My phone has been red hot this past week, with colleagues keen to discuss the politics behind the FEI’s unprecedented cancellation of two UAE CEI’s as the endurance crisis escalates. So it was a relief when one buddy called with this practical query: will disaffiliating these rides affect horse and rider FEI qualifications for anything important?
I replied: “It’s funny you should ask.” Because I was just completing enquiries into a 120km CEI qualifier (for last month’s President’s Cup) whose results listings on the FEI database suggest that when you are short of qualifications for something important, one simple solution might be to apply a bit of creativity!
A few weeks ago, colleagues at Horse & Hound and myself were tipped off, by different people, that a scheduled ride in Dubai on January 21at was not all it seemed. I then asked further local sources who were genuinely surprised to learn that a FEI 2* qualifier took place on January 21st and could not understand how they had managed to miss it. Everything about it reads oddly.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi were teeming with foreign nationals during January and February, all in town to get rides in the run up to the President’s Cup. Many UAE rides laughingly labelled “national” this season have had representatives from up to 18 countries. Yet, without exception, all officials in this important 2* qualifier were from Group 7 and the riders represented just two countries – the UAE and India, the latter being the source of many of the jobbing jockeys attached to the big barns. Every single equine starter had no current 2* qualification and the vast majority had not run in FEI for over a year.
This CEI was added to the FEI calendar at short notice – not unusual in the UAE – but was/still is not mentioned anywhere on the websites of Dubai Equestrian Club and the UAE federation, even though they carry news, pictures, schedules, start lists and very detailed results of even the most lowly CEN.
Every other CEI this year took place at Dubai International Endurance City, but in the published schedule for January 21st, the venue is given simply as “near Nad Al Sheba,” with no instructions how to get there. Maybe someone already anticipated that visitors wouldn’t need to find it.
I scoured the websites of all the photographers who cover UAE rides and always post everything they have snapped, be it good, bad or indifferent; nothing at all from January 21st.
But the most astonishing thing was the results. Forty-five starters, and only four failing to finish, of which two were retired by their riders: a completion rate of 91% – two to three times the usual rate in Group 7, and even substantially better than any CEI in Europe during 2014!
So I put all of these anomalies to the FEI and floated the possibility of the results being bogus. This is their unedited reply: “The CEI2* Dubai, which took place on 21 January 2015, was run as a qualifier for the President’s Cup (CEI3* Abu Dhabi, Al Wathba). The event was properly entered in the FEI calendar and, as per FEI requirements, a draft schedule was submitted and approved by the FEI Headquarters. The results, officials’ reports, and vet cards were received on time and were validated by the FEI Headquarters.”
But how does this description of sign-off process thousands of miles away in Lausanne show us that the content of the results – or indeed, of anyone’s results – is correct? We know, from the fall-out of the Marmoog enquiry, that all national federations put their own data direct onto the FEI website and that not even random checks are made.
Giving January 21st the benefit of the doubt, I then asked the FEI to comment on its apparent positives. After all, a 91% completion rate shows the UAE can do endurance properly when it feels like it. I received this not overly-enthusiastic reply: “There was certainly a high completion rate at this particular event, but the efficacy of any set of rules in any discipline cannot be judged on the basis of a single event. The FEI is constantly assessing all its rules and regulations to ensure that they remain relevant.”
If those results are not entirely genuine, then eight or so horses whose qualifications relate to January 21st could well have started the Presiden’ts Cup without being properly prepared, even by the UAE’s now legendary lax standards of preparation. (They include Embrujo AG, the horse with the sealed-up, duct-taped goggles).
Last week, the UAE federation was officially discredited by the FEI’s act of ride disaffiliation, using the most damning words: “to protect horse welfare and to preserve the integrity of the FEI rules and regulations at FEI events.”
This shouldn’t automatically cast doubt on other aspects of the UAE federation’s conduct but, alas, it is the only one of the FEI’s 132 member federations to have popped up in alleged fraud-related incidents in recent years.
In December 2014, the FEI announced a major review of processes because of “loopholes” exposed by the Marmoog ringer enquiry, in which it became clear that horse ID information must have been manipulated by a UAE official for the fake Marmoog even to have been allowed into the stables at the Euston world championships of 2012. I discussed the significance of all this here.
As part of this clean-up, the FEI tightened up ID processes, introduced tougher penalties for misinformation and has instructed “authenticated persons” (which apparently does not include the likes of you and I) on how to blow the whistle on dodgy data using a new system politely labelled the “suggestion platform.”
I’m also sorry to report that the UAE federation has form for a different type of fiction, which was considered by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2013.
In this case, the UAE federation forged a rider’s signature on anti-doping paperwork and paid his fine in 2011, without the rider even knowing he’d been accused until after it had all been dealt with. So when the rider competed a different doped horse – this time unavoidably learning about it straightaway, as it was for a banned substance – he took the opportunity to flag up the skulduggery from the 2011 case in what turned out to be an successful attempt to mitigate the length of his inevitable suspension.
According to legal documents, neither the UAE nor the FEI disputed that the signature was faked, though no reason was offered as to why fakery was deemed necessary or acceptable by a sports regulatory body.
One hypothesis could be that the earlier case was dealt with quietly, using the permissible no-questions-asked, fast-tracked fine procedure, which had the effect of avoiding the rider demanding a full Tribunal hearing. At the time, the prominent barn supplying his first doped horse was figuring in multiple doping cases and under pressure from the Tribunal “to unequivocally explain the occurrence of the 2009 and 2010 anti-doping cases of horses under their care.”
The CAS didn’t seem especially impressed with the attitude of the FEI and the UAE towards the integrity of paperwork, which you can read in paragraphs 12.57 and 12.58 here.
I will happily eat my words if someone can produce pictures from this well-conducted ride of January 21st. Indeed, I would look forward to seeing them, as I would love to think the truly fantastic results of January 21st show there is light at the end of the tunnel, even though we have had the Bundy scandal since then.
The other reason I would like to know these results are genuine is because it’s becoming tedious, as well as demoralizing, that members of the public are the only ones who appear able to spot the suspicious happenings hiding in plain sight. A rider recently copied me into their memo to the FEI, pointing out four recent cases of horses that started in CENs while on obligatory FEI rest periods. If a layman can spot these serious, welfare-averse rule-breaches through a bit of light reading, why is it so hard for the FEI, the well-resourced regulatory body, to fulfil this core duty?
Meanwhile, I have to conclude that when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.