The 27-month FEI suspension on a virtually unknown Qatari endurance rider Nasser Khalifa NJ Al Thani received a lot of media coverage recently.
There is nothing new, of course, about an endurance rider from Group 7 (Middle East) being banned for doping, but the reason it is now News with a capital N is simple: the FEI has a new policy of issuing press releases about Tribunal decisions. To date, they have only issued statements about cases with an Olympic or World Equestrian Games connection – with the obvious exception of the Jock Paget case, the subject of media frenzy.
This welcome initiative means those interested no longer have to consult the Tribunal database every other day, waiting for something new to pop up. In future, every media outlet will receive a ready-to-use story. If this spurs more colleagues to then read the much juicier, full decision notice I am all for it. The detailed evidence therein provides a snap-shot of the some very strange goings-on.
I am only sad this publicity drive didn’t happen much, much sooner, and that large numbers of people were not reading and thus reacting to these serial endurance horror stories decades ago. In fact, I emailed the FEI in May 2013 enquiring about its lack of publicity for dope cases: the International Cycling Union did not, after all, expect the public to find out by osmosis that Lance Armstrong was banned. Public shaming of offenders is surely a major tool in the fight for clean sport, I asked?
It’s easy to conclude that one considerable disincentive to “announce” the latest FEI doping ban, up to 2013 at least, was because it would have regularly featured horses trained in stables owned by in-laws of the then FEI president.
It was by spending a week wading through literally hundreds of pages of Tribunal reports in spring 2013 that the true awfulness of Middle East endurance fully registered with me. I’d heard the rumours, of course, but reform has been thwarted – and to some extent still will be – by the reluctance of witnesses to go on the record. But here was lots of evidence, already legally tested.
As early as 2006, the FEI Tribunal was expressing its frustration to apparently deaf ears that in Group 7 endurance folk routinely compete horses they don’t know, and that it had no powers to punish all relevant people. It took five years to rectify the latter, when trainers could be finally disciplined alongside the rider as “support personnel”.
The UAE is now apparently working hard to persuade the FEI it has seen the light, and to lift its suspension. But here are some low-lights from past Tribunal reports to remind us, as if we needed it, just how deeply entrenched is the culture of cheating, the worrying complicity of senior persons in doping offences including vets, and general disregard of authority in the UAE:
- Among the first trainers banned under heightened Tribunal powers was Ali Salman Al Sabri, who got 16 months in 2011 when four horses he trained in the Maktoums’ Emaar barn tested positive to a steroid deriving from the “de-stressing” additive HPC. The Tribunal criticised Al Sabri for giving HPC to two further horses when on notice that his first two horses were positive.
- When Sheikh Mohammed served a six-month ban in 2009, the Tribunal recognised that a head of state could not work in a barn but added: “The PR [Sheikh Mohammed] claimed on the one hand that his stables are first-class stables, properly managed with all of the appropriate controls in effect” yet “no details of the outcome of the PR’s enquiries were submitted to the Tribunal, nor were any proposed changes to stable management introduced.” The Tribunal said: “As a person of high government status executes his governmental role from a position of authority and effective delegation, the same principle should apply to stable management.”
- When Sheikh Hamdan junior, our illustrious world champion, was also banned in 2009, he opined that barn staff were competitive and had probably doped the horses. If so, said the Tribunal, why he did act upon these suspicions? The Tribunal wanted “comfort” that the [Maktoum] family barns were being “properly and effectively supervised.” Since then, the Tribunal has questioned the outcome of three other promised but apparently unfulfilled barn management reviews in other UAE cases.
- In 2007 a product called The Enhancer was deemed the source of the banned steroid found in Little Joe Fox at the Maktoums’ Fazaa barn. In March 2013, by then known to contain banned substances, The Enhancer was implicated at a different barn, having been “recommended” by vet Dr. Massimo Puccetti, a long-time staffer at the Dubai Equine Hospital who has also been active as a CEI official. The Tribunal noted Dr. Puccetti’s involvement in “several past cases” and said the barn should “choose a trustworthy and knowledgeable veterinarian ….we find the vet [Dr. Puccetti] seems not have fulfilled these criteria.”
