Racing: the domain of rich people in silly hats

Way back in her first term as FEI Prez, I remember hearing HRH Princess Haya mention that the disciplines of racing and polo were on her radar as potential future FEI family members. Because WEG isn’t big enough already, right? And because equestrian sport isn’t already an exclusive activity reserved for the world’s one percenters. Well, the line between Thoroughbred racing and the FEI just got a little blurrier. Hot on the heels of the scandal of Sheikh Mohammed’s trainer getting caught giving some of the Sheikh’s racehorses a steroid cocktail as a chaser for their oats, comes yesterday’s bombshell that the Sheikh has appointed his wife, aka HRH, to occupy the Chair’s seat at the Dubai Equestrian Club. As the Wall Street Journal report points out, the Dubai Equestrian Club is an FEI discipline kind of affair, not involved with racing at all. Racing is governed by the Emirates Racing Authority – a completely different animal, so to speak.

Still, one can’t deny the interesting timing of such an appointment. HRH has been described as an FEI Prez ‘elected on a clean sport mandate’, and certainly we have seen improved statistics of late in that regard (except for Endurance Racing that is, which curiously enough is the pet discipline of HRH’s horse loving hubby).  London was declared squeaky clean in spite of the laundry list of past offenders who participated and even won medals there. It would seem that even the most persistent horse ‘medicators’ have learned that drug crime doesn’t pay, not on HRH’s watch, anyway. So did the Good Sheikh decide to appoint his anti-doping wife in an effort to prove his allegiance to clean sport too? I would guess the answer to that question is yes.

Endurance remains the FEI’s worst offender when it comes to doping cases, and the UAE is the most frequent transgressor. But Endurance has more shame to its name than mere banned substances. The Swiss, Belgian and French federations have all written to the FEI with strongly worded requests that HQ do some major housecleaning on behalf of horse welfare in Endurance. That their concerns are valid is underlined by the fact that even an Endurance website has published a story about it as well as posted all the letters from the national federations.  If there were no merit to the accusations of cruelty – from catastrophic leg fractures to horses dying of exhaustion in races – surely the industry itself wouldn’t be so quick to air these dirty little secrets?  As for the FEI, it has remained mum on the topic, and as far as I know they have yet to officially respond to the requests.

But back to horse racing. The links between the FEI and that industry are getting too numerous to ignore. Let’s not forget that Longines is a major supporter of horse racing, to name one recent new thread in the web. Here’s what bothers me about the whole picture. Throw enough money at something and get enough people depending on you for their bread and butter, and you become too big to fail. It’s all over the British news this week: there is a real concern that Sheikh Mohammed will pull all or some of his horses out of England, or will just dump racing altogether. And that has people who depend, directly or indirectly, on his massive investments in British racing, full of Kierkegardiaan fear and trembling. So much so that while he owns the yard and horses that have become the Lance Armstrong story of racing, everyone is terrified to say he could be in any way guilty, even by association.

I should think HRH would have an Everest to climb if she were to set herself to bringing racing into the FEI fold, and by extension cleaning it up to the level of the FEI’s WADA-like doping standards.  But stranger things have happened, as they say.

Since I’m talking about racing, I thought I’d share a rather ridiculous video with you. Don’t worry, the horse isn’t hurt, though someone’s ego takes quite a bruising in the mishap.  If you always wondered how many bodyguards the leader of Turkmenistan has, here’s your answer.