Leading endurance figure Ignasi Casas Vaque has been suspendedfor 12 months by the FEI Tribunal for his part in the angry scenes that erupted when the World Equestrian Games endurance race was cancelled.
However, in an interesting twist, Tribunal rejected assertions that it was Casas Vaque who brought equestrianism into disrepute. Tribunal noted the FEI “stained” itself by running the badly-organised event at Tryon.
A charge that Dr Casas Vaque [“the Respondent”] made “death threats” to ground jury president J-P Allegret was also not upheld. Tribunal also rejected the FEI’s claim Casas Vaque committed the criminal offence under North Carolina law of “inciting riot.” However, Tribunal did rule that he displayed incorrect behaviours “multiple times.”
The suspension imposed is half the two-year duration requested by the FEI. He was also fined 2,000 Swiss francs and ordered to pay 3,000 in costs.
Casas Vaque, 53, was chef d’equipe for Spain who had four riders in medal contention when the ride was called off. Videos of his shouting at Allegret went viral, and the impact of social media was widely cited during Tribunal proceedings. Tribunal watched several videos, including a compilation on You Tube entitled “Guns, riots and death threats.”
Editor’s note: reaction to the re-start can be seen at the 2-minute point; to the cancellation at 6 minutes; Dr Casas Vaque, wearing bib 38, is seen from 7 minutes onwards. The audio commentary is by a UAE official, Ahmed al Hammadi.
At the time, Casas Vaque was also endurance director and head veterinarian for the Spanish national federation, an FEI official and treatment veterinarian for endurance and jumping, and deputy chair of the FEI endurance technical committee (ETC).
In October the FEI “relieved” him of his duties. Because ETC chair Dr Brian Sheahan had resigned for health reasons, this rendered the ETC inoperable. FEI then established the “temporary” committee that is currently reviewing the future direction of this discipline.
Tribunal heard that on September 12, 2018 a group was “misdirected” to the wrong start. After the first loop, the race re-started over a shorter distance of 120 km. Later, following a heavy downpour, it became very hot with a “dangerously high” humidity index. Officials “unanimously agreed” the weather “presented an unacceptable risk to horse welfare” and cancelled – 53 horses were already at the clinic.
The FEI said Casas Vaque incited people to enter the vetgate for the purpose of protesting. “At least two people, and likely more,” entered the area, satisfying the definition of “riot” under North Carolina law. One person was overheard saying: “I can’t have my horses in that race and these people behave like football hooligans.”
The FEI said this was a “clear and present danger of injury and damage” and that Casas Vaque’s “aggressive body language and shouting encouraged others to engage in an aggressive protest.” Police arrested “at least one” individual.
The FEI also said that “shouting, running and general disorder in the vetgate area could certainly have frightened the horses.” If not criminal, it was “violence” under Article 169.6.4 of FEI General Regulations. Intentional or not, it diminished public opinion of the sport.
More specifically, Casas Vaque questioned the integrity of FEI officials, first by saying “you are a cheater” to a ground jury member, then suggesting cancellation was intended to stop Spain winning. To Allegret he also said [sic] “riders will kill you. The riders will find you. The riders will travel on the horse. They will kill you.”
Casas Vaque was in a clear leadership role and expected to uphold high standards of professionalism. The FEI acknowledged it was his first violation, that circumstances were “challenging” and “emotions, in general, were running high.” Grievances did not, though, excuse abuse. He should have “done everything possible to pacify the situation and show respect to the officials; instead his conduct escalated matters significantly.”
A signal had to be sent to all stakeholders about such conduct. Casas Vaque did offer to apologise later – though only because FEI secretary-general Sabrina Ibanez suggested it.
In his defence, Casas Vaque described numerous organisational flaws and how he had tried to help beforehand. After the Tryon test ride in April, it was clear there would be climatic challenges. The ETC meeting on July 18, 2018 discussed “serious problems with the GPS tracking system.”
Upon arrival “all participants encountered a complete and utter chaos.” He invested “all his energy to improve the situation,” for example organising hay and water for many nations, not just Spain.
He had expressly warned of the thunderstorm and said “we should do it [the race] tomorrow.” The FEI knew the day before that temperature and humidity would peak in the afternoon. It would be dark towards the end but proper lighting was not installed. The Equine Community Integrity Unit (ECIU) report confirmed the re-start was ordered “without any risk assessment whatsoever.” Casas Vaque led 18 chefs d’equipe in filing a formal protest on the day against the re-start.
Casas Vaque said cancellation was decided without warning – “even worse, since it had been taken exactly because of circumstances about which all participants had previously warned.” He was still on the loop, so drove back and was not even present when “people immediately started to scream, shout and kick against the [vetgate] fences.”
The only people he gesticulated to were his own two assistants. When he told Allegret “riders will kill you,” this was the same as telling his kids “your mother will kill you” when they came home dirty from football.
The word “cheater” derives from the Spanish “hacer trampas,” expressing the feeling that Spain would be unfairly deprived of victory. When he shouted “come on” and “let’s go” he was not addressing the crowd; he meant “please, ground jury, do something, don’t cancel.”
He could not be blamed for the chaos at Tryon, for posts on social media, or that horses were present while spectators “started to behave in an aggressive way.” Not one official issued him any sanction on the day – they “understood very well why he was so emotional.” Numerous others had complained about the Tryon organisation. He had tried to save an “impossible situation, for the benefit of his sport, the riders and for the welfare of horses.”
Ibanez said she communicated the re-start decision to chefs d’equipe because “the English of the president of the ground jury had not been good enough” [J-P Allegret is French. ] At that point, Ibanez said Casas Vaque was acting aggressively “but he had not been the only person.” The FEI plans to discipline others once the ECIU investigation is complete. Everyone, including the FEI, was responsible for the event’s shortcomings. This case had been brought forward so far, as it seemed the “obvious” one.
In further evidence, the FEI said weather data did not predict correctly. It was supposed reach 28 degrees and then go down; instead it climbed to 33 degrees. Both parties ultimately agreed that with the shorter distance, the leader would have finished no more than 30 minutes later than originally scheduled: there was no additional risk in that regard.
Finally, the FEI agreed Casas Vaque did not create the angry atmosphere, however he was pouring fuel on fire. It would have become worse had he received a Yellow Card.
Tribunal found that videos “provided direct evidence of the conduct of the Respondent” though “the FEI has not met its burden of proof that the Respondent conducted a criminal act” for it did not call an expert on North Carolinan law.
No evidence of physical violence was displayed and no witnesses testified of feeling intimidated. His words did not constitute death threats. They were a “figure of speech…common and accepted in English, Spanish and French.”
Tribunal said: “His actions did not – given the specific circumstances in the case at hand – bring the equestrian sport, and the FEI in particular, into disrepute. The Tribunal comes to this conclusion as the poor organisation and errors in running the event had already put a stain on the reputation of the FEI and possible disrepute of the FEI. The Tribunal finds that the Respondent’s actions were not a significant factor in causing damage to the FEI’s reputation, as it had already been damaged by the running of the event itself.”
Casas Vaque did, though, have a “heightened duty” to act appropriately.
His words constituted incorrect behaviour when repeatedly shouted at FEI officials in front of press and public. They also found that Casas Vaque did solicit non-accredited persons to enter the restricted area before and after others pulled down the perimeter fence. This created “an increased risk of harm to the horses” and impeded the crews trying to care for them.
It also emerged that last month Casas Vaque lodged an unsuccessful application to be reinstated to the ETC.