A loophole that allowed organisers to side-step FEI rules at numerous high-profile endurance rides for over a decade is finally being closed. The FEI board has resolved to remove 2* senior endurance events from the category of “Minor” events (CIMs), to be rubber-stamped at the FEI General Assembly next month in Antwerp, Belgium.

High-profile races will be particularly affected in the UAE, the country at the centre of so many welfare, doping and cheating scandals. They include the Al Reef Cup in Abu Dhabi where Splitters Creek Bundy broke both forelegs in 2015. That grotesque incident exposed the FEI to a barrage of criticism when it initially responded that the ride’s categorization gave the FEI no jurisdiction.

If the UAE wishes to involve a large international field in its 120km and other 2* races in future, all must either run under FEI rules, or drastically reduce the number of foreigners invited.

CIM status was originally meant to enable lower- to mid-level competitions to run under national rules without the cap on international participants that otherwise applies to national status events, and without having to meet certain logistical expenses. This is important for developing equestrian nations on small budgets, or the geographically remote such as Australia and New Zealand. In practice, it’s rare for a CIM in developing equestrian nations to attract single riders from more than three or four other countries.

However, the UAE exploited the CIM waiver, running most of the world’s richest 120km races as CENs (endurance national events), usually attracting riders from over 20 countries. To make things worse, the already weak UAE national endurance rules have been “applied” at these same races by a regular pool of myopic officials whose appointment the FEI also couldn’t control.

When I began investigating endurance welfare issues in 2012, many experts told me that plugging the CIM loophole was a priority. So much effort has since been put into tougher new FEI rules that the failure to address CIM status simultaneously was perplexing.  The rules were still easily evaded by the prime target.

The snag was that the FEI has a “one-size-fits-all policy” in many spheres. The CIM definitions did not recognize that most FEI disciplines have five levels of star categorizations, but endurance has only three. A jumping, dressage or eventing 2* counting as a CIM is a lower-level contest in FEI terms, but a 2* endurance ride counting as a CIM can include multi-million dollar rides over distances up to 139km; a race just 21km short of the ultimate championship distance of 160km is hardly a ‘Minor’ event! A 120km 2* is the standard distance for FEI youth and young horse world championships. The WEG 2018 endurance medals would have been decided over 120km had the ill-fated Tryon race completed.

The UAE never pushed its luck by trying to run two very rich 160km races as CENs with unlimited foreign competitors until early in 2020, having actively opposed the new FEI endurance rules approved at the end of 2019. Because the Sheikh Mohammed Cup and President’s Cup are 3* 160km events, they did not qualify for the CIM waiver; at last the FEI could intervene. It fined and suspended the UAE national federation (again) for a short spell.

Many stakeholders feel there must be another way of bringing the UAE into line without punishing countries who practice a clean and fair sport. In the end, though, CIM revision has drawn little official resistance, according to consultation documents published last week. Only the UAE, Kuwait, Sweden, Jordan, Yemen and New Zealand oppose it outright, New Zealand being one of the geographically isolated countries now disadvantaged. Just one country proposed a “tweak” ‒ the Netherlands, which thought prize money should also be a factor.

Yemen is a dangerous part of the world that most governments tell citizens to avoid, so not surprisingly it does not stage FEI-anything and has only one currently registered FEI endurance rider. Yemen’s long written objection to the CIM revision is identical to the UAE’s, the latter having history in drafting comments for patsies to cut and paste.

The FEI seems to have used the past year looking at other ways of clipping the wings of inert or nuisance member countries. In Antwerp, it also aims to remove new countries from the rule-making process until they have attained “development goals.”

It will also demand that any national federation suspended or excluded from the FEI must reapply for membership, initially as an “associate” with no voting rights. I doubt the latter can be applied retroactively to the twice-suspended UAE; more’s the pity, but all these procedural changes are significant. The FEI is getting there, very slowly.

How wider scrutiny sent desert races under the FEI radar

Not surprisingly, most cheating and horse abuses in UAE endurance have occurred in the less regulated CENs/CIMs. It’s likely dope testing is non-existent at all these so-called “Minor” rides, too. Many examples of horse abuse from CENs have been captured from the official livestream by the Clean Endurance community, until the last winter season when the UAE simply stopped broadcasting.

A decade ago, the majority of UAE 80km and 120Km rides were staged under FEI rules. But with increasing media scrutiny they were steadily reclassified as CENs, while appearing “business as usual” to foreign nationals lured over for the winter season.

The first notable reclassification was National Day at Al Wathba, a prestigious 120km ride celebrating the founding of the UAE. Up to 2011 it usually ran as a CEI 2*. But that November a top-placed horse was allegedly swapped for another mid-ride. I obtained photographs from various loops showing two clearly different horses with the same rider and number. But the photographer lost their nerve about showing them to the FEI’s Equine Community Integrity Unit, so nothing was done; possibly in that era, there was less will at FEI HQ to do anything anyway, compared with now. The incident was, though, reported in the equestrian media, soon followed by other revelations of illicit horse swaps the FEI could not ignore.

Also at National Day 2011, a trainer suspended for a steroids offence was spotted on the winner’s podium in a local newspaper picture, and sanctioned by the FEI for unauthorised presence. I believe all this sudden and unwelcome attention over the winter of 2011-2012 encouraged the UAE to reclassify more CEIs to CENs to avoid scrutiny and FEI intervention. In 2012 National Day became a CEN.

Some rides, like the 120km Al Reef Cup, flip-flopped between CEI and CEN status, though the global outrage attached to the death of Bundy in 2015 has seen it a CEN since then.

In 2016, there was again nothing the FEI could do about the 120km Sheikh Zayed Bin Mansoor Al Nahyan Junior & Young Riders Endurance Cup CEN. Numerous yobs ran into the field of play to bully home five exhausted horses. It was left to the UAE national federation to “suspend” itself for a week and, it claimed, fine the trainers. Previously, this young riders’ race had been a CEI.

The Gamilati Cup is a 120km mares’ race, also a CEI until recent years. As CENs needn’t apply FEI minimum weights (brought in to slow the pace) mares’ races are always crazy fast: three reported fatalities in the 2019 Gamilati CEN.

The UAE’s third most prestigious race is the 120km Crown Prince Cup. In March 2016 it was meant to be the test ride for the 2016 FEI World Championship, which was subsequently removed from Dubai. The FEI disaffiliated the Crown Prince Cup after organisers declined to tighten up vetting parameters, so it went ahead as a 120km CEN with riders from 25 nations. CEI status was reinstated till 2019. In March 2020, the Crown Prince Cup ran as a CEN ‒ a “Minor” event despite having 400 starters from 20 countries.

Tags: endurance, UAE, CIM,