Fresh welfare concerns in endurance racing in the United Arab Emirates saw FEI bosses sit down in February with the country’s equestrian officials to yet again nut out a path forward.
The result was a deal involving 12 approved measures that effectively allowed the UAE to see out the last races of this season.
The headline item was the third one listed by the FEI in its February 13 release on the measures. The world governing body described it thus: “Heart rate presentation times reduced to between 56 and 60 beats per minute for all loops in one-star competitions, and in the final loop for two and three-star CEIs [international races] and CENs [national events].”
The agreement was signed off by officials from the Emirates Equestrian Federation. The signing of this deal by Emirates officials could be interpreted in one of two basic ways.
The optimistic view is that the Emirates Equestrian Federation was desperately concerned about the latest welfare issues and would understandably do all that it could to remedy the situation. The pessimistic and somewhat cynical view is that its officials might choose to reluctantly accept terms agreeable to the FEI in order to see out the current season.
The FEI’s endurance director, Manuel Bandeira de Mello, has acknowledged that speed appears to be a major factor in fatalities in UAE endurance.
The tighter heart-rate requirements were obviously introduced in a bid to reduce speed. On the evidence I have seen, including some quite startling loop speeds and fast race times, the measures have not been successful overall.
The endurance community is well aware of some of the circumstances that unfolded around the Dubai Crown Prince Endurance Cup, raced over 120km on March 19 – one of the last races of the UAE season.
The cup race was originally set to be run over 140km as a CEI*** event. The organising committee belatedly downgraded the race to a CEN event and pegged it back to 120km, most likely as a consequence of talks with de Mello.
However, the juiciest angle to the story centres around the results, as revealed on the Dubai Equestrian Club app. They show successful completions for horses getting through with heart rates above 60, perhaps indicating that the event proceeded with the mark of 64bpm – that used before the mid-February agreement.
It is understood this matter is to be discussed by the all-powerful FEI Bureau in coming days, during which it will no doubt consider the explanation from the Emirates federation, which it was invited to furnish by March 29.
Now, this could well spell serious trouble, but let us consider the wider issues involved here.
First, if we accept that the reduced heart-rate requirements agreed for the remainder of the UAE season had failed to keep speeds down, I guess it is open to the FEI in the longer term to adjust heart-rates even lower and even tweak presentation times in a bid to spill speed.
However, we would be naive to think that the UAE will buy into having “special rules” covering its contests in the long term, when the rest of the world sticks to the existing rules. One can understand Emirates officials signing off on the 12 conditions to see out this season, but it is highly unlikely to be a long-term solution.
The only workable solution is for the rest of the world to join the UAE on what is commonly referred to as a “level playing field”. And this, I believe, could be achieved quite easily by grading endurance courses.
Imagine, if you will, four grades for courses.
A flat, fast and open endurance course – much like the desert courses we see in the UAE – would be classed as Grade 1. Under international rules, Grade 1 courses could be subject to very strict heart-rate and presentation times, which would make the speeds we currently see in the UAE impossible.
At the other end of the spectrum, a Grade 4 course would be challenging and highly technical, and would be run under existing international heart-rate and presentation times because there is little chance of excess speed being a factor in the race.
Naturally, Grades 2 and 3 would fit in accordingly in-between.
Courses would be graded largely on the basis of footing conditions, the nature of the trails, and the terrain, although other factors such as temperatures or wind could also be considered.
The FEI could also stipulate time bands, saying that the top-finishing horses on Grade 1 courses would be expected to generally finish within a certain time range, progressing out to the Grade 4 challenges. This would remove the possibility of long-term abuse of the grading system.
For example, Dubai could stage a flat desert race and call it a Grade 4, but almost certainly the times of the top finishers would reflect a Grade 1 course. It could therefore not justify running any races above Grade 1 unless it could show that the tougher nature of future courses and the terrain would result in slower race times.
There would be an expectation that higher-level events would be run on Grade 3 or 4 courses. If the terrain wasn’t challenging enough, there would be no choice but to run these events as a Grade 1 or 2 race, with their more restrictive heart rates and presentation times.
I believe this would also benefit competitors, some of whom might prefer to skip higher-graded events.
Such a system would be even-handed for all nations and all competitors. It would, of course, be impossible to accurately compare a Grade 4 time to a Grade 1 time over the same distance, but this is the case in endurance anyway.
Time comparisons are already impossible because of the nature of the terrain, the footing and the mix of trails.
I’m not suggesting this is the entire solution, but it does seem to get around the issue of being fair to all.