From some guy at the world cup

I am neither lawyer, nor vet. Nor am I a real horseman for that matter.  However, I do have some decent experience in rules and process.

The FEI has established the ground rules for their competitions.  Agreement to abide by these is basically the table stakes for all prior to entry.  In my experience, when rules are invoked, there is rarely an upside.  Rules generally invoke negatives.  They are there to provide a framework for good preparation, orderly progress, fairness and a level playing field; and in the case of this sport, to protect the innocent – our equine partner who can’t articulate their own condition in any way other than physical reaction to testing.

Over the past 36 hours, the FEI has exercised these rules.  Put them to the acid test if you like.  I attended a media conference put on by FEI yesterday evening.  Enlightening, but not complete; I’m sure more investigation will reveal greater detail in the coming weeks.

You all know the result of their decision.  McLain Ward’s wonderful horse Sapphire has been disqualified from this World Cup competition, with the effect of sidelining Mr. Ward.  This is a shame.  Horse and rider were competing very well, with a clear chance of taking home the win.

FEI explained their position clearly.  The rule invoked is one to assure fair competition, ensure the equine athlete is protected.

They have established rules and protocols (i.e. those processes used to fairly and independently administer and manage the rules).  The FEI vet reports that the protocols were followed to the letter. 

Sapphire was palpated a number of times on both front legs, she reacted negatively, repeatedly, in only one spot on the front left.  Nowhere else did Sapphire react to the administration of the palpation.  The testing was then re-administered by two independent vets. 

Conclusion was Sapphire reacted clearly to the testing in one specific area of her left leg.  FEI vet admitted that while protocols were followed rigorously, the test analysis and conclusions are necessarily based in large part on the vet’s extensive professional judgment.  Just as if it were any other opinion from a medical professional – that’s why it’s called an opinion rather than an iron clad set of facts and outcomes.  I don’t believe the vets’ judgment or real independence is in question here.

FEI reports that blood and urine samples have been taken now as well.  While they are far from accusing anyone of wrong doing, I assume they may be just preparing for what I am sure will be a long and protracted “conversation” with all concerned parties.

Now, contrary to my randomness comment yesterday, FEI reported administering the same test on some 35 horses before Sapphire, and another 30 or so after.  Sapphire was the only horse to display the sensitivity on repeated attempts, in the same location on the leg.  Random?  Perhaps not.  Extensive?  Maybe a bit better than I originally thought.  Witch hunt or vindictive action for some prior problem?  Difficult to prove.

Professional athletes compete all the time when they are injured.  It would be unthinkable for Sydney Crosbie to not play in an NHL final game just because his ankle hurt, or there were stitches in his cheek.  They play through the pain, use some creative pharmacology, I’m sure, to assist in this front.  But they are professional athletes, paid and incented to play.  To take one for the team, they would say.

I guess the major difference here is the inability of our equine partner to elucidate her condition.  We have to rely on that judgment of independent, qualified and authorized professionals to draw on their years of comparable experience, put personal bias on the sideline, act in the best interests of the horse and the level playing field we are all trying to establish – tough as all of that is.  Yes, it’s tough.  We’ve recently had prior dialogue in this very area with the inappropriate whipping case of MM.  Further to come on the independence front also, I’m sure.

Although I am not in a position to have a personal chat with Mr. Ward, I am certain he is furious with this finding and conclusion.  Maybe even feeling a bit persecuted?  I understand; that’s how I would feel.  I am sure, and hope, we will see Mr. Ward and Sapphire back later this year in Kentucky at the World Equestrian Games.

Am I satisfied the FEI is doing the right thing?  I’m not sure it’s for me to judge, but the thing is done, and undoable at this juncture.  Sapphire and Mr Ward do not appear in today’s line up card.  Perhaps Sapphire has been trapped in a rule designed to catch something else, some wrong doing avoidance rule.  Were the rules applied in an unbiased and impartial manner?  Also don’t know, and also I’m sure more will come to light in the coming weeks. 

I do find it unusual, in a rules environment, that there is no appeal process, no timely right of hearing/arbitration, or some remedial action for the affected; especially where the finding is so judgmental, where the result is so punitive and irreversible.

I know my job here was to be witty and irreverent…to try to fill Karen’s creative journalistic shoes while she is away.  But today I don’t feel witty or irreverent.  I only feel remorse for a man and his partner who have trained and worked hard over the years to get to this level of the game.

It’s an unspeakable outcome.