Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

Shut it Down. Right Now.

If you want a glimmer of understanding about what officials are up against in UAE endurance, watch this interview during a FEI ride.

By: Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

If you want just a glimmer of understanding about what officials are up against in UAE endurance, watch this interview during a FEI ride at Dubai International Endurance City (DIEC) on Wednesday (January 4th).

It’s nine minutes of hysterics in both senses, from the shrillness of the discussion to the content which would be hilarious if it not so serious. It is a snapshot of the institutionalised disrespect for sporting authority in that region. It is also just a tiny component of the overwhelming evidence that, despite efforts to reform in recent years, desert racing has no business whatsoever sitting alongside properly regulated disciplines within the FEI family.

I have never seen anything like this shouting match between a TV presenter – from endurance specialists YAS Sport – and a senior judge in my 35 years reporting top level equestrianism. You’d almost be forgiven for thinking the cheaters are somehow the injured parties.

Hats off to the ground jury president for valiantly standing his ground regarding the process of fair play, horse welfare, and that he can’t know about rule-breaking that does not happen in front of his own eyes if he is not told about it – endurance isn’t exactly a contained arena sport!

The topic is less significant than the anarchic attitude, though this spat happened to be about ear-plugs, banned under FEI rules since January 2016. Their routine use, in tandem with extreme blinders, is a symptom of shoddy preparation. The trainers need another way to cocoon novice horses from the chaos of a mass start where they may be knocked about by other equally inexperienced horses piloted by people of limited skill.

Some readers may recall the picture that went viral after the 2015 President’s Cup, of the horse wearing taped-shut blinders and earplugs. He turned out to be one of the 500-odd “starters” in the “phantom rides” scandal. He was not, in reality, qualified to start the 160km President’s Cup. For all we know, that was his first ride ever.

The ear-plug ban is yet another FEI rule of which participants claim to be either unaware, notwithstanding their status as “professional” trainers at the premier UAE barns, or aware but proud to ignore. At this far from lady-like ladies’ ride at DIEC, the YAS presenter is claiming trainers cheerfully admitted to sending out horses in ear-plugs (also referred to as “blocks”). Yet, incredibly, the trainers reckon it’s the ground jury, not the trainers, who are at fault for catching and punishing some of the ear-pluggers, but not the others!

Officials inspect every horse and rider at every vet gate. But anything goes out the loops because aside from a load of disregarded small print there is little to stop grooms walking or driving onto the piste armed with extra gadgetry or anything else useful to persuade horses along their way.

The livestream often picks up field-of-play violations, but only amongst the front-runners being tailed by the broadcast vehicle. I was invited to Al Wathba, the principal Abu Dhabi venue, in November where I followed part of a 120km CEN in an official veterinary vehicle. We could hardly see anything but bobbing helmets above the rest of the crazy motorcade and the dust storm it kicked up.

In the UAE, folk welcome a smattering of rules, but not because they provide a framework for fair play and welfare of the horse. Rules provide a whole new fun dimension: the deliberate breaking of as many rules per ride as you can get away with.

This is how it’s been for two decades and is why, after growing pressure, the UAE became in 2015 the first national federation to be suspended by the FEI for rule-breaking and horse welfare violations. That is also why this same venue – DIEC, owned by the Maktoums, ruling family of Dubai and thus the in-laws of the previous FEI president – was stripped of staging the 2016 world championships

Routine rule-breaking ranges from relatively minor things (minor, that is, in the context of UAE) like illegal tack (i.e. customised blinders, ear-plugs, ultra-long reins functioning as illegal whips) and the battalion of cars following on the piste itself (in which the YAS film truck is, by the way, among the regular offenders). Then you have the whole raft of doping, and major fraud such as the horse swap and ID scandals and fictional ride results and qualifications faked by senior employees of the UAE federation itself.

Mobile crewing – unauthorised assistance in anyone else’s parlance – is not allowed in normal FEI rules but is condoned as a necessary evil in the desert. If the riders won’t slow down even two or three kph, then its tantamount to abuse if officials deny horses topical hydration through copious slosh bottles handed out every few metres. How will they ever break that cycle?

At the start of 2016 the FEI’s new endurance director Manuel Bandeira de Mello openly linked high speed to fractures. Yet on Wednesday, we saw the highest final loop average speed ever recorded – nearly 40 kph. You might as well strap a horse to a treadmill, blow hot air onto it from one side and cold water from the other, turn up the speed and then see how long it lasts.

