The fallout from the abandoned Endurance race at the World Equestrian Games in North Carolina continues, with the FEI Tribunal suspending a leading figure in the sport.
In doing so, the three-member tribunal also laid some blame in the case on the FEI over what it said was a poorly managed race which caused frustration and anger among the participants.
It rejected most of the grounds on which the FEI had taken the case against the chef d’equipe for the Spanish endurance team, Dr Ignasi Casas Vaque.
However, tribunal members Armand Leone, Laurent Niddam and Henrik Arle found that Vaque, a veterinarian, had displayed incorrect behaviour towards event officials arising from the cancellation of the endurance race.
The panel fined him 2000 Swiss francs and ordered him to pay 3000 francs towards the cost of the procedure.
The 160km endurance race, ultimately cancelled, unfolded on September 12 last year at Tryon. A group of riders and their horses had been misdirected to the wrong starting place, and as a result not all horses in the competition completed the same distance over the first loop.
A decision was taken to re-start the race after a short break, over a shorter 120km course.
However, later in the day, following a heavy downpour, it became very hot, with a dangerously high humidity index.
Officials, including the president of the Ground Jury, technical delegate, president of the Veterinary Commission, and the Organising Committee, unanimously agreed that the weather conditions presented an unacceptable risk to horse welfare.
As a result, the race was abandoned.
At the time, the Spanish riders as a team where doing better than any other combination with four riders in the top five spots.
Facebook live videos from the competition and the subsequent incidents were streamed, and a video titled Guns, riots and death threats at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon can be found on YouTube.
One Facebook video has been viewed more than 73,000 times and garnered more than 900 comments. The video on YouTube had been viewed more than 14,000 times.
Subsequently, based on Vaque’s alleged conduct, the FEI took a case against him to the tribunal, although apologies had been forthcoming from him.
The FEI based its position on several videos from the event, arguing that Vaque may even have committed a crime. In North Carolina, it is a crime to riot or incite a riot. The FEI argued that Vaque had twice incited people to enter the vet gate area for the purpose of protesting against the decision to cancel the competition.
He went over to the perimeter boards of the vet gate, gesticulating for others to enter the vet gate area, while shouting “Come on, come on, let’s go” and then “Come on”.
At least two people, and likely more, entered the vet gate area following the gestures.
Their actions, it said, clearly amounted to “disorderly and violent conduct”. Vaque, it argued, displayed aggressive body language and was shouting, encouraged others to engage in an aggressive protest.
It further argued that Vaque’s behaviour was intimidating and he had engaged in conduct that brought equestrian sport, and the FEI in particular, into disrepute.
Vaque, it said, had verbally abused FEI officials, including by saying “You crazy” and then saying “are you stupid or what?” to the president of the Ground Jury, and aggressively shouting at him (and others).
Furthermore, Vaque made death threats to the Ground Jury president: “(t)he riders will kill you. The riders will find you. The riders will travel on the horse. The (sic) will kill you.”
It argued that Vaque’s conduct was contrary to common principles of behaviour, fairness and sportsmanship.
“Alternatively, at the very least, it was clear that (Vaque) acted in an incorrect manner towards FEI officials at the event,” it said.
“There was no justification for verbal abuse and shouting death threats towards officials, for accusing them of cheating, or for inciting non-permitted persons to come into the vet gate area to join in a protest.”
The world governing body argued that a fine and two-year suspension was warranted in the case.
The FEI acknowledged that the case was the first against Vaque, and that the circumstances surrounding the competition were challenging for all concerned. Emotions were running high.
“However, even if (Vaque) was frustrated by the decision to cancel the competition, that had no impact on how he had to conduct himself as chef d’equipe and could not (under any circumstances) justify his conduct.”
As chef d’equipe, Vaque was expected to act as a role model and uphold the high standards expected of him.
“There was no doubt that the situation at the competition was difficult. (Vaque), given his position, should have done everything possible to pacify the situation and show respect to the officials; instead his conduct escalated matters significantly.”
Vaque, in his submission, described at length the organisational flaws before and during the competition.
Vaque said that, following the decision to re-start the race, he had explained in a very clear and calm way why the decision to re-start was unfair.
He even expressly warned of the risk of a thunderstorm and said “we should do it tomorrow”.
He said the subsequent decision to cancel the race had been taken without any prior warning.
“The decision, by itself, caused frustration and disbelief, even worse, since it had been taken exactly because of circumstances about which all participants had previously warned, i.e., the heat and humidity level.”
At the time of the decision, he was still on the loop, and drove immediately back to ask the responsible parties to explain their decision.
