Long suspensions for doping offences or other wrongdoing in sport are supposed to act as deterrents to others, though they won’t do much deterring if few people know about them.
Forty six people ‒ mostly riders, a few trainers in endurance, and a vet ‒ are currently suspended by the FEI Tribunal
but you won’t have read about many of them.
Firstly, the FEI proactively alerts the press only to the most significant Tribunal decisions, or those arising from incidents that caused a media storm months before. And secondly, FEI press notices about disciplinary proceedings usually comprise only the “bare bones,” which most media reproduce without embellishment. The full decision notices can comprise 40 pages of legal-speak; who has time to wade through all that when servicing news platforms 24-7? It’s a shame though, because colleagues often miss further significant and often startling content.
Unusually, then, we’ve just had a bumper few days for press announcements about Tribunal activity. Three huge cases – Andrew Kocher and the electric spurs, Leandro da Silva and the abuse of his daughter’s small pony, and a sensational reversal in the Villeneueve-Loubet rankings points fiasco ‒ plopped into our mailboxes within hours of each other.
Kocher’s 10-year ban, resulting from alleged electric spur use at shows including Spruce Meadows and Toronto has, not surprisingly, generated extensive publicity and comment, even though we know little more than when the incriminating photos emerged last year! That’s because the full Tribunal decision notice isn’t publicly available yet. The FEI revealed the “operational” part ‒ ie the punishments ‒ in advance, maybe because it anticipated the rider wouldn’t delay in sharing his reaction. Indeed, Kocher immediately announced he would appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS.) He says he was unfairly heard by the FEI, that the process was flawed, and that the device he purportedly used was stored by a witness in the run up to the hearing and not by the FEI, which seems to raise integrity-of-evidence issues. He also makes the sensational claim that witnesses were granted immunity from further action, despite having used an electric spur device themselves.
Rest assured that when we do have sight of the full decision, containing all sides of the story, it will be reported in these pages.
Ten years is the second-longest ban the FEI has imposed on anyone (by far the longest being 20 years, for a combined abuse/doping incident with an endurance horse which was nerve-blocked and broke its leg in a race.)
The US jumper’s case was also the first time a rider has been sanctioned for multiple alleged offences at different shows (including Spruce Meadows and The Royal.) The Kocher case was not a “one-off”, and that partly accounts for the longer ban.
Unlike the Kocher case, the full findings in the case of the Brazilian dressage Olympian Leandro da Silva have already been published. He was banned for three years for getting on a tiny pony and hauling it round and round to “correct” it for biting his infant daughter.
It’s astonishing how many prominent people not only film themselves doing vile things around horses but have such huge egos ‒ or are just plain stupid ‒ they don’t worry it might get into the wider media.
As well as underlining that the FEI can sanction FEI-registered riders out of competition, the Da Silva case was precedent-setting in another way. It’s the first time the key evidence was a privately-shot phone video – not the official broadcast from a sporting event. Furthermore, it went on to be shared by members of the rider’s own family.
It’s astonishing how many prominent people not only film themselves doing vile things around horses but have such huge egos ‒ or are just plain stupid ‒ they don’t worry it might get into the wider media. This side of the pond, earlier this year top Irish racehorse trainer Gordon Elliott and Irish jockey Rob James both incurred suspensions from photos of themselves grinning towards the camera while sitting on dead horses on the training track.
The compulsion to film and share odious behaviours makes you wonder what else goes on at those barns. The FEI Tribunal openly wondered about that too, and said that Da Silva’s three-year suspension reflects that concern.
Kocher has nothing to lose by appealing. His career is effectively over whether the ban had been 10 years, 20 years, or life. He may also have noticed that CAS has, in the past couple of years, slightly reduced the sanctions imposed on two other alleged abusers.
Disciplining riders for abuse is still a relatively new activity for the FEI ‒ most cases have happened in the past five years. Equine lawmakers are still finding their feet over the heinousness of various types of abuse, and in rationalising how long offenders should be kept away from the competitive arena. There is, alas, nothing the FEI or CAS can do to keep them away from horses at home.
The Villeneuve Loubet case does not, thankfully, involve horse abuse, though it probably leaves the FEI feeling very sore. In January 2020, the FEI investigated complaints that 2* jumping shows at Villeneuve Loubet in the south of France in December 2019 and January 2020 were limited to a handful of riders, and cynically organised to enable the easy accumulation of both Olympic rankings and normal Longines rankings points.
Some classes had only six or seven starters. Longines points are always awarded to 16th place, irrespective of starters. This is now being reviewed, though should surely have been picked up at least a year ago when one rider at Villeneuve Loubet won points for a 28-fault round!
Critics said organisers had introduced extra ranking classes only after the close of entries and “cherry-picked” the entrants. The FEI said so too, and voided the results. Two of the most affected riders, Mathilda Karlssson (who claimed a last-minute Olympic slot for Sri Lanka with her Villleneuve results, displacing Hong Kong’s Kenneth Cheng) and Andrea Herck of Romania (son of Villeneuve proprietor Andre Herck) appealed to the FEI Tribunal. They lost, the Tokyo slot reverting to Hong Kong. Herck junior, Karlsson and the Sri Lanka federation then went to CAS.
Herck senior has argued all along that in structuring the schedules and participation levels as he did, he broke not a single rule, that the FEI had approved the schedules and all the changes, and that other shows have been allowed to run classes for a mere handful of starters.
Last week it emerged that CAS agreed with Herck. In upholding the appeal, CAS gave the FEI several withering ripostes for approving the schedules (which the FEI openly admitted was done “accidentally” by itself and the French national federation) and for then penalising people for doing exactly as they were entitled under 2* CSI rules applicable at the time.
There was a small win for the FEI in all this: CAS ruled that in principle the FEI may void competitions where there are viable concerns about integrity ‒ though not in this case because of the administrative mistakes at FEI HQ. That’s an important finding, though buried by the weight of media coverage that Mathilda Karlsson has got her Tokyo place back.
This story isn’t quite over yet. At the time of writing, Karlsson hasn’t achieved an Olympic “confirmation” result (deadline is June 21) while Cheng bagged his in early March. Which of them eventually goes to Tokyo remains anyone’s guess.