An occupational hazard of journalism is that when you ask a tricky question of a governing body, the answer often bears no resemblance to the points raised. Quite a few of us compare notes, and frequently receive identical replies even when we have all asked quite different questions. Needless to say, this applies especially to endurance in the Middle East. There is still considerable speculation about what really went on at Dubai International Endurance City (DIEC) on March 19th. If even half of what I have heard from normally reliable sources is true, surely this time the UAE has behaved badly enough to be suspended indefinitely (though that would be a tough call on Bouthieb, and might be complicating any such decision) and for DIEC to be stripped of the world endurance championship in December.
The petition calling for the world championships to be moved, by the way, has now reached 5,632 signatures; pretty good for a niche interest area.
Worryingly though, the FEI does seem to be giving the UAE federation (EEF) an increasingly amount of latitude, notwithstanding the strenuous efforts of its endurance director, Manuel Bandeira de Mello.
To recap swiftly, the catalogue of doping, cheating, horse-swapping and fatal injury incidents in UAE endurance over a very long time finally prompted the FEI to suspend the Emirates for four months in March 2015. Their season had virtually ended, so this only really affected those royal riders and acolytes who compete in Europe during the summer. In a year when the UAE had no championship to qualify for, this was no hardship. I daresay many of them got their kicks instead driving supercars around London’s fashionable Mayfair.
The UAE was reinstated after signing a legally binding agreement to do better. This was promptly forgotten in the 2015-2016 winter season where once again clips of flagrant rule breaking appeared on the official livestream faster than the clean endurance community could download them.
After the mass horse-beating at a youth ride at Al Wathba, UAE rides were shut down for a week, purportedly at the national federation’s behest. Then 12 so-called new measures (also purportedly “devised” by the EEF though mostly a recycling of extant FEI rules) were applied from February 13. This was accompanied by proclamations of the EEF’s determination to stamp out foul play, yadda yadda yadda, as if it were the shocked onlooker of all that had gone on before.
This would have been the time to re-impose the suspension: goodness knows there was enough evidence of breaches thus far, but again the opportunity wasn’t taken; losing the President’s Cup, by coincidence staged on February 13, would have shown the UAE the FEI is serious. If it is.
Now, though, the EEF doesn’t even seem to want to apply its “own rules.” Not including 40km qualifiers, 19 rides were staged after February 13, and at all of them it was business as usual. There has been no improvement in completion rates except at Bouthieb where Sheikh Sultan is stolidly doing his own thing. There are at least two more known catastrophic Injuries (recorded fatalities). At three rides, horses recorded final loop speeds in excess of 37 kph. There is a worrying increase in horses noted FTC – disappearing without seeing the vet.
At Al Wathba on February 27 there was a completion rate of just 13%; this was a ride for “Private Owners” and I would guess that wasn’t the only thing that was private, given the ample video footage of horses still being concealed in the grooming areas behind a human wall.
Things got worse on March 19 at DIEC, where the scheduled 140km CEI Crown Prince Dubai Cup was due to be a test event for the world championship.
Under the new rules of whoever, vets can set a final loop heart-rate parameter between 56 and 60 beats per minute (according to Sheikh Sultan, it must be lowered in all loops to be effective).
Earlier, the FEI had been lobbied by 27 foreign nationals to increase the heart-rate level because visiting riders had not had time to “acclimatise” their horses. This petition was started by Russian rider Maria Kuznetsova, though I daresay she was put up to it by the organisers.
The FEI wanted a rate of 56bpm. I gather De Mello was denied access to Sheikh Mohammed to discuss, as the owner of DIEC. It was argued the schedule for the ride had been set before the February 13 agreement was made. In the face of stonewalling, De Mello simply disaffiliated the ride. It then went ahead as a CEN 120km, and organisers offered compensation of about $7,000 to the visitors.
