In my last blog, I discussed whether it’s time to introduce a more detailed rider demerit system for rule-breaches in eventing. Or indeed, any sport. This followed the latest bout of social media angst over another alleged blood-in-mouth incident, and the invidiousness of the FEI yellow warning card, which, in eventing, is used to punish everything from failing to present yourself to a doctor after a fall – that’s the rider’s own risk, not the horse’s – to dangerous riding though not, it seems, for blood on the horse.
A demerit system has the useful potential to grade rule-breaches of any sort according to their seriousness, and the flexibility to be tailored towards relevant issues in each of the FEI sports. This is something the yellow card cannot do on its own.
In this recent appalling case before the FEI Tribunal, the ground jury at an endurance ride in Portugal resorted to yellow-carding the same person twice within minutes, for ranting at and then assaulting the president of the ground jury. These warning cards were clearly awarded within 12 months of each other, so this automatically suspended the rider for two months. Genius in its simplicity – though isn’t it time there was a more structured way of dealing with behaviour that is so offensive handcuffs might be required?
This case came to light when the yellow-cardee, one of Portugal’s leading international riders António Vaz Freire, tried to appeal to Tribunal against that two-month suspension. Tribunal did not admit his appeal, ruling that field-of-play decisions are sacrosanct. On top of that, the FEI argued Freire had not protested receipt of the cards within the requisite 30-minute time-frame.
The merits of the case were not therefore tested, but evidence presented in the preliminaries shows what officials sometimes have to put up with, and the inadequacies of their armoury.
Freire has ridden on European and world championship teams, and is also a registered FEI official, trainer and treating vet.
His best known horse, Tibete, failed at vet-gate 4 at the CEI3* in Rio Frio, Portugal on July 2. Rui Pedro Amante, president of the ground jury, and other witnesses claimed the appellant’s father Jose Maria Vaz Freire “stormed through the vet-gate insulting all the officials.” Miguel Pinheiro, another ground jury member “saw the appellant protesting against everybody, including timing officials.”
Freire Senior refused to leave the gate immediately. Once he did leave, he allegedly continued his verbal abuse of officials over the fence. Yellow card #1 to Antonio as the Person Responsible.
About 10 minutes later, Amante said he went to find Antonio Freire to ensure he understood yellow card procedure. While he tried to explain, Amante said Jose Maria continued to rant at him, now joined by Antonio’s brother Joao. During the course of a scuffle Amante was grabbed round the neck, head-butted “several times” and punched on the cheek. Yellow card # 2 to Antonio.
The appellant tried arguing that the warning cards were not presented in the correct way. In the legal context of his inadmissible appeal, this did not cut much ice, though even if it had, why wasn’t someone with so many FEI hats already crystal clear that the rider is accountable for anything his connections do right or wrong at a competition, whether he was immediately on the scene or not? The alleged assault is not denied anywhere I can see in the Tribunal transcript, by the way.
Will the FEI ever drag its yellow card provisos into the 21st century? A warning card system based on one-size-fits-all is a relic of a more gentlemanly time. Nowadays, equestrian sport is ever more sophisticated in its technical requirements yet simultaneously some horse sports are attracting more loutish behaviour. Tribunal also pointed out that “verbal and physical violence against members of the ground jury are serious offences that could lead to criminal charges.” Indeed.
October wasn’t a good month for the endurance riders from Hispanic Europe who have been under disciplinary scrutiny. The Tribunal also published its decision the doping case against the Spanish duo of Marti Vilaregut Rifa – the latest owner to be joined in a Tribunal action alongside his rider – and teenage jockey Yoao Vitor Luis Araujo. Their horse Tra Felic tested positive to two controlled substances Diclofenic and Flunixin, an anti-inflammatory combo that pops up in endurance quite a bit.
This case was history-making as the first-ever suspension of a junior. In the past, an adult has been eligible to take the flak for a minor in a first-time offence.
Araujo was only 15 at the time of Tra Felic’s positive test in July 2015, in a 120km two-star at Lagoa de Antela. Mind-bogglingly, Araujo already had two prior doping offences. He was suspended for six months for this third one. It was backdated to the date of his provisional suspension last year, so he’s now back in action. Tribunal suggested he try to acquaint himself with FEI rules.
The Tribunal was disappointed by the “negligent” behaviour of Rifa because he has been training for 40 years and is a ride organiser, too. He was also banned for six months.
While the presence of Flunixin was never explained, Rifa admitted giving the Diclofenic dose two days before the ride because the horse exhibited back pain, which persisted the next day.
Here’s a radical thought: try giving a sore horse time off until it isn’t sore any more. It looks like the education programme being rolled out in the UAE should be extended to other countries.