Colleagues discussing the latest drama in Middle East endurance often use the phrase “you couldn’t make it up.” But making it up seems exactly what the UAE has been doing for years, with the “bogus” ride scandal eclipsing everything else about the unvarnished awfulness of desert racing.
The FEI has launched (March 10th) an investigation, by its Equine Community Integrity Unit (ECIU), into allegations first unravelled by myself (and published on this blog, Horse & Hound and The Daily Telegraph) that two rides on January 21, 2015 and December 23, 2014 did not take place and instead had brazenly cut and pasted detailed results from previous rides.
Until today, the FEI was probably unaware of the growing number of suspicious results that amateur sleuths have now found. Thanks to some amazing volunteer helpers, all experienced endurance riders who understood what they were looking at, we now have a detailed list of 12 CEIs whose results are identical to races we assume genuinely did take place. We suspect there are more.
This has taken days of patient cross-checking of every line to make sure there are no mis-readings. The FEI’s IT system, whose software has not been updated since women won the vote in Manitoba, is incapable of flagging up suspicious data that is glaringly apparently to the naked eye. One horse who appears as a non-finisher in a bogus race is aged 21 and was somehow apparently kept in training despite not starting in FEI at all between 2006 and 2012.
But once you’d twigged how it was done, finding the “source” data for each duplicate race was easier than taking candy from a baby.
At first, I did not want to believe it. I still don’t, but any hopes this could have been a series of bizarre mistakes fade as each new set is unearthed.
The first two “bogus” races we found were January 21st this year, a 120km 2* (all data embedded in a 230-starter race from December 19, 2014) and December 23rd (whose 47 completions are identical to the 10th-56th placed horses in a race on November 22nd).
I then visited a relative who is a retired UK government agency “boffin.” I explained the complexity of endurance results data, and that in a mere 80K CEI, the results for each horse comprised 36 digits. I asked him to calculate the chances of the 36 digits of, say, 40 horses, being repeated in exactly the same order on a separate single occasion.
He had a good go at it, but there isn’t even a name for the sort of telephone number that is then followed by 120 zeros. We gave up in the end, and watched the UK TV premiere of Men in Black 3 instead. Somehow, the notion of Will Smith hurling himself off the Chrysler Building so as to travel back in time and stop the murder of his partner by an inter-galactic alien was more credible than the crap going on in the UAE.
I have tried to come up with plausible explanations.
The single rogue operative is a popular buck-stop in these situations, but there is no obvious motive for any minion at the UAE federation to engage in industrial-scale fakery. Apart from forging results, schedules and post-ride vet reports etc., they would have had to find the money to pay all the CEI FEI affiliation fees.
Computer error, then? But neither of these possibilities absolve riders and owners from starting horses in real rides when they know their qualifying results don’t stack up.
Most of the “bogus” rides are 80K 1*, but there’s an interesting 160K night ride in Dubai on May 12, 2012, a qualifier for the Euston Park world championships, where another now legendary piece of skulduggery took place. Its total of 11 completions had data identical to 11 of the 16 horses placed 12th to 27th from a genuine (we assume) ride on January 13th that year.
The alternative is for the UAE federation to say the 12 rides did take place, but that the timing systems failed on each occasion, and in panic they fabricated results as they were worried about being fined, and then throw themselves on the mercy of the FEI.
However, they’d still have to explain why the 12 days that the timing failed were also the 12 days the same small pools of bods were officiating (some of them UAE federation employees); the same days the rides were late “additions” to the calendar; and the same days all riders were either from the UAE or the Indian subcontinent (the main source of jobbing jockeys attached to the big barns). The latter common feature is especially interesting, bearing in mind the UAE is teeming with foreign nationals during the winter season.
Before the apologists weigh in, let me underline this. Our close scrutiny of a wider raft of results would not have happened but for several totally unrelated sources resident in the UAE and of impeccable bona fides having first confirmed to me their sincere and total belief that the January 21st did not happen. They would have been just as adamant had its published results shown a more authentic-sounding completion rate of 30 per cent.
Phantom rides have been rumoured before, but it’s obviously difficult to prove a negative. No one could have imagined what was hiding in plain sight.
Apart from finding out the who, what, where and why, and just how high up the complicity goes, here are other issues I hope the ECIU can address:
• Several hundred thousand Euros was spent on the (excellent) work of the FEI’s Endurance Strategic Planning Group, but did it extend to casting the human eye over the UAE’s detailed results record? Improvement in completion rates was one of the ESPG’s core ambitions, but was no-one curious why certain UAE CEIs were already bucking the trend with 90-100 per cent completion rates? Wasn’t it a little bit odd that at in at least two such rides, the entire start-list came from a single barn and every single horse “completed?”
• Why are no random checks made about the veracity of data input by national federations, be it results, horse ID or provenance? The fact some of it has to be dodgy was apparent from at least 2011 when ECI investigated a mid-ride horse-swap. Yet nothing was done to tighten up data control till the Marmoog scandal (by coincidence, “exposed” a year ago to this day) became another PR disaster for the FEI.
• Why do FEI data systems allow a horse to be first registered in its teens with no pedigree or other back-story?
• Why can’t FEI data systems spot horses being entered for CEIs when they are on obligatory rest periods, or to start a 2* 120K when they haven’t even qualified at 1*, whether in a bogus ride or a real one?
• What is the FEI even doing, letting the UAE mess around with the calendar to the extent it does? From 2009 onwards (the year qualifying criteria were changed, I am told) a growing number of UAE CEIs are listed as Additions and Date changes. And why are so many late schedules signed off by FEI HQ when they don’t even give a location for the event?
The worst thing of all, of course, is the impact of fake qualifications on horse welfare, in which the UAE’s brutal training and race-riding practices are already the subject of such concern.
Any horseman will instantly understand the dangers for any horse to start a longer distance ride at faster speeds when it has not completed a lower level ride.
In endurance, there are other subtleties, such as the effect on metabolism. A seasoned horse will learn to rehydrate himself by drinking during the holds, a habit the novice equine will need more than a few outings to pick up.
If the bogus ride allegations are correct, then Embrujo AG (he of the earplugs and duct-taped blinkers) started the onerous 160k President’s Cup last month with NO previous run in FEI. No wonder they decided to render him effectively deaf and blind. He would have had no idea what to expect, what with mobile crewing, chasing cars etc. Embrujo must be some gutsy horse – he completed in 15th place. I wonder if he will turn out ever again?
On Sunday, I supported my local endurance ride and had a super day, watching it done “properly” by jolly owner-riders and bright-eyed horses, all finishing with ears pricked and still raring to go.
But it didn’t cheer me up for long. I thought I was un-shockable, but the potential impacts of the “bogus” rides leaves me sick, to the pit of my stomach.
How can you even start to decide how to sanction the huge numbers of personnel repeatedly implicated over several seasons if the allegations are proved? In December, the International Skiing Federation suspended five officials and banned Vanessa Vanakorn (aka pop violinist Vanessa-Mae) for four years for merely exaggerating a couple to results at an obscure race in Slovenia to give her enough points to qualify for Sochi in the giant slalom, where she finished last of 67.
It’s going to be a fine mess for the FEI to sort out but, frankly, they had it coming. The callous arrogance of so many of the stakeholders in UAE endurance is a given. But I am mostly aghast at the staggering incompetence of the FEI in aiding and abetting the evolution of desert racing, without doubt the cruellest sport of modern times.