It’s seven months and 11 days since The Daily Telegraph gave the FEI photographic evidence of Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum (Crown Prince of Dubai, new world champion and stepson of outgoing FEI president Princess Haya) riding two different horses under the same identity at the 2012 endurance world championships at Euston, UK and CEI Numana, Italy. The FEI was previously aware of rumours about the horse Marmoog, aka Prince de la Sabliere, aka JSAS, and asked the FEI integrity unit to reinvestigate.
Quite why it is taking so long to unravel remains a mystery. You would have thought the FEI would have acted fast to assure the world this was an unique aberration, given the importance attached to passport and microchip integrity as the global barriers to movement of sport horses are lifted.
The case against the UAE’s Ali Al Muhairi (then rider-trainer to Princess Haya’s brother-in-law Sheikh Hamdan senior) for entering the field of play, also at Euston, while suspended has also languished in the FEI Tribunal’s case status table since August 2012. Mr Al Muhairi is serving the sport’s longest ban, four years, for a positive test to anabolic steroids, his second Tribunal offence.
No-one connected with the UAE team or Euston organisers, Dubai Equestrian Club (DEC), has yet been publicly cleared or distanced from the Marmoog allegations but neither this or the UAE’s shocking back-story overall has deterred the British Equestrian Federation and its member group, Endurance GB. They want to enter into a blanket sponsorship with Sheikh Mohamed’s Meydan corporation and DEC for the UK national sport’s 2015 season.
I heard rumours about a BEF/Meydan tie-up during the FEI forum in April, and a few weeks later Horse & Hound was leaked correspondence between BEF chief executive Andrew Finding and Meydan CEO (and chef d’equipe of the UAE team) Saeed Al Tayer, who served together on the Endurance Strategic Planning Group.
Things all then went quiet, in public anyway, till three weeks ago when an “in principle” agreement was advised to EGB members. Since then, their members forum has debated it furiously – it’s by far the “most-viewed” single topic of all time.
Funding would include a contribution to training schemes (though I am not sure what British riders or anyone else need to learn from the UAE, whose experience in producing horses from novice to team level is virtually zero); paying for electronic timing/surveillance equipment (which, of course, is only required as a result of historic rule-breaking by the Middle East riders); and reinstating CEIs at Euston, whose extensive annual calendar was cancelled by DEC in spring 2013 when the doping offences in endurance attracted global media attention.
Euston is a large country estate in Suffolk, in the east of England, part of which is rented out to the UAE for FEI rides, training and the “private rides” that began when Sheikhs Mohammed and Hamdan junior were both suspended for doping offences in 2009. Euston is handy for their Thoroghbred racing base in Newmarket, and it’s fairly flat topography better lends itself to the UAE’s high speed culture than other venues in the UK.
Dope-testing has only taken place at 11 of 27 FEI rides staged at Euston to date, a situation not helped by the UK having only one FEI testing vet whose presence was often required at clashing jumping shows or three-day events.
Chairman John Hudson tells me EGB is in a sound financial position and its viability does not rely on the Meydan sponsorship. So, why the rush to sign?
It’s hard to see any direct benefits for most EGB members. Barely 60 compete in FEI. The three 2015 Euston rides would be scheduled close together during midsummer, corresponding with the period the Maktoums tend to be in Europe for the main cluster of Group 1 and 2 Thoroughbred races. So any Brit with just one horse is unlikely to contest more than one Euston ride, because of the new FEI rules on mandatory rest periods.
The EGB has also implied it is the strong-arm and has insisted EGB would take over future Euston CEI organisation and rule enforcement. But, er, don’t the Maktoums need someone else to organize Euston anyway from now on, because of the FEI’s strict new rules about conflict of interest?
I don’t disagree that group VII riders need to be encouraged along the welfare route and that inclusivity, not exile, is the key. But it is hard to find a sport more susceptible to public relations “own-goals” than equestrianism, and this UK-UAE alliance is spectacularly premature.
Scandals involving UAE riders have now been firmly in the public domain for 18 months. In Europe this summer, the UAE did not noticeably enter into the spirit of the new endurance rules prior to their coming into force on August 1st. All evidence of their 2013-2014 winter season pointed to defiance of the ESPG process then underway – demotion of CEIs to the less rigorously policed CENs, and still so little respect for FEI rules on the occasions they were obligatory that, when yellow cards were finally scattered, half of them went to people riding for the Maktoums. So why not wait to see if things are any better during the 2014-2015 winter season before concluding that any new leaf has been turned?
Well, it now seems the democratic process is working. In the past couple of days EGB has downgraded the deal to a “possible sponsorship opportunity with Meydan for the 2015 season,” that there will be an “open discussion” at the annual general meeting on November 22, and a vote of the whole membership before a decision is reached.
I have often been frustrated by the paucity of public comment on the endurance crisis by my compatriots, but hats-off to EGB members for making their voices heard where it counts.