Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

And The Hits Just Keep on Coming…

It may have been staged three weeks ago, but unsavoury matter is still rising out of the effluence of the world endurance championships at Samorin.

By: Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

It may have been staged three weeks ago, but unsavoury matter is still rising out of the effluence of the world endurance championships at Samorin.

There seems to have been so much anarchy and/or incompetence at the replacement venue in Slovakia on September 16th you have to wonder how much worse the championship could actually have been if still staged in Dubai.

The UAE contingent – all riding for the Maktoums’ premier stables, no rider or owner from any of the other Emirates got a look-in – set out defiantly, having been stripped of the right to stage this event themselves. But they are not the only ones to blame for the shambles at Samorin. Too much of what is widely reported to have occurred behind the scenes suggests that for all their brave word, elements of FEI officialdom are still at pains not to offend the ruling family of Dubai.

So many endurance scandals should have provided the “tipping point” for serious reform: the media focus on doping offences in the royal barns of Dubai, the Marmoog swap and other horse identity frauds, Splitters Creek Bundy, the phantom rides. But numerous official wrist-slappings of the UAE have not resulted in any discernible improvement in their respect for horses, other riders, officials or for FEI rules.

Following Samorin, many more senior figures have felt moved to speak out on social media and in mainstream equestrian publications. Maybe now the tide will start to turn…but I am not holding my breath.

Read this salutary account, for instance, from a very experienced organiser and four-star judge, Francois Kerboul. If you are involved with other horse sports you will find just one of his many bullet points shocking and unbelievable, and you may not make it to the end without a stiff drink. Here is the original French on www.ceermp.org (scroll to the heading “WEC Samorin (SVK) 17-09-2016: Quand les rumeurs se font confidences et inquiètent passablement”). There is an English translation at the foot of this blog.

I will not take up your time with extra commentary on Francois’s text, other than to note that a) none of it to date has been denied in any other reputable media; b) regarding the alleged “sale” of the Italian grooming area to the UAE, bear in mind that the foreign judge who could have reversed it was a Mr Al Hammadi who is, ahem, from the UAE; and c) the intervention of the French team manager relates to a widely-expressed view that Ajayeb should never have been passed to set off on what was to prove her fatal phase.

Of the many other topics to emerge since my first blog on Samorin, I’ll flag up three.

First, when the FEI has publicly linked high speed with fractures, why did it move this extremely sensitive event from a flat, fast track in Dubai to a flat, fast track in Slovakia? No wonder we saw final loop speeds of 29-30kph. When Samorin staged the 2015 European championships (i.e., with no Group 7 riders) there was a hill to provide a bit of a technical challenge. Yet for the world championships (with Group 7 riders) the hill was mysteriously omitted.

Secondly, I have previously written about the fatal injury of Ajayeb. Alas, there is a whole lot more. After breaking her cannon bone in the full view of spectators, the unlucky conveyance of the UAE’s Sheikh Rashid Dalmook Al Maktoum was secreted behind a makeshift screen of sheets while awaiting for veterinary assistance. The vets were not provided with radio communications, so relied on cell phones. With network overload, I am told that most of the time they couldn’t get a signal so struggled to locate casualties promptly.

Ajayeb had been among the front-runners and so when her team-mates decided to press on, she tried to follow them, because that what horses are pre-disposed to do, and broke free from the “screen.” A picture widely shared on Facebook shows spectators running away from this horrific spectacle.

This is a poor reflection on the organisational capabilities of a venue with rumoured ambitions to be the new host of WEG 2018. That is even before you even consider its shortage of horse ambulances. Once euthanized, Ajayeb was meant to be transported to Vienna for autopsy (compulsory under FEI rules) but three days later her corpse was still at Samorin, unrefrigerated, rendering the post mortem findings virtually meaningless (aside from bloods taken at the point of death).

Ajayeb’s corpse was initially unloaded because the ambulance was required for a more viable fracture. But when a vehicle was finally available, was she waved off toute suite to Austria? No, it turns out there is a ton of paperwork when a dead animal crosses the border and no one had prepared for that eventually, not even at a CEIO where the chances of a death were odds-on. You couldn’t make it up. This was a FEI world championship, for crying out loud.

We are still not finished with the blessed Ajayeb. After giving up getting her to Vienna, the powers-that-be diverted her to a path lab in Slovakia, but she didn’t go directly there, either. She was found, courtesy of the GPS receiver still around her neck, at a livestock crematorium. What is going on? A mistake by the truck driver? Or an attempt to “lose” the body in case anything sinister might yet be found by the pathologist?

As a result of my and other people’s enquiries, the FEI advised the following Friday, six days after the championship, that they had ordered an investigation by the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit into the circumstances surrounding the transport of Ajayeb to the path lab. They later qualified that the investigation was, in fact, ordered the previous Tuesday, i.e. September 19th. Though as I understand it, the investigators did not arrive in Slovakia till the following week.

