UAE endurance: Final call for drinks at the Last Chance Saloon

The parties in the endurance saga have emerged from the Last Chance Saloon. Photo: By Ipsingh [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The parties in the endurance saga have emerged from the Last Chance Saloon. Photo: By Ipsingh (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
The barman has called for final drinks at the Last Chance Saloon, where the FEI and the United Arab Emirates have been holed up for four months trying to broker a deal over endurance.

Early in March the pair had a very public showdown in the Main Street, after the FEI suspended the UAE over concerns around horse welfare and non-compliance with the world governing body’s rules.

The UAE appealed and it was looking very much like pistols at dawn, as the two gun-toting parties squared off.

Who would blink first?

In the event, the UAE’s national federation backed off. The parties left their pistols at the saloon door (including the one FEI president Ingmar De Vos keeps down his sock) and began talks in a bid to resolve once and for all the issues that have plagued endurance in the region.

Now, the saloon doors have swung open and the UAE has emerged to rejoin the FEI fold.

The nation has a new-found respect for the welfare of horses in the sport of endurance, we are led to believe.

The Secretary General of the Emirates Equestrian Federation, Taleb Dhaher Al Mheiri, spelt it out in these terms: “As the governing body of equestrian sports in the UAE we take our responsibility seriously. It is our goal to pursue excellence while promoting the growth of the sport and safeguarding the welfare of equine and human athletes.”

I can entirely understand why some people would take a cynical viewpoint over all of this.

The list of indiscretions we have seen in endurance in the Emirates is worryingly long. Who can forget the harrowing image of Splitters Creek Bundy with two shattered front legs? Or the tantalising questions that remain around allegations of “phantom” races and results that mysteriously mirror those of previous events?

That is hardly the end of the list of concerns that have been voiced over the desert races in this region. So, should we allow cynicism to prevail?

I believe there is some real cause for optimism here, but there are elements about endurance in the UAE that will remain a cause for worry as the three-year deal struck between the FEI and the UAE national federation beds in.

The FEI played what amounted to its strongest trump card against the UAE in March, imposing the provisional suspension.

The UAE, as noted earlier, subsequently appealed that suspension. I’m not sure whether this signalled the heights of indignation or some genuine belief that it had been wronged by the FEI.

In any event, there was never going to an endgame in the appeal that would allow the UAE to emerge victorious. Even if its appeal was successful, the world endurance championships set for Dubai late next year would either not have gone ahead, or been boycotted by key nations.

The nation would have become an international pariah in endurance terms, pure and simple.

Eventually, the UAE saw that the only way out was to show contrition and tidy up the sport.

The deal that emerged this week is said to be culmination of four months of hard work. I don’t doubt that. The terms of this agreement are summarised here, but suffice to say the FEI has covered the issues pretty comprehensively.

The UAE has been cooperative throughout, and has also helped investigators with the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit (ECIU) get to the bottom of the “phantom” race saga. We have yet to get a full account of what has gone on here, but it will likely generate more embarrassing headlines for the sport of endurance.

The FEI indicated this week that the ECIU report was finished and that some matters would be referred to the FEI Tribunal.

I find it hard to believe that the UAE would go to all the trouble of striking this deal unless it genuinely wanted to get endurance back on a sound footing.

Will it work?

My big fears centre on the high levels of professionalism seen in the sport in the UAE.

Endurance in the UAE is much more akin to traditional horse racing on many levels. There are racing stables, professional trainers, paid jockeys and high-stakes races. However, instead of racing horses over a couple of kilometres, they’re racing them over 160km.

I think this agreement will not only test the fortitude of the Emirates Equestrian Federation, but also the rules of endurance.

Endurance as a sport celebrates the close bond between horse and rider; the ability of a competitor to assess and manage the capabilities of their mount.

But that whole concept comes under pressure when you have professional riders who may not be completely familiar with a mount competing on a fast desert course in races carrying high stakes. The temptation to push harder must be intense in some circumstances.

I believe considerable improvements will be seen in the UAE as a result of this agreement, but it is unlikely to be plain sailing. Its potential undoing will ultimately lie in the professional nature of the sport.

When the stakes are high, people are always looking for an edge. It seems to me that UAE endurance will remain right at the limits of what is achievable in this sport. That has been the very nature of UAE endurance and that is unlikely to change.

Whether the sport manages to stay on the right side of the welfare ledger thanks to the FEI’s rules and regulations remains to be seen. It will be a close-run thing, I think.

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