He said he desperately tried to prevent such a chaotic and unfair outcome.
He said he was at no time aggressive or violent, nor did he ever behave inappropriately in any other respect.
Numerous other riders, participants and officials complained about the disastrous lack of organisation, and it was only natural that this caused anger, frustration and disappointment with all participating riders, coaches and chefs d’equipe.
“The decision to cancel the race was shocking and frustrating because it was predictable, and because it could have been prevented.”
In such a situation, he argued, every human being would feel nothing but huge disappointment.
For the Spanish team in particular, which was leading, the decision to cancel the race was a shock.
As a result, he became emotional; he expressed his anger and frustration.
He said he never participated in any action that was criminal, and never brought the sport into disrepute. Quite to the contrary, he tried to save an impossible situation, for the benefit of his sport, the riders and for the welfare of horses.
The FEI’s allegations were simply and objectively untrue, he said, describing the allegation that he incited others to break through the perimeter as baseless. He was not even present at that time, but later he did wave at his two assistants who were outside the restricted area.
He certainly did not incite any type of anger or riot.
Vaque said he did not dispute that he said to the president of the Ground Jury “the riders will kill you”. However, the plain meaning of the words rendered it obvious that this was no threat whatsoever. It was a figure of speech.
He further argued that the video footage demonstrated that he never incited any type of violent behaviour. Had he done so, the police present at the venue would have intervened and criminal charges would have been laid against him. This did not happen.
Turning to the allegation that he had brought equestrian sport and the FEI into disrepute, he argued that he could not be blamed for the chaos at the race, nor could he be blamed for the frustration among spectators and their angry outbursts.
Nor could he be blamed for what was posted on social media.
The FEI, he argued, was trying to put all the blame on him. All he did was to express his anger and frustration, and he tried to present wrong decisions and warn FEI officials how the riders would react.
It was certainly true that he did so in an emotional way, but this was understandable in the circumstances.
Vaque argued that he should receive no sanction, nor have any costs awarded against him.
At maximum, a warning could be issued against him, he said.
Anything above would simply be punishing the wrong person for mistakes he did not commit, he said, arguing that the FEI was looking for a scapegoat.
He should not be held responsible for the failures at the event.
The tribunal, in its decision, said there was ample evidence presented showing that the competition was poorly managed and caused frustration and anger among the participants.
It found that the FEI had not met its burden of proof that Vaque conducted a criminal act, with no expert testimony presented on North Carolina criminal law.
No evidence of physical violence by Vaque was displayed on the video, and no claim of physical violence was made against him. No witnesses testified about feeling intimidated or being fearful for their safety as a result of Vaque’s conduct.
The tribunal also found that the use of the phrase “The riders will kill you” and “They will kill you” did not constitute death threats.
Nor did it find that the actions of Vaque brought equestrian sport, and the FEI in particular, into disrepute.
“The tribunal comes to this conclusion as the poor organisation and errors in running the event had already put a stain on the reputation of the FEI and possible disrepute of the FEI.
“The tribunal finds that (Vaque’s) actions were not a significant factor in causing damage to the FEI’s reputation, as it had already been damaged by the running of the event itself.”
However, the tribunal did find that Vaque had behaved incorrectly towards event officials, saying there had been multiple violations.
As chef d’equipe for the Spanish endurance team, he had a duty to enforce FEI rules, be respectful to other competitors and officials, and maintain a safe environment for the horses competing in the event.
His shouting of the phrases “The riders will kill you” and “Are you stupid or what?” rises to the level of incorrect behavior when repeatedly shouted at FEI officials in front of members of the press and public.
Further, accusing the president of the Ground Jury of being a “cheater” similarly constitutes incorrect behavior, even more so when shouted in front of the public, press and other competitors. The “cheater” remark also impugns the integrity of an FEI official.
Also, Vaque engaged in incorrect behavior when he encouraged non-accredited members of the public to violate FEI regulations and enter the restricted vet check area.
The tribunal found that he intentionally turned towards the agitated crowd and signalled them to both increase their protesting and to enter the restricted area.
“The tribunal finds that this was an intentional encouragement to violate FEI rules.” Furthermore, it increased the level of agitation of an already angry crowd.
Given these multiple examples of incorrect behaviour, a fine of 2000 Swiss francs was considered proportionate for a first-time offender, as well as the circumstances at the event.
Vaque was also formally suspended for 12 months from acting as an FEI official or having any involvement in FEI activities at a national or international level. The suspension will run until February 24 next year.