- The Maktoums’ Al Aasfa endurance barn figured in nine Tribunal cases between 2005 – 2013, two involving horses trained by Ismail Mohammed, the rest by Mubarak Bin Shafya. In two cases of stanozolol (the same steroid found in the Godolphin racehorses two years ago) Bin Shafya blamed a groom, Mohammed Shabbir Khan. Bin Shafya said he’d called in Dubai police who allegedly found Khan’s fingerprints on two vials. The Tribunal did not accept Khan had administered the stanozolol, or that the fingerprints were even his. The Tribunal was worried that “neither Bin Shafya nor Dr. Gugliemone [barn vet] are in a position to unequivocally explain the occurrence of the 2009 and 2010 anti-doping cases of horses under their care.”
- In another 2011 hearing involving Al Aasfa a locum vet, Dr. Bahaa Mohammed Salah Hamed, admitted administering stanozolol; Bin Shafya said Dr. Bahaa told him stanozolol was available on the black market.
- The Tribunal also viewed “with abhorrence” the riding of horses for 160km on etorphine, a drug featured in four cases in Dubai in 2009. It is an opiod analgesic a thousand times more potent than morphine.
- Eons ago, the Tribunal was also worried about elderly horses. In 2008, the 15-year-old Little Joe Fox tested positive again, this time after being medicated to “reduce lameness and swelling” before a competition. Barn vet Dr. Mohammed Moussa (later employed at Dubai Equine Hospital), injected Vetalog which contained a banned substance. The Tribunal was “very reluctant to accept that old horses are monitored and medicated to keep them competing.”
- In 2009, the Tribunal banned another 15-year-old, Bebabeloula, one of several horses forcibly grounded long-term by Tribunal “for their own welfare”. He had been regularly medicated for a joint problem. Bebabeloula returned to competition after his ban expired and, aged 19, is recorded as starting a 160km ride in February 2013. With the phantom ride and horse passport anomalies that have since come to light, we could hope, I suppose, this was a case of a younger horse using the poor old bugger’s ID.
- Tribunal decision notices also provide early evidence that the UAE federation was comfortable with fakery. They admitted forging the signature of rider Mohammed Rashed Al Abbar on paperwork in an earlier, 2010 doping offence. This may have seemed a minor faux pas to the FEI at the time, because Al Abbar’s horse had indeed tested positive, but the forgery aspect bit them on the behind last year when the CAS reduced his ban.
As FEI president, Ingmar de Vos has found the teeth to deal with Group 7 endurance that he was apparently unable to bare when merely secretary-general to Haya.
De Vos is certainly making up for lost time. Aside from the UAE suspension, in recent weeks we’ve heard about new proposals to close legal loopholes that previously enabled offenders to wriggle out of horse swaps allegations and the like, and the creation of new offences such as match-fixing and – at last – of bringing equestrianism into disrepute.
Then last month, the FEI issued 15 pages of guidelines on evidence-gathering to event judges and officials, explaining how they play detective. This must record dates and times of witnessed incidents, carry re-sealable plastic evidence bags, labels and a digital camera, and use disposable gloves to prevent contamination or accusations of “tampering.”
The FEI says its Equine Community Integrity Unit cannot attend every show.
“So it is up to you [officials] to correctly obtain and record valuable information,” it says. “Any incident should be treated seriously and professionally. Any matter has the potential to go to the FEI Tribunal or ultimately CAS, so the correct action at the offset will go a long way to ensure a fair outcome.”
Meanwhile, some media colleagues were dismayed that last month the CAS reduced to 18 months the 27-month FEI ban imposed on Sheikh Hazza Bin Sultan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi over a positive test in 2012. The CAS ruling (all 48 pages of which can be found here) found Sheikh Hazza bore no significant fault or negligence because measures applied at the ruling family’s W’rsan barn and attempts to employ senior and responsible staff. But he was by no means let off the hook, and the CAS ruling was not the setback for clean sport you might imagine by just reading the headlines.
The case was not, in fact, finally ruled upon until the suspension had already been served. Sheikh Hazza hired a distinguished London legal firm, Mischon de Reya, to challenge the strict liability of the rider, the principle of which is a special thorn in the side to the UAE, where riders of varying degrees of competence like to just turn up on the day and sit on whatever unfortunate conveyance is handed to them.
Despite reducing the ban, the CAS wasn’t having it than any rider could be absolved of blame. Had the CAS wholly upheld the appeal, it would have been 10 times harder for the FEI to cajole/persuade/educate hundreds of UAE riders to try some actual horsemanship and get to know their mounts.