One of my all-time favourite films is All The President’s Men, about the Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who unravelled the Watergate scandal and ultimately forced the resignation of Richard Nixon.
Woodward had a source known as “Deep Throat,” whom he met in a basement garage.* Deep Throat never gave away solid information; instead, he offered cryptic clues. About 18 months into the investigation, Woodward tells Deep Throat that he and Bernstein are still baffled why the Nixon entourage’s covert operations were thought necessary in the first place. Deep Throat replies: “Forget the myths the media has created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”
It reminds me so much of the FEI. For sure, it’s appalling that the Marmoog horse swap enquiry dragged on and on. But when they’d already left it eight months why announce the non-result just a week before the General Assembly and presidential election, digging two of the candidates into a bigger hole than they are already in as representatives of the current regime, by highlighting that horse ID, biosecurity and legal processes are not fit for purpose?
And why has the FEI chosen this week to virtually concede that these oversights are being addressed, years overdue, only because the public finally found out about a scandal the FEI knew of NINETEEN months before? I must be missing something here. Perhaps there is a coded message apparent to the masterminds governing our equestrian sports, but until that penny drops, I can only conclude that FEI, too, has some “not very bright guys” in its ranks.
Most readers probably don’t care about endurance. Others may think that if somebody competed a ringer, it’s not so bad if its result did not contribute to a medal-winning score. If so, they are missing the real outrage. There are serious biosecurity and welfare ramifications when a) horse passports can be so easily duplicated and b) central data on suspect horses can be changed without triggering an alert on the FEI IT systems.
What if a “ringer” had been present at the endurance during a WEG? An unvaccinated or even disease-exposed horse could then have crossed the paths of Valegro, Hello Sanctos, Opgun Luovo, Cortes C, Damon Hill, Chilli Morning et al. Not to mention also crossing the path of racehorses in Newmarket, UK, where many Dubai endurance horses are stabled for the European summer season. This is not only an endurance scandal. It is crass negligence with the potential to affect the entire sport horse community.
I received this from a respected four-star endurance official who is, like so many, stunned that the Marmoog case has collapsed on a mere legal technicality. He wrote: “This makes Sepp Blatter look like Mother Teresa! The level of systemic ineptitude is beyond belief. The FEI has now brought its own, our equestrian sports into disrepute. It has effectively admitted that its legal and horse welfare systems are not fit for purpose. So much for clean sport.
“By implying indirectly that the horse’s identity was incorrect, its welfare as well as the biosecurity of the entire event were placed in serious jeopardy! What’s worse is that an unqualified horse was put at risk and competed without the correct assurances that it was fit for international competition and shipping to and from an FEI venue.
“The broader consequence is that the integrity of national federations as well as head office can surely not be trusted or taken for granted because the system allowed for a falsified duplicate passport to be issued. This has the most serious implications for the veracity of all identity documents issued by the National Federations and approved by the FEI.
“Shame on the current leadership at all levels. Regaining the global equestrian family’s trust will be a major task for the incoming president.”
The FEI official announcement said that the “incident” could not be progressed for legal reasons; essential deadlines were missed. I discussed these in my previous blog. But it says the “thorough” investigation exposed “loopholes” which will be addressed in a major review. It then states that it took some measures before receiving of the investigators’ final report last month, as if this rare bout of pro-activity is something to be proud of. What it forgets to explain is why remedial action was not urgently applied years ago when the FEI was first put on notice about horse-switches.
I have only been following the endurance saga for 18 months, but know the FEI looked into a separate horse switch allegation in 2011. After I gave pictures of the two Marmoogs to the FEI, they admitted in writing they’d been aware of rumours soon after the Euston Park world championship of August 2012 but could not find “sufficient” evidence at that time. Did that not, though, not refresh FEI concerns about its ID systems? Dream on!
The French federation raised horse switching in a paper 12 months ago – though their suggestion that horse IDs should be randomly re-checked during a ride did not make it into the new endurance rules.
But even more breathtaking is that even when Marmoog-gate became public knowledge, a laissez faire attitude still prevailed in the corridors of King Hussein building, Lausanne. I passed the pictures to the FEI on March 7th this year and broke the story in The Daily Telegraph on March 11th. On March 16th, the UAE federation used its remote access facility (on a Sunday) and changed Marmoog’s name to JSAS on the FEI database. There may have been a perfectly good reason for this, as many Arab-owned horses never associated with a whiff of scandal have their names changed for cultural reasons. However, it’s a fact that people will read “no data found” if they key in “Marmoog,” now that his name had been changed a second time. He was originally Prince de la Sabliere, becoming Marmoog only after nominated entries for Euston Park. I expressed astonishment that any federation could alter information on a central database without verification at any time, never mind for a horse under investigation for identity fraud.
