The endurance “round table” at the 2012 FEI sports forum was the first time stakeholders started to openly shame the desert sport.
The evening before I was introduced to the UAE delegate Dr Hallvard Sommerseth. Perhaps anticipating the next day’s debate, he told me the only reason the UAE recorded far more doping violations than anyone else was because the UAE had far more horses and did far more sampling than anyone else.
While this had a simple logic, I am always sceptical when people justify their position to someone they’ve only just met. That is sometimes a good instinct; three years later the FEI suspended Dr Sommerseth for faking ride results on an industrial scale.
Dr S might, of course, have given me 100% bona fide information about the UAE’s anti-doping measures in 2012, though I wouldn’t have been able to check it out independently; back then the FEI only divulged anti-doping returns from competitions staged in Europe.
In 2012, though, you could at least get a snapshot of Dubai’s attitude to doping from a decade’s worth of sampling returns from Euston Park, Sheikh Mohammed’s satellite venue in the UK. Sampling was undertaken at just 11 (40.7%) of Euston’s 27 FEI fixtures, and the only time horses ridden by Sheikh Mohammed himself were sampled there was the 2012 world championship – compulsory testing because it was a FEI medal ride and he won it.
Anyway, in 2013 the FEI set up the Endurance Strategic Planning Group (ESPG) to crisis-manage the sport. At the FEI General Assembly that November, head vet Graeme Cooke said sampling in Middle East endurance had been beefed up and now accounted for seven per cent of all testing around the world. The following spring, ESPG urged testing be further increased (Recommendation 10).
So like all reasonable people I assumed this had all gone ahead, and might even have been increased further as a condition of the UAE’s suspension being lifted in 2015.
But we had no confirmation till January 2016, when the FEI started publishing everyone’s sampling returns. We now have details for all horse sports all over the globe in 2016 and 2017, so can see if the UAE really does hold the world record for getting horses to pee in a pot. And, of course, it doesn’t. Nothing like it, in fact.
The UAE has about 7,000 registered FEI horses at any given time – literally half the world’s endurance population. Not all of them run in FEI rides each year. Lots do the UAE’s high profile national rides instead and no doubt many are on long-term recovery from injuries. But last year there were 3,615 starters in UAE CEIs with just 123 recorded as sampled – 3.4%. If the mere 195 horses tested in the whole 24-months now on record can be described as an “increase” they must be turning the dial back to zero every year!
I would not have thought the Olympic Games were especially high risk, because team managers and vets would have been carrying out precautionary sampling like topsy. Yet 30% of jumping, dressage and eventing horses were formally tested in Rio and there was no positive. Priorities appear somewhat skewed.
I put all this to the FEI, who said Middle East endurance is “still high risk.” Testing is being “substantially increased” and will target 86% of UAE CEIs this year (ballpark for other horse sports is 55-60% events). They assured me that as well “standard testing,” “intelligence-led” testing takes place.
But supplying sample kits to a few more fixtures is pointless if you only select two or three horses from these truly enormous desert rides.
The minimal sampling is all the more troubling because of the mind-boggling number of positives from UAE rides: 23 from 195 horses – 11.9%.
The year 2016 was especially dire – 13 positives from the 72 sampled at UAE rides. That equates to 18% positives in a year when the overall equestrian average was just 1.57% positives. I wonder how weeny the “all other horse sports” average would be if you took endurance out of it?
Dubai International Endurance City (DIEC) did by far the least testing of the three UAE endurance “villages.” In April 2016 the FEI stripped DIEC of hosting the world championships “because horse welfare could not be guaranteed,” so you would have hoped it would be on high alert about sampling at that particular venue.
In the first three months of 2016, just five of 621 CEI starters (0.64%) at DIEC were sampled. There is no recorded testing at all at the Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum Cup in January 2016 (whose winner Ajayeb died at Samorin that fall). Seriously, how was this headlining event with 227 starters overlooked?
The FEI adheres to the World Anti-Doping Agency code, which contains guidance about
focussing your sampling strategy on sports or places with a doping history. Qatar endurance became a concern three years ago and now tests at all its FEI rides, targeting at least one horse in 10; so why are we still treading on eggshells round the UAE?
As for this year, already six offences have been reported from UAE rides, including two top-10 horses in the President’s Cup, the world’s richest endurance race. They did at least sample a higher-than-usual 7.4%. But at the UAE’s second-most prestigious race, this year’s Sheikh Mohammed Cup, they sampled just eight of 360 – 2.2%.
Another fascinating factoid is that half the horses tend to be ridden by foreign visitors or stable jockeys from the Indian subcontinent. This means other national federations are often lumbered with all the paperwork and legal wrangling arising from a positive. Argentina’s Daiana Chopita, Uruguay’s Jonatan Rivera Iriarte and most recently Argentina’s Federica Rossi are provisionally suspended for banned substance offences with borrowed UAE horses since December.
I guess a young visitor’s head is bound to be turned by VIP hospitality and numerous chances to win a luxury car, but surely folk have twigged the risks of riding strange horses by now? As Forrest Gump would say, stupid is as stupid does.
I must apologise for the mind-numbing number-heaviness of this blog, but please bear with me, for we are still not past the worst!
Six years ago the UAE calendar teemed with 120km and 160km CEIs. Nowadays, most of its FEI rides seems to be the bare minimum of qualifiers, with valuable rides increasingly run as CEN (national rides). There were 10,732 starters in UAE CENs last year, three times as many as its FEI rides.
These CEN are “international” in all but name – FEI tracks, FEI horses, FEI riders, FEI officials; same broadcasters, same timings apps. Is anyone sampling at these rides? The migration of longer distance rides to the less regulated “national” calendar directly coincides with increased public scrutiny and tightening-up of FEI rules.
UAE national rides are meant to follow the FEI rulebook under the terms of the 2015 FEI/Emirates federation legal agreement, but this isn’t the same as actual FEI jurisdiction on the field of play (for what that is worth). When the world reeled in shock at Splitters Creek Bundy and his broken forelegs, the FEI protested it couldn’t intervene because the ride was a CEN. This “get out of jail free” card continues to be played from time to time, especially in relation to suspected fatalities at national rides.
I leave you to contemplate just how many chemically-enhanced horses are charging round the desert undetected.
For sure the major UAE stables buy up all the world’s super-freaks. But when horses with unremarkable recovery and soundness rates in home country develop a truly remarkable metabolic capability within months of entering the UAE, you have to agree it smells fishy.
And why wouldn’t you take a chance with a prohibited substance or three when the risk of being caught in the doping capital of the horse world is so risibly small?
*My figures are collated from a) the FEI’s EADMCP negative test results listings, b) its positives case status table, c) FEI Tribunal decision notices, d) the Administrative Sanctions tables; and e) validated ride results on the FEI and EEF databases. I have made the reasonable assumption that FEI listings for 2016 and 2017 are complete.