Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson
Are the Days Finally Numbered for Faux ‘International’ Horse Events?
Scandals over Olympic jumping qualifications and endurance races have prompted the FEI to review what is meant by national, international and minor events.
So: a 2* jumping event involving half a dozen riders of moderate achievement can be deemed “international” and qualify you for the Olympics. Yet the world’s second-most gruelling 160km endurance race with a $2 million purse and 300 riders from 24 nations is allowed to run under “national” rules.
These cock-eyed scenarios have always been possible under FEI protocols, but it’s almost unheard-of for organisers or riders to exploit that loophole. Most decent people have a basic respect for fair play or, failing that, a semblance of personal pride. Winning world rankings points for a 28-fault jumping round, or being simultaneously in the top five AND bottom-placed, are not achievements most people would boast about, after all.
These nonsenses are finally in the spotlight at the same time, for widely differing reasons.
In Tribunal reports of disciplinary proceedings, you’ll sometimes see riders taking accusations very literally, arguing that if their alleged offence is not explicitly mentioned in FEI sport rules, they cannot be guilty. [My all-time favourite is the rider who said he could not be accused of failing to read the ingredients label on a banned potion, because said potion had no label.]
But no sporting body can reasonably be expected to cobble up rules covering every bizarre scenario (except maybe desert endurance, behaviour in which is abnormal by anyone’s standards.)
I don’t suppose the FEI ever contemplated that a jumping organiser would run a bunch of 2* CSIs as one long private party for a small clique of friends, the goody bags comprising unlimited rankings points. Last month Horse Sport revealed how two such gatherings – they can hardly be described as “shows” – at Villeneuve-Loubet, France, and Damascus, Syria fast-tracked riders from Sri Lanka, Syria and Jordan to individual Olympic tickets,
The FEI isn’t saying much about this publicly, but there is intense activity behind the scenes. Aside from the Olympic-related embarrassment, the Longines jumping world rankings formula has now been demonstrated as vulnerable to future abuse. The International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) owns the rankings formula and is especially distressed. IJRC director Eleonora Ottaviani – who has a legal background and always chooses her words carefully – has spoken openly about the “manipulation” and “skulduggery.”
Rankings integrity is all the more urgent because the FEI’s new CSI invitation system came into effect on February 4th. It now automatically generates CSI invitations to riders in world ranking order.
One school of thought is that Villeneuve-Loubet scheduled all its wall-to-wall jumping in December and Januar primarily to boost participants’ Longines rankings before February 4th. They might have stayed under the radar but for Sri Lanka’s Mathila Karlsson winning so many Olympic points against virtually zero opposition that she wrested the Far East’s second Tokyo spot from Hong Kong’s consistent performer, Kenneth Chen.
The alternative conspiracy theory is that Villeneuve staged its December shows primarily for Olympic rankings purposes – deadline for which was December 31st – then scheduled the January ones to distract attention from the alleged Tokyo ploy.
Either way, Villeneuve riders overall profited handsomely from their jolly jaunt. The latest world rankings show Portugal’s Mandy Mendes Costa – whose last 59 starts were exclusively at Villeneuve – now ranked at 249 compared with 963 at the end of November. The venue owner’s son, Romania’s Andrea Herck, rose from 386 to 160 over the same period, and Patrice Planchat – the token Frenchman in many classes – from 498 to 277.
What we don’t yet know is why FEI HQ in Lausanne did not think the Villeneuve and Damascus schedules looked strange. Why were these venues suddenly loading the end-of-year calendar? Why are they the only 2* CSIs that drastically restrict invitations and actively exclude neighbouring countries? Why did Villeneuve add rankings classes only after the close of entries? Why did Damascus “invite” four times more Syrian FEI riders than Syria actually has? Why did Damascus want to stage a CSI on Christmas Day, and how many countries would actually send riders to a war zone? You couldn’t make it up.
Down the corridor, in a different FEI department, the issue of equivalence in competition standards across the disciplines is finally exercising the FEI board – mostly because of the latest shenanigans in desert endurance.
Better late than never, the FEI has decided to review how it classifies “minor” events known as CIMs. This could prove critical in the current battle of wills over endurance between the FEI and UAE.
Star-ratings for international competitions are not like-for-like across the FEI disciplines. Endurance still only has three non-championship classification levels compared with five in jumping and eventing. Nonetheless a 2* 120km endurance race is hardly of “mid-range” difficulty; 120km is a very serious distance indeed, used for world young horse and world young rider championships, the majority of big-money rides in both the Middle East and Europe, and is the final stepping stone towards the ultimate test, 160km in a day.
Yet currently a 120km race counts as a CIM; the near equivalent in eventing – Bromont or Blenheim, for instance – would most certainly not be considered “minor.” I don’t doubt this was put in place in the era when desert endurance had a few more friends working at Lausanne.
When the FEI began to beef up endurance rules in 2013, the UAE dodged as many of them as possible by switching some of its historic 120Km CEI (international rides) to CEN (national) status, while still inviting hordes of foreign riders on glamorous expenses-paid trips. The UAE got away with it because of the 120km rides being classified as CIMs; that exempted them from the FEI’s cap on foreign participation in CEN. These rides were international in all but name; same eye-watering prize funds and luxury cars, same riders, same horses, same officials, same pistes.
Throughout 2019, the UAE actively opposed the latest raft of FEI endurance reforms that finally became effective on January 1st. Not surprisingly, the Dubai and Al Wathba venues have now switched pretty well every remaining CEI to CEN.
The acid test came with the running of the Sheikh Mohammed Cup – at 160km, most definitely not denoted a CIM – under national rules for the first time on January 4th, despite flying 24 flags.
The FEI did not appear to take evasive action beforehand. But clearly something has been going down since then, because last week the UAE revised the entry criteria for this Saturday’s headlining 160km President’s Cup.
Only Emirati nationals and foreigners permanently resident in the UAE may now take part, to comply with CEN requirements. On social media, non-resident riders are lamenting the late cancellation of their trips. The FEI tells me it is independently checking the bona fides of all UAE-domiciled entrants on Saturday.
As a CEI in 2019, the Presidents Cup boasted a prize fund of $3.2million, so this is a highly unusual voluntary demotion for the world’s most “prestigious” race, and an intriguing turn of events.
Has the FEI threatened the UAE federation with another suspension? Or maybe a fine so large ( as set out in FEI general regulations) that even the UAE’s wallet would groan? Or is it that, right now, the UAE unexpectedly needs FEI support for its Olympic ambitions? In a twist of fate, UAE jumping rider Abdullah Al Muhairi was the other principal victim of the Villeneuve/Damascus Olympic qualification coup!
We live in very strange times. There is much more yet to come out about both of these hot topics.