There has been a disturbance in the Force – an anomaly so extraordinary that the endurance community is still trying to comprehend exactly what it could mean for the sport.
Social media has been abuzz since British equestrian journalist Pippa Cuckson unearthed what would seem to be an impossible coincidence in the results of two races in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Cuckson, in her March 6 piece published by the Daily Telegraph, raised questions about the results officially posted on the FEI website in respect of the two races, both of which provided qualifiers for the rich President’s Cup, run over 160km.
One was a 120km race on January 21 in Dubai; the second an 80km event on December 23 in Abu Dhabi. Cuckson noted that finishing rates for the fixtures were much higher than the local average.
But, most controversially, she identified some quite remarkable similarities between finishing times and loop times with previous races.
In fact, the results logged on the FEI website for the leading 47 horses in the December 23 race are identical to those of the 10th to 56th-placed horses from a race at Bou Thib on November 21-22.
In the case of the January 21 race results, Cuckson identified extraordinary similarities with finishing data from riders in a contest in Dubai on December 19.
So, has Cuckson unearthed the most disastrous piece of data entry in the history of world sport, or is something else afoot?
The evidence does not look good, and it will surely give the hierarchy of the FEI a great deal more to consider as its Executive Board considers how it can respond to the worrying problems that seem to plague endurance in the region.
It is understood that the issues raised in Cuckson’s report have been forwarded for a full investigation to the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit, set up as part of the FEI’s Clean Sport initiative.
The UAE may be close to the point where it must accept it has some serious systemic problems that need addressing. I think, for now, the endurance community needs to await the findings of the investigation before jumping to too many conclusions.
For a start, it needs to be established precisely what has happened here. Should the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit (ECIU) find evidence of skulduggery, the next important fact to establish is who was complicit in it.
Only then would we have a complete picture, at which point the FEI can decide what action is required.
Let us hope that process does not take too long.
To be frank, the whole endurance issue has sat uncomfortably on a razor edge for far too long. The sport’s reputation has been damaged by events which, quite simply, have not been solved by the tighter measures instituted by the FEI in a year-long process that took sporting diplomacy to new heights.
The sport has wrestled for some years with the clear differences in philosophy between what is now known as the classical form of endurance seen in most parts of the world and the more aggressive form of desert racing favoured in the Middle East, in which horses compete over fast, flat courses.
That kind of racing gave rise to concerns over what many viewed as excessive fracture rates. But the waters were muddied further by doping infractions and what seemed to be a fast and loose approach to the rules by some officials and competitors.
It is timely to consider what Andrew Finding, who headed the FEI’s Endurance Strategy Planning Group, which spearheaded the reform process, had to say.
He told the FEI’s General Assembly during its endurance session in Montreux, Switzerland, in November 2013: “We need national federations, all of them, in every region of the world to take responsibility and provide leadership.
“We need every single person involved in the sport to be self disciplined, to respect their horses and abide by the code of conduct for the welfare of horses; it was carefully developed and it must be adhered to if we are not to fail.”
He continued: “Managing change takes time. There will be some quick wins but not all change can or will happen overnight. In some cases the change will take months, even years. But there is one thing that is not in doubt: change must come.”
So, if we accept Finding’s view that managing change takes time, what should the sport be prepared to accept in the meantime?
Is it the kind of publicity that surrounded the terrible demise of the Australian-bred endurance horse, Splitters Creek Bundy, who suffered two broken legs in a race in Abu Dhabi late in January? Or controversy around results posted in the FEI system? Is it OK for a growing number of events to be run under national rules, keeping the FEI’s jurisdiction at arm’s length?
The rule changes instituted by the FEI 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.
But that matters little if high-profile races are simply run beyond the FEI’s jurisdiction.
I would be the first to accept that the UAE and, indeed, any nation, has every right to run events under local rules. But, as I have said before, membership of the FEI carries with it both privileges and obligations to meet high standards of accountability and horse welfare.
The kind of publicity the sport endured around the death of Splitters Creek Bundy hardly ticks any of those boxes, in my view.
And so this terrible journey continues.
The FEI has already pulled from its calendar two events scheduled for this month in the UAE, calling it an emergency measure to protect horse welfare and preserve the integrity of its rules and regulations at events under its jurisdiction.
President Ingmar De Vos wrote to national federations, indicating that the issues raised by the death of Splitters Creek Bundy were a top priority for the organisation.
“Incidents like this are absolutely unacceptable,” he said.
A detailed report was requested from the UAE National Federation.
For now, we await developments.
What we do know is that the world governing body’s Executive Board has been given a mandate by the FEI Bureau and is finalising recommendations to the bureau on further action. Cuckson’s latest revelations are sure to add an entirely new dimension to that process, once we know more.
At the moment, competitors in the region enjoy the best of both worlds, with events run under either local or FEI jurisdiction, and the ability to compete internationally pretty much anywhere in the world.
That, I suspect, will have to change to bring meaningful reform to the sport.
I get the feeling that we are at last going to see some mettle from the FEI. Any action will not be taken lightly.
There is little doubt that the best-resourced endurance racing in the world is centred on the UAE. It is well-monied and the facilities are second to none.
It should be the showcase for the sport on a global stage. Right now, the spotlight is on it for all the wrong reasons.
To finish with another observation from Finding, made during the same endurance session in Montreux: “The strategic plan we propose sets out a vision and a set of values we will expect everyone to adhere to if they genuinely want to be an active part of our family. Those who do not should be asked to leave us.”
We can surely all agree on one thing: the Endurance Wars have gone on long enough.