Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

Nine Suspensions in Dubai – But is it Quite What it Seems?

Today's suspensions for doping offences in endurance, along with the news of plans to reduce fatalities, represent a turning point in the UAE crisis.

By: Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

Sceptic has become my middle name. Ideally, I would prefer to think that today’s nine Dubai rider/trainer provisional suspensions for doping offences in endurance plus news of the Emirates Equestrian Federation’s (EEF) plans to reduce fatalities represent a turning point in the UAE crisis.

But while it is good news for the horses now spared contact with this unlovely bunch of miscellaneous offenders, I regretfully predict the reprieve won’t last long.

Looking at the prohibited substances involved, a contaminated-feeds defence has a reasonable chance of reduced or minimal sanctions. A hapless forage manufacturer can surely be induced to put his hands up to it – after all, this is Dubai we are talking about. And if not he, the trainers implicated might agree take the full rap, especially those with prior “form” for doping and especially because the Maktoums show fierce loyalty to disgraced employees and find them work elsewhere in the family empire.

As for the EEF’s pledge to investigate this or demand that from their stakeholders, I hope the FEI doesn’t put too much trust in second-hand reports. FEI officials are powerless to act on the rule violations that happen right under their noses at rides, so how much stock can it realistically place on information from EEF who, in turn, can only write down in good faith what they are told by the very same barns stables so often in the frame for wrongdoing?

Yes, it is progress, but only in dolly steps. The FEI says there is a much more hands-on and “transparent” approach by the new management of the EEF. I too detected an inclination to co-operate more, at least from the Abu Dhabi end, when I visited the Al Wathba venue in November. Among other bad eggs, EEF appears to have dispensed with the staffers tied-up with the mass fraud of CEI results in the “phantom rides” scandal on 2015.

But the new measures listed today – tougher sanctions for horse killers; and an in-depth study into why bones break under stress (something breathtakingly obvious to those of us with no medical training) etc, etc – bear a startling resemblance to suggestions made at the FEI endurance “crisis” conference in Lausanne exactly three years ago (February 9, 2014). How many of those were adopted? Er, none. And how efficacious were the recommendations of the Endurance Strategic Planning Group (ESPG) which was the Big Thing of 2013-2014? Not very. If memory serves me right, the ESPG cost the FEI Euros 500,000. What a bargain that wasn’t.

One thing the FEI needs to address immediately of itself also involves transparency. When recording horse deaths, the FEI sticks religiously to horses Catastrophically Injured (CI) during the ride itself. Thus, the official line is eight deaths so far this winter. What the FEI doesn’t do is update its figures when horses who have Failed to Complete (FTC) are euthanised in their barns a few days or weeks later. Three horses noted as FTC in their recent starts were quietly revised on the FEI database as dying those exact same dates. In fact, 104 horses have mysteriously “Failed to Complete” this winter; one shudders to contemplate their true fate.

Anyway, to return to the nitty-gritty of today’s developments, two members of Dubai’s ruling Al Maktoum family and three senior trainers have been provisionally suspended, along with four other riders and seven endurance horses following a cluster of positive dope tests.

All seven horses are in the ownership of Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Hamdan junior’s most prestigious barns, and tested positive to three controlled substances, caffeine and its metabolites theobromine and theophylline, and to banned substance paraxanthine. One horse, Masreel, ridden by Sheik Hamed Dalmook al Maktoum, also tested positive to the corticosteroid flumetasone.

The caffeine-related potions could feasibly come from contaminated feed. The defendants can’t just float that as a theory, though. They will have to categorically prove exactly how it happened, and that will require a paper trail with batch numbers and purchase dates.

It is is quite easy thing to fake a paper trail, I would have thought, and a possibility the FEI Tribunal will be wise to as the EEF has “form” for fakery at Tribunal, too. On previous occasions Tribunal hasn’t held back from questioning the authenticity of defence evidence, nor has it given any credence to defendants’ not infrequent bleating about sabotage. The flumetasone will be harder to explain, though, being a corticosteroid used for skin disorders.

All the doped horses were sampled in four rides at Al Wathba in November and December. This is the endurance venue in Abu Dhabi owned by Sheikh Mansour al Nahyan, who built a new dope-testing facility last fall and instructed that sampling be increased to a minimum 15 horses per race, well above the FEI’s guidelines, this season.

