-offs, or even two-offs. Eclipses and Djangos abound among 100s, probably 1000s of perishable conveyances in two decades of amoral behaviour in the UAE, thanks to gullible and/or guileless officials, and pocketing of brown envelopes. The latter must surely still go on, despite the ESPG’s determination to strike it out.
The other reason is to flag up that the FEI has indeed changed in one approach: if Eclipse and Django happened this season, something would be done straight away. Though that something has still got to be effective, not just seen to be done.
Meanwhile, hats off to French rider-trainer Virginie Simon, who has posted on Facebook about the “vile acts” she witnessed after taking her own two horses to the President’s Cup.
The public exposure of malpractice in Group 7 has moved much slower than it should because the unwillingness of senior riders and trainers to go on the record about what they have seen. Depending on her privacy settings, you will either be able to read Virginie’s post or you won’t, but here is the link Virginie noted the impossibility for the ground jury to police the whole ride when they were tied to the vet-gates, though also that violations she personally referred to officials during the ride went unheeded.
Her testimony also highlights the hopelessness of the 30-minute rule for reporting rule-breaking.
You cannot have a different set of legalities tailored to each horse sport. Any half-decent lawyer would challenge that in a trice. But it’s breathtakingly obvious that while the 30-minute is appropriate for arena sport when the judges, stewards and spectators can see each rider for the extent of his competitive effort, an endurance official cannot keep any kind of eye, even a short-sighted one, on the hundreds of grooms teeming round a vet-gate, never mind horses out on the loops.
As long as there is no scope to punish field of play rule-breaches that come to your attention 31 minutes after the confirmation of results nothing, absolutely nothing, will change. I can’t believe I have been writing about this for two years now, and that it’s still such a stumbling block.
The FEI Tribunal ground jury seemed to agree, after myself and Lucy Higginson lodged our successful protest for abuse in the CEI Sakhir of February 8, 2014. We would like to have protested about umpteen other field-of-play violations too but, along with the rest of the world, we only saw the incriminating video clip next day, so were already too late.
Eventers get masterful
After a heavy few weeks on the endurance front, it was a joy to attend a launch party for the Event Riders Masters series. I will write more of this soon.
How refreshing to be in the company of multiple gold medallists who are thrilled and still slightly shocked at the prospect of a total prize-pot of £50,000 at a CIC***. Our biggest names are used to running WEG/Olympic horses around one-day internationals three or four times a season for a first prize of £2,500 (if they are lucky).
Refreshing too, that ERM aims to re-present eventing as non-elitist and to focus on the bond between horse and rider. Mark Todd, William Fox-Pitt (looking very well!), Mary King and Zara Phillips were among the big names present. Despite everything he has achieved, Toddy said ERM is the most exciting development in his lifetime.
The Masters was created by the riders themselves. They believe eventing has suffered years of neglect by the FEI (hardly surprising: eventing will always be of least interest to Middle Eastern sponsors) so went off and found their own backer.
I also learned that this coming week, riders from the 23 main eventing nations will meet in London to agree on the new Olympic format that they will then present to the FEI. Folk are flying in from all round the globe, not just sending expats who happen to live in the UK. This level of intervention is unprecedented.
Right now we have the eventers bent on reclaiming their sport; the FEI’s total impotence in Middle East endurance; a highly respected dressage figure calling for a new proactive ethics committee; and the possibility FEI will lose its legal battle with Jan Tops and the Global Champions League.
Even if equestrianism remains in the Olympics for 2024 and beyond, the FEI’s status of over-arching regulator is starting to teeter.