What a relief that the FEI has settled out of court with the Global Champions League.

On the face of it, the good news is mostly for the elite jumpers who can continue chasing the humongous Global tour prize-pots, and for the two parties now spared the equally humongous legal fees incurred by fighting this in court.

But it’s pretty good news for sports horses everywhere. There was more at stake than a power-struggle between the FEI and a powerful show promoter. The outcome shuts the door on any other type of competition thinking of going “rogue” outside the FEI in the foreseeable future. An unrecognised horse discipline can quickly become an unregulated one, and that can be bad news for horses.

I seem to be one of the main “go to” journalists when it comes to meting out criticism of the FEI – either my own or in the reporting of other people’s grumbles. I have, though, always been worried about what would happen if the FEI’s exclusivity powers were struck out – a disastrous precedent would have been set by a final court ruling in favour of GCL.

The FEI and Global Champions Tour (GCT) have uneasily coexisted for a decade, especially after GCT reneged over a deal not to clash with FEI super-league Nations Cups.

Jan Tops and his GCT co-promoter Frank McCourt announced their new Global Champions League in 2015, to be incorporated in existing GCT events. GCL was to be a contest for commercial rather than national teams, with the star riders “bought and sold” by team patrons as in soccer and Formula 1.

FEI recognises GCT, but it was not prepared to recognise its new league. The FEI claimed that GCL’s draft rules extended to only a page and a half, and that it requested more detail before it could approve them. Instead, GCL ran straight to the Belgian Competition Authority (BCA).

The BCA had previously ruled against sports exclusivity clauses, and quickly gave an interim decision in favour of GCL. After FEI lost its appeal, GCL was launched last spring and ran smoothly throughout 2016 while lawyers prepared to test the full merits of the case in court.

This meant that the FEI could not, as its regulations allow, suspend any of the big names who were regularly jumping in the GCL; normally, riders can be banned for six months for riding in “unrecognised” events.

However, the interim ruling did not cover officials (or anyone else choosing to ride in any other unrecognised event). Two Global tour course designers were suspended in the FEI’s retaliatory salvo last May, and so could only build in the small handful of GCL classes for the rest of 2016: I daresay GCL looked after them financially.

The FEI nonetheless took quite a gamble with the prospective legal testing of its exclusivity powers. Whenever I have enquired about progress, the FEI has remained bullish, even after this ostensibly unhelpful decision about a similar issue in skating:  http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-16-3201_en.htm

The GCL’s potential undermining of Nations Cups was popularly cited as the FEI’s main concern. The official FEI line was that at “unrecognised” events, horse welfare cannot be guaranteed. While technically accurate, that statement seems specious in the case of GCL, a single class within an existing CSI series, and of course with the FEI’s ongoing inability to enforce its own welfare rules at endurance races out in the Gulf.

GCL countered that the FEI was cynically protecting its own commercial interests under the veil of welfare and fair play; and that the FEI was conflicted by acting as both regulator and event promoter – GCL said this is not the norm.

As it turned out, the GCL produced a lot of quality sport and entertainment. So did the 2016 FEI Nations Cups series in which no one was reduced to sending their B or C teams most of the time because their best riders were living it up on the Global tour at Monaco, Miami Beach and the like.

News of the GCL settlement certainly brought me some cheer, because it has been a shocking week for endurance in Dubai in particular, even by its own diabolical standards.

Dubai prides itself on meaningless world records – the longest stretch of graffiti, the world’s largest shopping mall, the world’s most spectacular firework display, yadda yadda yadda… It now seems hell bent on claiming the record for the number of equine legs you can break a calendar month:  https://horse-canada.com/horse-news/fei-endurance-rules-under-review-again-following-more-horse-deaths/

More and more the split in attitudes to reform are being noticed. Dubai seems to care not a fig. But just down the highway in Abu Dhabi, Boudhieb is pioneering the return of “fit to continue” and has successfully weaned riders “off the piste” and onto technical tracks, ever more reducing speeds and increasing awareness of the pride and pleasure of riding according to the conditions.

The Belgian federation this week took the unprecedented step of asking its expat riders to consider not competing in Dubai specifically. If not, the federation will decide for them, though it doesn’t seem to mind them continuing to ride in Abu Dhabi. In Sweden, the chef d’equipe of its endurance team has resigned after criticism for accepting an invitation to the Sheikh Maktoum Cup in Dubai on January 7th – and selling her horse while she was there. The American Endurance Ride Conference has written – again – to USEF, asking them to demand the FEI take more radical action.

Some feel it’s time for the FEI to cut loose the desert sport. Others reckon Dubai in particular is ready to cut itself loose and on the cusp of setting up a new body to run high speed endurance. It’s quite feasible Dubai has bullied FEI already with the possibility of a break-away desert racing organisation. But with the FEI’s exclusivity powers remaining intact, any such break-away organisation now proceeds at its own peril.

The UAE relies on imported horses for over 90 per cent of its cannon fodder, because there are not nearly enough Emirati nationals with the skills or patience to produce huge volumes of horses up through the distances – and, of course, all the Royal barns can afford not to worry about that deficiency.

But if Dubai did do its own thing, just like those two Global Champions course designers all FEI registered endurance riders and officials – Emiratis and foreign nationals alike – would have to plump for either FEI or break-away endurance. The FEI has several times discussed and then discarded the possibility of splitting endurance into two divisions – ie “classic” and “desert racing” – within the FEI umbrella. So we can be pretty sure it won’t sanction someone else’s gig outside the FEI.

Of course, Dubai could afford to pay whomsoever it likes to give up their involvement in FEI endurance for ever more in order to run a new desert racing body for them, and/or ride in their non-FEI races.

But once suspended from FEI endurance, producer-riders who actively sell to the UAE – notably from southern Europe, the Antipodes, South Africa and South America – would have a drastically reduced access to the rides in which to test out their potential exports.

The impact on the supply chain should be obvious. I guess the Sheikhs could eventually get around this by breeding thousands more horses of their own to fulfil their desert racing needs, and/or by setting up a network of non-FEI training race-rides around the world – assuming they can find enough non-FEI personnel to run them – while themselves taking the matter to court, which could drag on for years.

But bearing in mind the massive churn among the 5,000-odd endurance horses registered as active at any one time in the UAE – their normal career span is just two or three years – any new global infrastructure to support Desert Racing Incorporated would need to start rolling within months. Money can make a lot of things happen, but it cannot shorten the gestation period of a mare or the time it takes a foal to mature into a horse.

Many are disappointed that the FEI did not re-instate its disaffiliation of Dubai International Endurance City last week after its latest aberrations. On this and the FEI’s past form where UAE is concerned, you can never be 100 per cent sure the FEI would exercise its right to suspend hundreds of people participating in an unapproved series at some time point in the future.

What is 100 per cent certain, though, is that as of Friday, January 27th that important decision is still wholly the FEI’s to make.