Middle Eastern endurance: Do not pass Go, do not collect $200

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NZ-endurance-champs8509My friends gave up playing Monopoly against me many years ago. Apparently, I’m not much fun to play against.

It wasn’t about cheating. Apparently, I’m too officious and determined, and revel in the fact I’m slowly grinding my opponents into poverty with my hefty rents and expansive property holdings.

It was a case of going directly to the doghouse without passing Go and without collecting $200.

The lesson, learned rather belatedly, is that if you don’t play nice, eventually no-one will want to play with you.

It seems, after several years of controversy around welfare issues, doping infractions, and what would seem to be a pretty loose interpretation of the rules, the nations at the centre of the endurance controversy in the Middle East might have to learn this lesson, too.

No-one can accuse the world governing body, the FEI, of failing to use diplomacy in its efforts to see an improvement within the region.

The FEI copped considerable flak last year over the time taken to institute rule changes aimed at addressing the issues.

It brought in additional dope testing, injury surveillance and reporting, athlete penalties for equine injuries, and extended rest periods. Other measures increased the responsibility and accountability of riders, trainers and officials, as well as steps to address any conflicts of interest.

The FEI was careful and consultative throughout, but there always remained a risk.

Why? Because it escaped no-one’s attention that a growing number of races in the region were being run outside the FEI’s jurisdiction. It seemed almost inevitable that some welfare issue would arise and come back to haunt the FEI.

Few could have predicted it would have been as frighteningly awful as the demise of Splitters Creek Bundy after suffering two broken forelegs in the Al Reef Cup in Abu Dhabi late in January. An image of the stricken horse circulated widely in social media, provoking an outcry.

The FEI took a hammering in social media after it gave an initial indication to the Daily Telegraph that it was powerless to act because the race was run outside its jurisdiction.

vetting-endurance-featuredThis was, perhaps, an oversimplification of the situation. The fact the race was run under the UAE Equestrian Federation’s national rules certainly limits the FEI’s jurisdiction, but the UAE body is still a member of the global body and in doing so surely accepts both the privileges and obligations of membership.

While it looked initially as if the FEI was circling its wagons, it has since rallied and, I think, is showing some backbone.

The cynics among us might argue that this has only occurred amid a rising tide of international condemnation over the demise of the poor horse, but the FEI does seem to be moving quite fast by its standards. In fairness to the world governing body, there are procedures that need to be followed.

First, the president, Ingmar De Vos, told national federations in a letter that the FEI’s investigation of the matter was its top priority.

He continued: “Incidents like this are absolutely unacceptable.

“Although the Al Reef Cup was a national event organised under the jurisdiction and the rules of the United Arab Emirates National Federation, we have raised our concerns with the UAE Federation and have requested a detailed report into the circumstances surrounding these incidents.”

We have yet to hear whether that report has been delivered, or what it says.

Then, just last Friday, we learn that the FEI Bureau has given a mandate to the new Execuitive Board to urgently investigate horse welfare issues and non-compliance with FEI rules and regulations in the UAE.

Secretary general Sabrina Zeender stepped in to remove two international events set to be held in the UAE this month from the FEI calendar.

It was described by the FEI as an emergency measure to protect horse welfare and preserve the integrity of its rules and regulations at events under its jurisdiction. This is perhaps the most damning condemnation of endurance practices in the region that we have seen from the FEI since this whole sorry saga began some two years ago.

Equally interesting, we learn that the Executive Board, with its mandate, was finalising recommendations to the bureau, suggesting there is more to come.

For now, we will have to wait to see what the FEI’s next steps will be. One gets the sense that the world governing body might be stepping outside its diplomatic comfort zone and there may be consequences.

So be it.

Endurance in the Middle East is a high profile sport with the considerable backing of monied interests. The winners of these races don’t go home with a new cover or a few bags of feed as their booty. They collect the likes of big cash prizes and cars.

At the moment the region enjoys the best of both worlds, with events run under either local or FEI jurisdiction, and the ability to compete on an international stage pretty much anywhere in the world.

Perhaps that scenario will need to change in order to bring meaningful reform to the sport.

Several national federations are already urging their riders not to compete there, and have made it clear they are reconsidering whether to compete next year in the world endurance championships in Dubai.

We are clearly at a crossroads and, if the FEI handles this properly, those at the centre of the controversy will face a simple choice. They can withdraw and do their own thing, or they can start looking at meaningful change.

Running a well-cashed-up local league won’t be a problem in the region in question, of course, but eventually its top competitors will want to spread their wings and compete on an international stage.

It is here where the FEI and its member nations can surely exert some influence.

I don’t personally think endurance is a sport that suits having pots of cash or cars as prizes. It is the poor horses that will pay the price for any overly aggressive riding, and the fast desert courses of the region only add to the risk.

Perhaps the sport of endurance in the Middle East should be handing out a nice new cover and a few bags of feed to the winner, and giving the cash and cars to the endurance stables with the best safety records.

Perhaps entire endurance stables could be stood down for infractions. I don’t doubt that some have much better track records than others.

It strikes me as ironic that endurance in the region is not, in fact, a lawless, slipshod sport run by a bunch of renegades. It is highly organised, well resourced, and professional. When you think about it, it has to be when the prizes at stake are so considerable.

Given that level of professionalism, they really should be able to do better in the interests of horses like Splitters Creek Bundy.

So, we await the next roll of the dice in the hopes of advancing to Mayfair.

I learnt my life lesson from Monopoly too late. Let’s hope it is not too late for endurance in the Middle East.

3 thoughts on “Middle Eastern endurance: Do not pass Go, do not collect $200

  • March 2, 2015 at 11:14 pm
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    Well said sir. Mustn’t forget the FEI has always been hamstrung by ‘sensitivities’. You won’t be surprised to hear that when I wrote to some members of the Bureau/ Exec Board last April protesting at the proposed composition and funding of the endurance task force, that several asked me for more information because they hadn’t a clue what I was on about. Either they weren’t paying attention or there had been no discussion of the issues in endurance at Bureau level.

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  • March 3, 2015 at 4:49 pm
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    I think should be carefull when you say Middle East… Because have countries in the Middle East, its so far to be compaired with Emirates. Im in Qatar have 4 years, I follow endurance here, and the thinks are different from what you wrote. As a journalist, Im giving my point of view, because the readers will take a true what you write down, should be carefull and filter the information. About Emirates, no comments, totally agree and past the time to FEI take an action.

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  • March 5, 2015 at 2:44 pm
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    Now we know the inspiration behind some of your article titles–perhaps you just need to find your Monopoly tribe! They’re out there, stranded in ski cabins with non-serious friends and family members around the world, and deflated because no one wants to play against them. “I’ll let you win!” How many times have I heard that…

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