Most Las Vegas shows needs a headline act – a big-name star to generate publicity and get bums on seats for the show of a lifetime. It costs casinos millions.
The FEI, on the other hand, has the remarkable ability to get gifted a headline act just about every year for its annual General Assembly.
In recent years we’ve seen squabbles over drugs lists, a fascinating challenge to Princess Haya’s presidency, debate around funding of the Nations Cup, and the averted contretempt around the so-called dressage blood rule.
This year, compliments of the Middle East, the FEI will delivering a spectacular floor show on endurance, with a potentially dizzying array of stars.
Representatives of the world’s national equestrian federations are winging their way to Montreux, Switzerland, for the FEI General Assembly.
Delegates to the November 4-7 gathering have plenty of business to get through, but it is the special two-hour session on endurance on November 6 that is set to garner most of the attention.
FEI train spotters will be pretty familiar with the circumstances.
Endurance, overall, has an excellent track record for safety and drug breaches. It has been dragged down only by a series of doping infractions in recent years arising from horses raced in Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain. There have also been welfare concerns around high fracture rates in the region.
Several European federations have criticised the breaches and demanded action.
The FEI organised a round-table discussion and set in train a process.
Belgian endurance official Pierre Arnould, in an interview with The Telegraph newspaper in Britain, voiced his frustrations last month in colourful terms at what he considered was an inadequate response by the FEI.
“The scandals have continued unabated, the press is going wild, horses die, fractures are increasing – and next week the winter season begins in the Middle East,” he said.
“Everything would be idyllic but for three federations who cast shame on the sport.”
He continued: “While the FEI endurance committee, federations, breeders and riders have alerted the FEI board for years to these unacceptable practices, the FEI’s only response is to create a strategic group with the task of studying the evolution of endurance for the next 10 years.
“We need practical, impartial law enforcement measures that will cease these scandals immediately and permanently.”
Arnould was clearly not a happy man. In stepped FEI secretary-general Ingmar de Vos, who put out a press release giving Arnould a firm telling-off.
The story then went ballistic. If it was Arnould who erected the endurance billboard, it was de Vos who installed the red and green flashing lights around it. All very Las Vegas.
The whole endurance issue is unquestionably uncomfortable for the FEI. Its president, Princess Haya, is married to the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who in 2009 copped a six-month ban when his endurance mount, Tahhan, tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid, stanozolol.
Trainer Abdullah bin Huzaim, who admitted giving the horse drugs before the desert races at Bahrain and Dubai, was handed a one-year ban, but the skeikh received a ban as the rider is ultimately held responsible.
The sheikh and his wider family are major players in the sport of endurance. He has had troubles in his British thoroughbred and endurance operations, too, with drug use by an errant trainer in several thoroughbreds and the discovery of drugs linked to his endurance operation.
It has to be said that endurance in the Middle East paints an unpleasant picture, backed by a sorry litany of FEI disciplinary cases. One could be forgiven for thinking that a permissive attitude existed towards drug use in endurance horses in the region.
Then, just days ago, an endurance rider from the United Arab Emirates received a two-year ban from the FEI for a doping infraction, just to ensure the issue did not fade from the headlines.
The case involved Mohd Ali Al Shafar winning the February 16 CEI3* 160km President’s Cup race in Abu Dhabi on his mount Orman De Cardonne.
The FEI is treading very carefully, but its diplomacy around the wider issue gives the impression of an organisation walking over egg shells. For example, the FEI announced plans in June for a round-table discussion to “look into areas of concerns within the sport of endurance”.
So, with practically no budget, the FEI has its headline act for Montreux. They are guaranteed to be plenty of bums on seats for the November 6 show, but we fear the choreography may disappoint.
Following the round-table endurance discussion in July, the FEI established the Endurance Strategic Planning Group, headed by Andrew Finding, of Britain.
His group is working on a 10-year strategic plan for the sport, to not only deal with the problem issues but cope with the strong growth in the sport.
Finding, in a report to national federations, promises that the group has been busy.
“I have been impressed by the diligence of the team and the willingness of every member of it to look for a new direction for the FEI’s fastest growing sporting discipline. We are all agreed that change is necessary,” he said.
In the two-hour session, the group expects to take an hour to set out its thinking and proposed strategy to the national representatives.
That leaves an hour for national federations to ask questions and have a say. Fireworks? We’ll have to wait and see.
From there, the planning group intends to circulate a more evolved proposal to national federations by November 30 for consultation.
Then, all national federations will be invited to a special endurance conference in Lausanne in February, after which the planning group will submit its final report and recommendations to the FEI Bureau.
This report and its recommendations will go to a special endurance session during the FEI Sports Forum in April, again in Lausanne.
Finding has assured member nations that the FEI Bureau will take immediate action, where necessary.
Yes, there will be reforms at the end of all this, but it all seems unduly diplomatic and laborious.
The great irony is that the only sore backside in all of this belongs to poor Pierre Arnould, who copped a public spanking from the FEI for what amounted to an impassioned plea to sort the problems out.
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