For years, the FBI failed to pin down Al Capone for racketeering, but a special squad known as the “Untouchables” finally found a way to send him prison – tax evasion. For years, the FEI has failed to nail UAE endurance for horse abuse, the running of ringers and field-of-play violations on an industrial scale, due to the reluctance of witnesses, the turning of a blind eye by corrupt or lazy officials, and the invidiousness of the 30-minute rule for protests. But now there is a glimmer of hope that at least the UAE’s equestrian federation, the EEF, is not quite as untouchable as it thought.
The current “bogus rides” investigation is about a cut-and-dried fraud – for which punishments under FEI General Regulations, art. 169.6.4, include a lifetime ban. And when there’s a paper trail, the onus is on the authors and signatories to explain it. Fobbing it off on a minion, the way the UAE has previously tried at doping Tribunals, won’t wash.
I am not, of course, suggesting there is any similarity between desert racing and organised crime in 1920s Chicago. Though it may well seem like it if you are a horse, or one of honest riders now realising they’ve been cheated out of a real-life top placing by people with no business being in their race.
For those not already following the saga, two weeks ago the FEI ordered its Equine Community Integrity Unit (ECIU) to investigate if the EEF was falsifying ride results.
The spade-work behind these allegations was carried out by laser-eyed volunteers, after a phantom CEI listed as January 21st was “exposed” by myself. We then found entire sets of results for 13 rides embedded in real CEIs, involving nearly 500 horse and rider combinations. Next day, the FEI suspended EEF for an “indeterminate” period.
The January 21st, President’s Cup 120km qualifier is now generally accepted not to have taken place at all. Other suspect CEIs may have involved some sort of informal gathering, but when each starter’s detailed loop and speed data wholly replicates real timings recorded just a few weeks earlier, this takes some explaining. The odds against it occurring on this scale in reality are trillions of trillions to one.
There are two types of “bogi.” One is a bunch of 80km qualifiers, populated almost entirely by horses with no current 1* qualification and/or horses on their FEI debut, mostly ridden by stable jockeys. The horses thus “qualified” mostly went forward to a real (or sometimes phantom) 120km, ridden by a bigger name. It’s obvious that if a horse starts a 120Km with no prior experience or prep, he will find it debilitating in the extreme. Especially if one of the reasons he needed the fake qualification was because persistent lameness or other ailments prevented him from obtaining a real one. It’s been depressing to track how few of these unfortunates, tested to the cusp of destruction, ever came out again.
One of my sleuths wrote: “These horse histories say so much more now. I would like to take this little horse home and love him: at first glance Shanfara [Nad Al Sheba stables] is an ‘also ran,’ with only three successful completions from 14 starts. On closer inspection, two of those completions are at the fake rides, meaning that his every start after April 19, 2012 was against the qualification rules and that he’s only ever finished one event in five years.
“They faked a 80km completion so that he could start 120km. Then they faked one of those so they could try him out over 160km at the President’s Cup in 2014. Each time his protesting body told them that this wasn’t the sport for him, with multiple lameness and retirements.
“What made this horse so special that they kept trotting him out with some of their top riders? Sheikh Hamdan even tried him.”
It’s likely the jobbing riders listed in the 80kms had no idea their names were being used. If the allegations are proved, I will be more interested to see how the FEI deals with the better-knowns who then clambered aboard the fake-ees in 120km rides. The FEI’s lax rules allow endurance riders to compete horses they don’t know. But because the rider is the ultimate Person Responsible, he’s liable if his conveyance-of-the-day isn’t qualified, is he not? Are we looking at a mass disciplinary action for horse abuse, on top of fraud?
The other tranche involve longer distance races. Twenty-two horses from the President’s Cup have appeared in the alleged phantoms, including the winner. Seventeen relied wholly on the alleged faked qualifications to start, including four of the top 15.
In the unlikely event the suspected results prove to be authentic, there is still a serious question-mark over the FEI’s laissez faire approval of competitions staged wholly for the benefit of private parties. All 13 suspect CEIs were parachuted into the calendar as late additions and in three, the entire start list comes from a single barn. One schedule was still being altered the day before. Would the FEI allow, say, Equine Canada, USEF, the British Equestrian Federation or the German FN to arrange, say, a short notice CIC3*, solely open to their eventing performance squads? It wouldn’t even occur to those NFs to ask.
You have to have a grudging admiration for Ian Williams. He picked the right moment to retire as head of the FEI endurance department having, for years it would now seem, unwittingly signed-off many works of fiction. Ian is now consultant to Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Mansour Al Nayhan who, in the past, has shown a greater interest in cleaning-up endurance than his opposite number in Dubai. Let’s hope Ian’s first recommendation is to sack the entire EEF and recruit new staff with no “history,” difficult as it may be to find them. I hope the ECIU can interview the old guard before they “resign to pursue new challenges,” locked into a lifetime gag as seems the norm in these parts.
Until this season, the same few officials popped up in the suspect rides, always in the key roles that submit ride-reports to the FEI. On August 1st, new FEI conflict of interest rules prevented some of this this clique officiating. Is this why the UAE asked the FEI General Assembly in December for “relief” from these particular measures? Luckily, this was refused. Was the FEI already joining up the dots? I am still intrigued by the lightning speed that the FEI ordered the investigation. No one normally acts this fast on a story in a single news outlet.
In fact, the clean-up, and advising the UAE on its “rehabilitation,” will create some very lucrative jobs, some of which might well be filled by some of the people who should have been controlling the anarchy in the first place. When they cash their pay cheques, I hope they offer silent thanks to the unsung sleuths who’ve done the FEI’s job for it – modest people who carried out all this diligent research while juggling horses, husband and the kids, or during their lunch-hour at work.
Mind you, anyone who does manage to “rehabilitate” desert racing deserves a knighthood. The region has developed such a taste for tearing through the sand it will take more than a generation to change. You might as well try to wean people off chocolate or alcohol or sex.
I am told that while senior UAE people might already have made the right noises to Lausanne, out in the field the penny hasn’t dropped yet.
The day after the UAE was suspended, its ladies endurance team travelled to Bahrain, apparently unaware they couldn’t start. That same week there was a double foreleg fracture in a national ride at Bou Thib, and eye witness accounts of a dead horse on the track and another with a fracture during the desert triathlon.
I’ve been sent a picture from this past weekend’s (national) Crown Prince of Dubai Cup. The top four, crossing the line together, all appear in the alleged bogus rides – Sheikh Rashid Dalmook Al Maktoum (three), Sheikh Hamad Dalmook Al Maktoum (three), Abdulla Ghanim Al Marri (four) and Saif Ahmed Al Mozroui (three). Still, the picture shows some progress. They were definitely there; there was actually a race; makes a change.