When the FEI General Assembly passed tough new rules to reform endurance six weeks ago, the landslide vote (94 national federations in favour, 19 against) was widely seen as a kick in the teeth for the UAE. But not for long. It is business as usual as the new decade dawns in the desert. At the stroke of midnight on December 31st, desert racing simply removed the FEI from its own equation.
Many of the UAE’s 60-odd winter fixtures had already dropped FEI affiliation in recent years. Now nearly all have dis-affiliated for the second half of this winter season – along with riders and horses and the legion of visiting foreigners who have also not yet renewed FEI registrations for 2020.
The two venues in Dubai and Abu Dhabi at the heart of the doping and horse fatality scandals are simply avoiding tough new FEI rules by running everything as CEN (Concours de Raid D’Endurance National) under UAE national rules. Even prestigious rides like the President’s Cup next month will, for the first time, be staged as CEN rather than CEI (Concours de Raid D’Endurance International), even though it will appear “international” to the wider world.
Around 1,000 UAE endurance riders – including stable jockeys from the Indian subcontinent – would normally renew annually with the FEI. Upwards of 4,000 horses are usually re-registered in the first few months of the year. This month, these figures plummeted to just 54 and 21 respectively, even though the Sheikh Mohammed Cup, first huge race-ride of 2020 was just hours away.
The FEI’s hoped-for speed caps to reduce fractures, the newly enhanced mandatory rest periods, plus qualifying criteria promoting partnership don’t apply at these CENs. Neither do new FEI rules prohibiting harsh bits and bridles, the new offence of NOT reporting abuse, and other measures to combat cheating.
We can be pretty sure that chemical enhancement of horses will go undetected in these CENs, too: little enough sampling of horses took place even at UAE rides nominally staged under FEI rules. What has gone so wrong? Well, organisers and participants are exploiting the arcane Article 101 in FEI General Regulations.This sets out criteria for when national competitions have to upgrade to FEI, according to its technical level, the number of countries taking part, and the number of visiting foreign riders excluding permanently resident expats.
Curiously, endurance rides of considerable significance – when compared with the other disciplines – fall within the scope of CEN categorisation. Even the usually deferential national body in the UK, Endurance GB, a long-time beneficiary of UAE largesse, last week recommended riders to consider whether to support rides of dubious scrutiny. It also observed that the 20-plus different national flags flying at the recent Sheikh Mohammed Festival CEN – during which four horses died – breached the spirit of Article 101.
How could this have been allowed to happen? It has been clear for eons that Article 101 was already enabling mavericks to run poorly regulated events that are “international” in all but name.
I am told the FEI is working on this, but the most it appears able to do under current provisions is fine the national federation the equivalent of the prize-money. That will hardly worry the UAE.
Article 101 also lacks provisions to deal more strongly with repeat offenders; I guess the rule was drawn up in a more genteel era.
Do all the foreigners enjoying these expenses-paid junkets to ride borrowed and potentially doped horses in the desert care, or even notice? I doubt it. It’s only a few years ago that many foreign riders were taking advantage of their mounts having qualified in UAE rides which didn’t take place at all.
The decision not to re-register yet with the FEI for 2020 also extends to UAE trainers and the many expat officials making a nice living in the UAE.
Some were in action at last weekend’s Sheikh Mohammed Cup in Dubai. The FEI does have limited jurisdiction over FEI-member personnel at non-FEI events – but not when they have stopped being members. Just one example of something the FEI is now powerless to query can be seen in this extract from the official live stream of that race posted on the Clean Endurance YouTube channel:
First, it shows the winner Castlebar Corsair in the closing stages. Things that breach new FEI rules on the field of play (but not UAE rules) include vehicles on the piste and riding the horse directly off the curb rein.
Then we get to the vet-gate. In earlier loops Corsair romped through the vet checks. But at the final check the official Yamamah results app shows he only just presented in time; the deadline is 30-minutes. It is reasonable to assume he underwent some sustained and aggressive cooling in the previous 29 minutes, having been racing at an average 34kph in the last loop, 10kph faster than his earlier loops.
Corsair’s handler can be seen checking his heart-beat – it must be 64bpm or below to pass. just before the official vetting. At 2.26mins on this clip the public monitor displays 77 bpm – and rising. The horse, exhibiting a visible body tremor, is walked away. Others look at him.
Switch to the official results app and, hey presto, he’s passed the metabolics test with a heart-beat of 59bpm. Maybe there is a good explanation for this super-equine recovery rate. Maybe the public monitor was faulty. But no-one is now accountable for this to the FEI.
Corsair is owned by the F3 stables of Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, former world champion and stepson of the previous FEI President, and was ridden by Said Al Owais. Neither the horse or its connections have renewed their 2020 FEI registrations so far.
Three horses died in a single CEN ride, the Gamilati Cup for mares, at the end of December, provoking massive social media reaction. Unfortunately, there is a massive gap in the public’s understanding of what the FEI can do within the framework of FEI regulations. This latest CEN development is a mess, for sure, but while despairing observers are firing off comments on Facebook like “ban endurance” or “ban the UAE for life,” any half-decent lawyer could challenge such a move.
For sure the FEI is to blame for letting desert endurance run out of control back in the “noughties”, but throwing this latest setback solely at the FEI to solve ignores the role of its 137 member national federations (NFs).
Any rider wanting to compete in national competitions overseas has to acquire a “No Objection Certificate” (NOC) from their NF. Some NFs say NOCs are a reflection of the rider’s competence only, not a judgement of the organiser. The most NFs can do is recommend riders not to go if welfare standards are in doubt; many people would prefer NOC-issuers to take a ballsier stance.
It also seems most Facebook commenters still don’t understand that FEI rules can only usually be changed once a year by a vote of all NFs at the General Assembly – the next is not till November.
The FEI board sought to increase its own powers so that it could deal with welfare emergencies at any time, rather than wait for a green light from the General Assembly, but this proposal was kicked into touch last summer during NF consultation. The only countries in favour were Canada, USA, Britain, Namibia and Germany. So if, dear reader, your own NF was one of the 132 who either objected to the FEI board being able to respond more quickly in a crisis, or said nothing about it one way or the other, feel free to take it up with them!