My third shocker is this: the verified competition results did not appear on the FEI database for 14 days. Imagine the furore if final results from Rio had not appeared within 14 minutes! When they did appear, critical information about the (surprisingly few) horses who required veterinary attention was missing. The TR (invasive treatment) notation finally appeared against seven names on September 30th. Who was sitting on this information, I wonder? Was this another possible attempt to make something disappear?

It was clear from the numerous metabolic disqualifications that many horses must have warranted serious veterinary help, not least poor Quran Al Ulm, whose heart rate was still 80/80 despite 29 minutes of intensive crewing. But there are incentives NOT to visit the vet treatment area with your compromised mount. TR means the horse must have a longer rest period between rides and the rider gets extra penalty points, the accumulation of which leads to an automatic two-month rider ban.

Where on earth do we go next? The UAE are ungovernable and while they get away with it, their acolytes will try to as well.

Michael Campbell, AERC president, and Dr Meg Sleeper, AERC international chair, published their letter to USEF. In this, among other strong demands following Samorin, they want “significantly increased suspensions for stables, trainers, owners and riders whose horses are found to be metabolically compromised from over-riding (suspension from competing in any FEI event for 24 months).” Many would agree.

The English translation of Francois Kerboul’s commentary:

The world championship is still making waves in both national teams and within the team of the officials in charge; more and more elements are surfacing and the situation is becoming quite disturbing about the way the event was organized, managed and timed:

• The draw for grooming areas. Not everyone can have the best place, this is why there is a draw; but there are rumours of the sale of the Italian area to Dubai with reported prices from €25,000 to €75,000, with the bonus of travel in Dubai. Common sense, the slightest hint of sporting ethics to buy or sell after the draw, should not even come to mind. How can this be allowed when an official was informed?

• Refusal of the ground jury president to respect the outcome of that draw despite the intervention of Manuel Bandeira de Mello, head of the FEI endurance department. In such cases, the foreign judge can and must intervene because it was he who ultimately “speaks the law.” Article 148.4 (FEI General Rules) is clear: “the Foreign Judge … has the authority to interpret the Statutes, GRs and Sport Rules and to ensure they are enforced.” The ground jury (and therefore its president) must enforce the decisions taken. The jury, under the terms of Article 150, can intervene and, if applicable, punish. Not doing so is a serious offence that calls into question the very authority of officials, and from the start it brands the competition as revealing a “non-will” that leaves the door open for abuse.

• Veterinary commission and jury were even booed by spectators who accused them of “killing endurance by passing the lame horse.” We know that the jury may have a better view [of the vettings] than the public, but usually the opposite happens. This is worrying and many people, far from imagining incompetence, immediately thought of corruption either passive or active.
• Lack of alleged internal coordination of the veterinary commission. According to some members “everyone did what they wanted.” This is weakness again, leaving the door open to arrangements between friends. It is wrong and dangerous, and against performance.

• Refusal of the ground jury president to give yellow cards for disobedience of some competitors within the inspection area, despite requests from some members of the veterinary commission.

• No reaction by the ground jury when some competitors pointedly chose to use their preferred veterinary line, walking head down suddenly and miraculously deaf. The event didn’t have an automatic calling system, let alone any attempt to avoid the “collision” of nationalities that we saw during the World Equestrian Games in Normandy.

• Presence of officials from the main sponsor in the horse inspection area, with constant secret meetings between board members and officials who had no need to be in the field of play.
• Scandal when Ajayed not only suffered a stress fracture, but got up on three legs only to [allegedly] break another in her headlong rush under the frightened eyes of numerous spectators.

• Award of a yellow card without hesitation to the veterinarian from Team France who, when feeling indignation at the “unworthy behavior of the jury,” burst into the inspection area to voice audibly what others thought and whispered. When the limits are exceeded, it is appropriate to take responsibility if you want to be true to yourself. When permission was given for Ajayeb to start her fatal phase, this was an unhappy occasion.

• According to many, the organization was not up to running the event. Not enough experience, not enough people. It casts serious doubts on its supposed ability to organize the World Equestrian Games. The presence of a number of senior FEI observers seems to confirm that [WEG 2018 reallocation to Samorin] was indeed being considered.

• The removal the heart-rate re-presentation of the horses of Sheikh Hamdan and some of his relatives, which enabled him to gain some six minutes. The reason? A helicopter had disturbed the horse. Strange, because we know from experience that horses are quite insensitive to what is going on above them, probably because it is not there that predators come from. Just a few years ago a helicopter was used at Uzes [French young horse championship}. It was flying low, and yet video clips show little equine reactions.

• Horses entering the vet gate simultaneously found themselves 10 minutes apart on the timing system. Was that an optical illusion? Some still out on course disappeared from the rankings, to reappear a few phases later.

There is an international organization [the FEI] which has a role to fulfil and no one can replace them. It has the means, but does it have the genuine desire to do? Beyond the soothing speeches and whispers in the corridors, an internal investigation seems to be necessary to remove the doubts and restore the truth.

(end of Kerboul text, edited slightly for length, not content.)