The pistols finally came out of their holsters today as the FEI moved to head off ongoing endurance controversies.
The world governing body announced it had suspended the national federation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), citing what it called major horse welfare issues and non-compliance with the rules of endurance.
The announcement is the latest chapter in a remarkable few days in the sport, as the UAE – arguably the best-resourced endurance nation in the world – came under ever-increasing scrutiny.
The sport endured bad publicity in February over the terrible demise of Australian-bred endurance horse Splitters Creek Bundy during a race in Abu Dhabi late in January. Harrowing images emerged of the animal with two broken forelegs.
The pictures drew widespread condemnation, and again cast a spotlight on the aggressive form of desert endurance racing favoured in the region.
Then, evidence emerged last week of major discrepencies in the results of two races in the UAE.
Equestrian writer Pippa Cuckson raised questions in an article in Britain’s Daily Telegraph about the results officially posted by the UAE on the FEI website in respect of the races.
One was a 120km race on January 21 in Dubai; the second an 80km event on December 23 in Abu Dhabi. Cuckson identified some 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 were 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.
Cuckson followed it up yesterday with another Telegraph story, reporting that she and a small team of experienced endurance riders had carefully checked through official results and had unearthed evidence that raised serious questions around the running of a further 10 races in the UAE.
The assertion was based on the fact that the results duplicated those from previous races.
Cuckson reported that all of the races in question were late additions to the FEI calendar, showed high completion rates of 90 to 100 percent, and featured the same small pool of officials.
Competitors in the races were reported to be exclusively from the UAE and the Indian sub continent, with no other foreign nationals listed in the results.
The allegations raised were forwarded by the FEI to the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit for investigation, but it was clear that the ongoing controversies demanded more immediate action.
Precisely what discussions have taken place in the last few days is unclear, but today’s action amounts to a broad acknowledgement that the sport of endurance simply cannot continue to take these kinds of body blows.
The publicity is incredibly distressing for a sport in which most participants revel in the tight-knit bond between horse and rider.
The endurance controversy has bubbled along for several years in the Middle East. No follower of the sport needs to be reminded of the reasons that gave rise to this saga in the first place: worrying fracture rates, doping infractions, and loose rule interpretations by some officials and riders.
The FEI, demonstrating unbridled diplomacy, embarked on a year-long process of endurance reform. 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.
But there remained fears that some Middle Eastern nations would struggle to reconcile the tougher rules with their aggressive desert racing.
That, I think, has proven to be the case. FEI President Ingmar De Vos acknowledged today that the reforms had not reduced catastrophic injuries and fatalities in the UAE.
And so, today, we see the most forthright action yet from the FEI in this long-running saga.
The story to date has had more twists and turns than a Dan Brown novel. But, sadly, I can’t see a happy ending.