Wardrobe malfunction in the FEI over endurance

The FEI Bureau at the 2014 General Assembly in Baku, Azerbaijan, in December.
The FEI Bureau at the 2014 General Assembly in Baku, Azerbaijan, in December.

There’s something just a little mysterious about the FEI Bureau. Its 18 members wield a lot of power in the world of horse sport, but we never get to see the inner workings, with meetings behind closed doors.

It certainly would have been illuminating to hear the bureau’s recent discussion on the joys of endurance racing in the United Arab Emirates, before its members agreed unanimously to suspend the UAE Equestrian Federation.

The FEI, after endless months of grinding diplomacy during its endurance rule reform process, has shown some welcome mettle.

The world governing body said the suspension followed an investigation by the FEI into major horse welfare issues and non-compliance with its rules and regulations in endurance.

Followers of endurance don’t need to be reminded about the storm of controversy around the death of Splitters Creek Bundy as a result of two broken legs in a race in Abu Dhabi late in January, or the big questions that now swirl around a dozen races in the UAE after duplicated results were revealed by British equestrian writer Pippa Cuckson.

So, let us tip our riding helmets to the FEI for its decisive, if belated, action. But, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the world governing body has, to a fair degree, been caught with its pants down in this latest round of endurance controversy.

To its credit, at least it calmly pulled them up, secured the belt, and set about imposing the suspension.

Am I being uncharitable?

Well, the latest issue is a case in point. Cuckson raised some serious questions around some quite remarkable anomalies found in the results of 12 endurance races staged in the UAE.

The evidence – the duplication of results from previous races – naturally calls into major doubt the posted results, and it is understandable that the question is being asked: Did these races take place at all?

The fact that a journalist unearthed the evidence that set in train the FEI’s action is tantamount, in my view, to the FEI being caught with its pants around it ankles.

gallop-legs-endurance_2546Journalists, on the whole, have no more investigative tools at their disposal than any other Joe Citizen. They might be afforded some modest legal protections in some countries around the world, but, generally, they’ve got no special investigative powers.

The fact that Cuckson could follow an online paper trail and unearth a dozen races with big question-marks over them is proof enough that whatever monitoring the FEI had imposed, whatever changes its reforms had introduced, came up well short.

She said some of the investigative work was like taking candy from a baby, and suggested some of the information was hiding in plain sight.

Cuckson noted in a blog that she and Horse & Hound magazine had been tipped off about the first race investigated. One has to wonder why the tipster had opted to mention their concerns to the media rather than the FEI.

And here-in lies the crux of the issue. The FEI simply has not been pro-active enough in its handling of the Middle East endurance saga right from the start.

It has been reactive from virtually day one.

Yes, it certainly pushed through endurance rule reform during 2014, but we should remember that it was a group of European-based equestrian federations kicking up a fuss that got the ball rolling in the first place.

FEI president Ingmar De Vos wrote to national federations about Splitters Creek Bundy, but only after a category-5 storm in social media, and with officials in national federations starting to voice concerns.

And now we have Cuckson’s probe into results, which has all the hallmarks of amounting to the biggest scandal yet. And this, sadly, is not a complete list of the controversies that have dogged endurance.

Even now, the FEI is demonstrating its customary degree of extreme caution. Its statement late last week announcing the UAE’s suspension said it followed an investigation by the FEI.

We must assume that investigation unearthed enough evidence to warrant a suspension, but we’ve yet to learn anything more about it. Sure, the matter is now in the hands of the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit for investigation and perhaps the FEI does not want to cross its bow, but surely it could have said more about its inquiries.

For many, of course, the welfare issues now being addressed are no surprise.

There were always fears that the aggressive desert racing favoured in the region would continue largely unabated under local rules, and that has proven to be the case. Some would say there were few surprises in the demise of Splitters Creek Bundy.

The greatest intrigue, of course, surrounds the anomalous results uncovered by Cuckson. Most of us, I think, would take some persuading that it was a data-entry disaster or a horrible glitch in the computer system.

Should it prove to involve some skulduggery, who was complicit in it? Were the levies for the horses paid? If so, by whom?

We should not forget that this is a welfare issue, too. The rules of endurance lay out quite strict criteria over the path endurance horses must take before competing in longer races.

Should the results not reflect reality, then presumably there are horses in the FEI database who look to have qualified in the events in question, while in fact they may have been resting in their stables munching on hay that day.

So, yet again, we wait. The findings will certainly make interesting reading. They could amount to something quite unheard of in world sport.

For now, the FEI has regained some small measure of composure and has played its big trump card with its suspension of the UAE. Let us hope it has a strong hand to back it up. It doesn’t help when the guy sitting opposite you knows the colour of your boxer shorts.

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