This rearranged event also appears likely to have broken CEN rules as 25 visiting nations were represented, rather more than the four normally allowed in CENs. In a further show of defiance, this CEN ran with a final loop heartrate of 64bpm, and a top recorded speed of 37.3 kph.
I am aware of several media who sent the FEI quite detailed questions about what happened and/or copies of the riders’ representation.
The reply, received nearly a week later, was: “The event on 19 March, which was on the FEI Calendar, was downgraded to a CEN by the organising committee. We have asked the Emirates Equestrian Federation (EEF) to submit a report to us by 29 March and the information in that report will be provided to the FEI Bureau for discussion at its in-person meeting early next month [immediately after the FEI Sports Forum]. As part of that discussion the FEI Bureau will evaluate whether the 12 approved measures have been enforced. We have already received an informal report from the event on 19 March stating that there were no incidents.”
So what does this tell us? In ignoring queries about the rider representation and the circumstances that led to the downgrading of the ride, the FEI entitles us to infer it disaffiliated the Crown Prince Cup. Any decision by the organiser then to run as a CEN is thus factually correct but also not unrelated. Why though, would the FEI pander to the EEF by suggesting it was their initiative (again?)
Useful, though not actually answering the questions some of us asked, is the revelation that the bureau will consider a report from the EEF. In view of the EEF’s long record in making stuff up, how can anyone rely on a single sentence of it? I imagine the bureau will receive other impartial information; but if so, why make special mention of the EEF input?
Many wonder if the radio silence from Lausanne means something Really Big is brewing. Equally, I can see all the components being quietly nudged into place enabling the FEI to justify why it will or can do little or nothing.
The pros and cons of the FEI cutting the UAE loose and/or the UAE cutting itself loose have been debated many times. Most people believe they have to stay in for the sake of the horses.
After following this sorry tale in depth for three years, and uncovering a couple of scandals either of which should have been enough to exile the UAE for life, sadly I now conclude nothing will change.
I can’t see how much worse things can get for the horses if competing outside the FEI. With no semblance of FEI rules the attrition rate will worsen for sure, but at least it will put the poor little scraps out of their misery a tad sooner than they have to endure the current regime.
The only scenario that might put an end to the cruel sport of desert racing, to my mind, is this: first, the FEI refuses to accept endurance schedules from anywhere in the UAE (and come to that, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi too) apart from Bouthieb. Those who want to do proper endurance can compete with Sheikh Sultan.
For the rest, Sheikh Moh and co can set up a new desert racing body. For a while, it will do well, as there are plenty of apostates in other parts of the world who will continue to produce horses in FEI rides directly to sell to the UAE and fly out to compete for big prizes.
But then the FEI will win its legal battle with the Global Champions League over the exclusivity clause and have the courage to suspend riders who compete in unapproved events in anything, not just show jumping.
This will provide a dilemma for the overseas rider-producers who threw their lot in with Desert Racing Inc. Suddenly they will be blocked from rides at which they can produce horses for sale and where there is a structure to prove the speed and stamina of their merchandise. I don’t expect any new desert racing body to draw up many welfare or horse recovery-related rules, but even so, Sheikhs want some proof they are not buying a dud. Cut off the blood supply, and the arm will either and die.
On top of that, by about year three in exile the penny will drop with the UAE that they are not world champions any more in a sport recognised by the larger part of the horse world or within a prestigious body with Olympic alliances. With egos dented, either they will lose interest and buy more supercars instead; or, finally, realise something very serious has to be done to re-join the FEI fold. Maybe they will even agree to a programme of education.
This is silly thinking of course. I want to FEI to win its legal battle with GCL, but I don’t think it will. A central plank of its argument is that only under FEI rules can horse welfare be guaranteed. The experience in the UAE shows this is spectacularly untrue.
I am off to the FEI sports forum in Lausanne on Monday and will report back promptly on the monumental debates about the future of dressage, jumping and eventing. So you (and I) will get a nice break from endurance. Or maybe not.