And there’s more. A sharp-eyed judge then spotted that a Marmoog (under a different jockey, not Sheikh Hamdan) started in the UAE Presidents Cup in February 2014. Pictures publicly available soon clarified this was the “real” Marmoog, the snip-faced chesnut from Numana 2012 and also found in clear pictures from rides in his native France. But a new microchip number appeared against his name on the start list, commencing 900, a prefix that is not a recognised country code. So, not only had another horse competed using Marmoog’s ID, even the real Marmoog had a secondary identity.
Again I drew this to FEI attention and thereafter The Daily Telegraph published a story, on March 24th. Yes, you’ve guessed it, the UAE federation went into the FEI database and changed the microchip numbers to comply (Cynically, but as it turned out shrewdly, I screen-captured everything to do with Marmoog as I went along…)
So the evening of March 24th I wrote a joint-note to the FEI secretary general Ingmar de Vos and to the FEI’s integrity services provider, Quest, setting out this strange activity and wondered why Marmoog’s database entry had not been frozen. Ingmar wrote back: “Until this investigation has been completed, there is no reason to suspend activity on this horse’s database entry.” How back-to-front is that?
So, what other fictions could theoretically be enshrined, unchallenged, in the FEI database? Who was the real rider? Who is the true owner of a horse on the key cut-off point for Olympic eligibility? Competition results?
I am afraid I cannot yet leave you to contemplate these shudder-inducing ramifications, as there is even more to deplore about this crap affair.
The FEI’s decision that essential deadlines were missed is difficult to argue, galling as it is. The FEI could easily have left it at that. But no, they could not resist mentioning a “lack” of conclusive evidence and sew a glimmer of doubt about whether the horse was swapped at all. But in fawning to the Maktoums, the FEI then implies that some hugely respected publications wilfully used pictures that were not authentic. Why then, were these publications not taken to task? They include an iconic daily newspaper and magazine, the latter owned by a global media giant. Both of whom have shit-hot legal departments of their own that carried out exhaustive investigations to assure themselves of the pictures’ provenance before going to print.
Why would anyone bother to make this stuff up or to Photoshop pictures? Goodness knows there’s enough awfulness to write about Group 7 endurance without resorting to invention. How could photographers know which pictures to fake – they had no idea why they were being asked for them until the March 11th Telegraph story! Why do pictures of Hamdan on two different Marmoogs still appear on the official websites of Numana 2012 and the Euston 2012 world championship – both rides managed by companies owned by the Maktoums? Like I say, not very bright…
This, in turn, poses questions about how “thorough” the investigation was. You’d think I would have been interrogated by Quest – how I came about the pictures, had I interfered with them, how did I trace the trail?
The reality is that all went quiet for a couple of weeks, and then I had a brief email exchange with Quest, to whom I sent links to other archived photographs and the snappers’ contact details. That, and the brief email exchange about the database changes, is it, folks. Not a word since. To be charitable, it’s possible that Quest and the FEI decided that, as a journalist, I would never reveal the name of a source. The thing is, I had no use for or of “source” on Marmoog. The nearest we got to a Deep Throat was when I was told, via an intermediary, there was a suspected mid-ride horse swap “in Italy some time in 2012” but no-one had any names or dates. The clue was so cryptic I went off on a wild goose chase and only stumbled upon the Euston swap by chance! But I did not have the opportunity to assure Quest there were no sources that needed protecting. I was simply never asked.
Who else was not questioned, I wonder? Were the two Marmoogs shipped back to Dubai separately; their shared identity would have caused ructions at border controls, surely? What efforts were made to trace Euston Marmoog’s true identity and find out if he had even been prepared for a 160km championship?
Some Maktoum employees were “let go” in February, as a result of Quest’s separate investigations into the Godolphin racehorse steroids scandal. What if departees had included persons with knowledge of the transportation arrangements of the many hundreds of Maktoum horses that travel between the UK, Europe and Dubai? Ex-Maktoum staff invariably get a generous pay-off in return for a lifetime gag. What if this “prevented” them from helping with the Marmoog enquiry?
Journalists get used people saying “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I actually knew about this already” when a scandal breaks, as if there is kudos in claiming some oblique association. Several people who were at Euston have since said told me they heard “whispers on the day.” Shame on them, too. The FEI sent me a note, that every member of the equestrian community has a duty to report any suspicions about integrity issues. I am not the person who needs this reminder.
I have one thing to compliment about last week’s horse swap decision notice. For once, someone with a shred of decency omitted the usual drone about horse welfare being “paramount” to the FEI. As the past week’s events continue to illustrate, that’s a goddamned lie.
* Deep Throat was confirmed, decades later, to be Mark Felt, former associate director of the FBI.