An endurance friend recently asked if I was ill, as I haven’t blogged about their sport for months. While pointing out that I write about other horse sports too, I checked and it’s true! No lengthy endurance blog since February.
Alas, it hasn’t needed me to keep endurance in headlines. Despite ride cancellations in the pandemic, endurance has continued to attract attention, for all the wrong reasons.
In June, the 18-year FEI ban on a sheikh for horse abuse was reported in the global media. The likes of Yahoo Sport, Associated Press and Eurosport don’t usually cover endurance. They still might not know what endurance is. But when a governing body sends you a graphic press release about animal abuse and a 18-year ban, you twig that it must be Very Serious Indeed, and so give it some prominence.
That case involved Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Qasimi, a member of the ruling family of Sharjah, UAE. It confirmed FEI suspicion that nerve-blocking is routine in certain stables, with resultant orthopaedic weaknesses being fractures-in-waiting.
In recent months we have also seen two Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) decisions.
One was another Emirati rider’s appeal against a different horse abuse finding by the FEI Tribunal. CAS reduced the sanction, but importantly endorsed the public’s right to lodge protests about horse abuse, which some people would prefer disallowed.
The other CAS decision related to the Tryon WEG fiasco; the suspension of Ignasi Casas Vaque for raging at the ground jury when the ride was cancelled. While Dr Casas Vaque was the only person disciplined, CAS said other people behaved “dangerously.” Two officials even testified to being punched.
This means that CAS, the highest court in world sport, has finally been exposed to the dark side of endurance – twice in a short time, too. At least CAS won’t hear about Al Qasimi, or see the gruesome photos and thus form an even worse opinion of endurance, because Al Q announced that he’s giving up the sport, anyway.
Meanwhile, the FEI’s anti-doping page reminds us that endurance returns more doping positives than any other discipline.
The Maktoum stables seemed to have been staying out of trouble for some while. But one recent Tribunal decision led to a 12-month suspension for a long-time registered trainer from the premier F3 stables in Dubai. He argued that he did not take any “relevant” decisions about the horses concerned, ergo, he was not liable for their controlled meds violations. What, then, is the function of “trainers” at F3?
Meanwhile, every time the FEI changes its endurance rules to improve welfare and combat cheating, the legion of decent practitioners are burdened with the unintended consequences. Many one-horse riders in countries with minimal CEI 160km opportunities must be losing their mojo.
Their latest angst is over the capability of endurance to stage a fair and meaningful world championship (WEC) ever again. The Dubai-supported 2020 WEC planned for San Rossore at Pisa, Italy next month was super-keen to go ahead when every other major FEI competition championship was cancelled. San Rossore regularly posted to that effect on Facebook.
But if this was an attempt to garner support, it backfired: because of Covid, many countries would either not be able to qualify under the stricter new FEI rules, or be unable to travel at all. This could give the UAE an easy win against minimal opposition. Social media seemed certain that despite everyone else’s quarantine dilemmas, UAE would make it to San Rossore.
The FEI then postponed the 2020 WEC till May 2021, just months before the 2021 Europeans. The demands of two medal efforts in a single summer caused further angst. For nearly a week, Tarek Taher, athletes’ representative on the FEI endurance committee, fielded umpteen enquiries about who was qualified or not. The FEI had already “frozen” qualifications for star level rides because of Covid. They’ve now frozen them further, for 33 months.
As a non-Olympic sport, endurance has a world championship every two years. After Tryon, the likelihood of a trouble-free renewal in 2020 was undermined by serious allegations of interference (which he denies) against Gianluca Laliscia, proprietor of San Rossore.
Removing the WEC was discussed. In March it was agreed San Rossore would go ahead, on condition that Laliscia stood aside from the organising committee (OC), because there was no guarantee time could be found for a FEI Tribunal hearing into his alleged behaviour before WEC 2020 took place. As it turned out, the Covid hiatus would have provided ample time. But then again, the FEI is hardly spoiled for choice when it comes to alternative hosts.
This moves us to the WEC 2022. Contenders are Italy and Saudi Arabia (both remnants of unsuccessful full WEG bids,) Estonia and the UAE.
Italy isn’t ideal because the same country would be hosting consecutive WECs, which isn’t usually done. Some might also worry that San Rossore was represented on the Italian OC.
Saudi Arabia can hardly be rewarded for its notable spike in doping and controlled meds positives, especially at its showcase 120km ride at Al Ula. The UAE still appears to want to host WEC 2022, despite its increasing self-exile from FEI sport. To avoid applying the new FEI endurance rules, the UAE affiliated only a tiny handful of rides last winter – not even the President’s Cup. Let’s not forget Dubai was stripped of hosting the 2016 WEC because horse welfare could not be guaranteed. No improvement has been evident there in the ensuing four years.
This leaves Estonia’s fairly new Padise venue, which is owned by another friend of Dubai, Jelena Sbitneva. She has hardly endeared herself to the FEI. On the eve of the 2019 FEI General Assembly in Moscow, she strongly criticised the new endurance rules in what was meant to be a limited distribution Moscow souvenir magazine. Following complaints, the magazine was re-printed with the article omitted (I wonder who picked up that tab?) The publisher then made things 10 times worse by then posting her magnum opus online (ditto.)
World championships for other disciplines in 2022 were decided in Moscow, but the FEI board put off making the endurance host decision till December 2019, then June 2020, and now November 2020. They apparently want more information from bidders. If you ask me, the FEI has already got TOO much information about the bidders. The real choice is not the best on merit, but the venue least-likely-to-provoke-scandal.
Between then and now, I am sure endurance will continue to provide much to write about so I shall keep alert!