I am sure the Al Nahyans will be enjoying the rival Maktoum clan’s embarrassment by this latest turn of events. In 2005, the boot was on the other foot when Sheikh Hazza al Nahyan’s horse tested positive at the world championship organised by the Maktoums in Dubai.

For sure Hazza’s horse would have been found out eventually, but the Maktoums’ people arranged for a fast-tracked sample analysis by the UAE racing authority, which meant the positive result was known within hours, denying Sheikh Hazza the chance to step up to the podium. That snub still rankled with Sheikh Hazza 10 years later, when he was up before the Court for Abitration in Sport (CAS) for something else.

Close followers of the endurance sagas will spot familiar names among the suspended.

First and foremost, FEI has taken the unprecedented step of suspending three trainers prior to the riders’ disciplinary hearings. They are Ismail Mohammed, Khalifa Ghanim Al Marri and Mohd Ahmed Ali Al Subose. All three have incurred previous suspensions as riders and/trainers of doped horses, Al Marri and Al Subose for anabolic steroid offences.

Whether this latest “suspension” will keep these people away from sport horses in the coming months remains to be seen. The Maktoums most likely will keep them employed under a different job title. The FEI and the Thorobred racing jurisdictions do not acknowledge each other’s bans, so after Mahmood al Zarooni was suspended for eight years by the British Horseracing Authority for 20-odd stanozolol offences at Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin barn in Newmarket, UK, Moh simply found him work in Dubai in endurance.

Similarly, while Mubarak Bin Shafya – a regular visitor to Tribunal in the noughties – was suspended for FEI doping offences, Sheikh Moh switched him full-time to training Flat racehorses. Sheikh Hamdan senior showed similar loyalty to Ali Al Muhairi after he received a record four-year FEI ban for steroids use, and he remained a regular figure on the field of play.

As for the suspended riders, I was not surprised to see Abdullah Ghanim al Marri in there, as principal rider at the barn mis-managed by a family member. Two of the newly-doped horses were ridden by him. Al Marri had more results voided than any other rider after the phantom rides scandal. He was recently disqualified twice from rides that apparently did take place for “not complying with many rules.”

Al Marri was one of the five-member UAE team who all failed to complete the world championship ride in Samorin last year . With Quran el Ulm he was provisional third but then failed on metabolics. At WEG 2014, also piloted by Al Marri, the same horse collapsed at gate 3 in front of horrified onlookers – a colic requiring veterinary intervention.

Another suspended team-mate is Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum, Sheikh Mohammed’s nephew. At Samorin he infamously rode Ajayeb to her death, the mare found at a livestock crematorium instead of being taken for compulsory post mortem.

Saeed Ahmad Jaber Al Harbi, a favourite of Sheikh Hamdan junior’s “Fazaa” barns, is also suspended. When only 16 in 2013, Al Harbi rode Eclipse who died at the Young Riders World Championship in Tarbes, France. In his very next FEI outing, young Saaed was the pilot of Django de Vere who dropped dead soon after winning a Maktoum-sponsored FEI ride in Sicily. The Italian Horse and Protection Society intervened within hours to demand the state authorities confiscate the cadaver for post mortem but Django had already been incinerated.

It all goes without saying that all these horses were going for the world land-speed record at the time.

Also suspended are riders Saeed Sultan Shames Al Maamri and Sheikh Hamed, as already mentioned. As for suspended Irish expatriate Amy Louise McAuley, whose conveyance Rafik de Kerpoint tested positive in a ladies’ race on November 26, all I can say is that she has competed in the UAE long enough – since 2010 – to know the risks of riding for any of these outfits.

Finally, I would imagine that our domestic body this side of the pond, Endurance GB (EGB) must have self-combusted this afternoon.

They have been under fire for months by EGB membership about their ongoing support of Maktoum-promoted rides at Euston Park in the east of England, and for their marked reluctance to join other nations in demanding urgent action from the FEI. EGB has persisted in thinking they can lead the UAE by example when all round them is evidence that endurance sport in the Gulf is becoming more horse-unfriendly by the day.

In 2015, EGB “postponed” a similarly unpopular Euston/Maktoum arrangement just days before the FEI suspended the UAE for its serial horse welfare violations. I guess today’s announcement could give EGB another excuse to announce a further stay of the Euston circus while telling Moh’s people it really wasn’t their choice.

What a shame, though, that our British equestrian authorities were not able to conclude for themselves long ago that Dubai is a liason dangereuse.

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