HH Sheikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain has finally become the world endurance champion, also claiming team gold at Butheeb, Abu Dhabi, on Saturday. Sh Nasser has aimed for a senior title since 2004, starting in 19 championships and completing 14 of them. This time he finally did it, with 10-year-old Darco La Majorie, also recent winner of a 160-km race in Sakhir.
Nasser was not first over the line after a racing finish at speeds touching 30kph at times with the three Emiratis who had flanked him over the six loops. As so often in endurance the winner was not immediately confirmed as the tense final vetting stage ran its course. It was close call for Nasser; he left it near to the maximum final presentation time, but Darco La Majorie was able to return to a heart rate of 63 beats per minute (the maximum permitted was 64) and an average overall speed of 21 kph.
The final spurt was too much for prospective winner Abdullah al Marri and second over the line Ahmad al Harbi. Their horses vetted out with heart rates of 70-plus. This pushed the host side out of the team medals; the UAE’s two other two riders had been vetted out earlier in the competition. However, the UAE’s defending world champions Salem Hamad Saeed Malhoof Al Kitbi and Haleh claimed individual team silver.
Some 10 minutes behind, multiple former world gold medallist Juma Punti Dachs of Spain finished in individual bronze position after a more measured ride with Echo Falls. A tactical race by France and Portugal resulted in silver and bronze team medals, respectively.
Spain, an ante-post favourite for both team and individual, was out of the team contention by this stage. Juma’s remaining compatriot Omar Blanco Rodrigo finished sixth with Soraya Peu, who sadly died during the night. The equine fatality was not openly disclosed until Monday morning.
Soraya Peu gave no apparent causes for concern to vets during the race, and her vet card is publicly available. A FEI statement said the 13-year-old received permitted elective fluids in the stables but her condition deteriorated. She was transferred to the Dubai Equine Hospital in the early hours on Sunday morning but died en route.
This fatality aside, the championship overall was an organizational success. The Clean Endurance community, whose campaigning has contributed to many of the FEI’s endurance rule changes in recent years, commented, “We are hopeful that the success of the world championship will impact on the manner in which other endurance competitions, in this region and elsewhere, will be conducted: the results of this event illustrate that it is possible to stage a compelling and tactical event, even on prepared desert tracks, without the hell-for-leather racing which is so damaging to horses and provides no strategic interest.”
The UAE stepped up as hosts of this delayed 2022 title event only a few months ago, when the FEI removed the championship from Verona. There was consternation that UAE, centre of so many doping and welfare scandals, should be rewarded with a prestigious championship. As recently as 2016, the FEI stripped Dubai of the UAE’s previous attempt to host a world championship, citing welfare concerns. Abu Dhabi’s principal endurance venue, Al Wathba, continues to run all its races under national rules in an apparent attempt to avoid the more rigorous FEI rules.
In selecting UAE from five other bids, the FEI highlighted the unsullied reputation of Butheeb. Only later were large sections of the piste graded, making it far removed from the speed-reducing “natural” test that Butheeb’s late proprietor, HH Sheikh Sultan, had advocated.
The footing was still deep in parts and the FEI warned competitors to take extra care over pace. Despite that, there were only 44 finishers out of 122 starters on Saturday, a completion rate of 36%. They will receive around 5,600 euros each from the 250,000 euros completion money fund.
The difference between the high speed sport that has evolved in the Middle East and traditional endurance was clearly marked. More than two hours separated the first combination across the finish line from the 11th, and the last to successfully complete arrived four and a half hours after the winner.
The USA’s Cheryl van Deussen (Jo General) and the only Canadian starter, Robert Gielen (More Bang for Your Buck), finished together at 21.30 hours, with average speeds of 13.6 kph, for 40th and 41st places respectively, just 10 minutes ahead of the last one home. Three other US contenders went out earlier in the race.
For the first time in over two decades, there seemed a chance of a British medal, with Rebecca Pinder well in the lead by the end of the fourth loop. The UAE and Bahrain were happy to let her make the running with Oso Irazu, who passed swiftly through all vettings. But Pinder – an Australian who only recently swapped to GB nationality – was disqualified for being 1 kg underweight at vet gate 5. Pinder explained she had been 2 kg overweight the day before, and wholly blamed herself for failing to make frequent checks.
Clean Endurance, while welcoming the overall success of the championship, made the following further observations of ride statistics:
“44 out of the 122 horses on the start list successfully completed the 160 km course: the monetary completion awards offered by the Butheeb Organising Committee did unfortunately not appear to be a major incentive for improving the success rate.
“The high percentage of Metabolic eliminations (27 horses, a third of all eliminations) remains a source of concern: although it evidences the particular care taken by the officials while examining the horses, it also suggests many horses were overridden. Metabolic eliminations should be largely avoidable with careful management and there is still progress to be made in that domain.
“The disparity between the first combinations across the finish line and the rest of the field illustrates the ‘racing’ versus ‘to finish is to win’ mentality which continues to divide Endurance. Clean Endurance applauds those athletes who ride according to the conditions of the day while making horsemanship and horse welfare a priority.
“Clean Endurance also commends the ride strategy of those nations which opt for a concerted team effort rather than aiming for individual medals at the potential cost of injuring their horses and shortening their careers due to high speeds. France and Portugal were rewarded for their team strategies with silver and bronze team medals respectively, whereas the UAE lost their gold individual and team medals when their horses failed to recover enough to pass the final veterinary inspection after sprinting on the last loop at over 27kph.
“Clean Endurance sincerely hopes this successful event is a concrete step out of troubled waters for UAE endurance, which still has a lot to do to redeem its sullied reputation. Of particular concern are the number of doping violations as illustrated by the sanctions on record for some of the UAE team members, as well as the extreme speeds regularly seen at the Al Wathba and Dubai venues.
“There also remain issues with the transparency of reported local competition results and the complete lack of FEI oversight on ‘national’ rides, notably at Al Wathba which opted out of FEI competitions following the major Endurance rules overhaul three years ago.”