Yes, I get it that all competitions need a winner. But the core premise of endurance – “fit to continue” – was buried along with all the broken horses in the desert long ago. Nowadays, as long as the first past the post can just about support its own weight during the final vetting, that is success.

It’s the fault of the FEI, stakeholders and those who saw a chance to screw serious money out of “helping” and selling to the sheikhs that desert racing evolved unchecked in the Middle East in the first place. I know that many have done their best to sort it out from both within and from outside the region.

Much tougher vetting this season is seeing more horses taken out at earlier stages before their wellbeing becomes totally compromised. In that regard, completion rates as low as 13 per cent – there are literally 100s of horses in single rides – can be viewed as progress. But at the main venues, Al Wathba and DIEC, not one rider yet seems to have grasped that if you go slightly slower and look after your horse you might just progress up the grades and have a conveyance that lasts more than 18 months. What language are the FEI’s obligatory educational seminars conducted in, I wonder?

In Abu Dhabi, I talked with vets and other officials. I totally understand their concerns that if desert racing endurance went outside the FEI there will be no protection for these wretched equines at all. But as things stand there is no 24/7 protection anyway for horses in their barns and on the private training grounds. We can only imagine the rigors of their cantering and medication regimes on the 350-odd days a year they are not competing. For all the FEI reviews, suspensions, legal agreements and frequent beefing-up of rules, actually it’s hopeless.

Last year, for instance, saw a strange trend of horses simply disappearing mid-ride. This was almost certainly to avoid the new 25 penalty points awarded if your horse needed veterinary treatment following disqualification for metabolics, denoted as ME-TR on official results. When you accrue 100 points, you are suspended: cue the unintended consequences.

Until this new system was applied, UAE CEI results usually showed a double handful of ME-TRs, other metabolics not needing treatment and lamenesses or gait issues. “Retirements” were rare.

Not surprisingly, then, despite no reduction in speeds or climate change, there are result sheets for this season with no metabolic failures at all! But to counter this, among 1,781 starters at DIEC over the same period there are 24 FTC’s (fail to completes), 36 “out of timers” and 180 “retirements.” At the DIEC ride on December 12 there was not a single metabolic disqualification among 331 starters despite speeds nearing 33 kph on the last loop.

I don’t think the FEI thinks these results are credible, either. From January 1st FEI is applying 100 penalty points – automatic suspension, in fact – for not seeing the vet when dropping out of your own volition.

You receive only 80 penalty points, though, for killing a horse. We are so inured to UAE attrition rates that the two deaths in the January 4th ride don’t even make headline news.

Of course, there is solid progress at Bou Thib, the smaller venue in Abu Dhabi, where Sheikh Sultan Al Nahyan has promoted fit-to-continue through his own “local” rules – fully supported by the FEI – with ever more positive results. Organisers elsewhere around the world have contacted Sheikh Sultan’s office hoping to embrace his ideas too, but those are not the people who need to change; several big barns in Dubai boycott Bou Thib.

I could have been very different were it Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum who had pioneered drastic reform from within. Given his gargantuan achievements in transforming Dubai into a globally important financial and tourist hub in just one generation, the only explanation can be that Sheikh Mohammed too is wearing blinders and ear-plugs when it comes to endurance.

At Al Wathba, I saw initiatives from Sheikh Mansour (Sheikh Sultan’s half-brother) to thwart foul play at the vet-gates, and beef up dope-testing above FEI requirements.

But my hosts told me they prefer to retain racing style endurance, while striving to manage it better. Clearly Al Wathba won’t be following FEI directives for more “technical” courses any time soon. Its flat permanent pistes are newly-lined with 100-odd miles of top-of-the-range running rail and solar-powered floodlighting. Those items are not easily re-located even when you are as wealthy as an Emirati sheikh.

The jury is still out on whether there is any hope of reducing actual attrition at Al Wathba. Its keynote fixture, the President’s Cup, is only a few weeks away.

The UAE federation has signed two legal agreements promising to uphold FEI rules since 2015. After DIEC was stripped of the WEC back in April, the FEI also declined to accept any DIEC schedule applications for the foreseeable future.

On November 25th, DIEC was readmitted to the fold after accepting the new FEI ride organiser’s protocol. But every time the major players sign something, the worse they then behave. It is defiance. There is no other word.

We have seen enough already this winter to justify the FEI indefinitely disaffiliating Dubai endurance. Just do it. Now.