Hands-up anyone who seriously thought the UAE would be on best/better behaviour at Saturday’s world endurance championship (WEC) ride in Samorin, Slovakia?
Having learned nothing whatsoever from the litany of criticism, FEI suspensions and legal agreements, the UAE delivered even worse results than at WEG 2014 and managed to kill their stable star. Not one individual got round by using their trademark burn-out strategy.
Yet all were mounted on seasoned troopers, some prepped by their trainer-mentor Juma Punti Dachs, who steamed through to take two WEC golds for his native Spain with Twyst Maison Blanche. The defending champion Sheikh Hamdan went out for lameness at gate 4 having led with Ramaah.
Only 47 finished out of a field of 134. The sport should be ashamed by both the 35% completion rate and that the provisional first three were eventually ruled out, two for lameness and one for metabolics. Two were Emiratis, one a Uruguayan, another nation fixated on the racing-style sport.
There was some good riding but the overall picture was dire. At Rio, experienced Paralympic dressage rider Philippa Johnson-Dwyer was eliminated for a small spur mark on her horse’s flanks under the blood rules. Philippa lost the use of an arm and has spinal injuries, so any tiny abrasion could possibly have been caused by a totally understandable momentary loss of balance on her part. Yet at a world title endurance ride, for every sympathetic rider you’ll see another that has barely mastered rising trot yet is permitted to crash along for 100 miles hanging on to a mouthful of hardware that would shame the Spanish Inquisition. But then again, large numbers of the public are less likely to watch endurance than an arena sport on TV like dressage: silly me.
The UAE also lost Ajayeb, ride of Sheikh Rashid Dalmook al Maktoum. Ajayeb sustained an open fracture of the cannon bone, the sort seen too often in the desert rides. To add to the catastrophe, witnesses tell me that Ajayeb broke free from a makeshift screen made of sheets and tried to run on three legs after her companions whose riders had continued on their way. She had been up with the front-runners in loops 1, 2 and 3.
Ajayeb was clearly a very special robot who has been passed round the wider Maktoum clan so they can all win something big. Yamamah, winner of WEG 2014, is a previous holder of this dubious honour. Ajayeb won the 2015 Europeans, also at Samorin under Punti Dachs. In January she won Dubai’s most prestigious ride, the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Cup under Sheikh Hamdan.
In her 13 career FEI starts Ajayeb was ridden three times by her original Italian partner, then by six different UAE-related jockeys in 10 rides. That says it all about the lack of respect for “partnership” which is behind the sport’s demise.
Rashid has competed Ajayeb just three times before. They won two 120km rides in 12 months, but there must be something wrong with a qualification procedure that allows rider and horse to start a 160km championship when they haven’t once completed this distance together. The only time they even attempted 160km as a combination was at a Maktoum-promoted ride at Numana, Italy in June 2012, where Ajayeb was eliminated at gate 1 for reasons not discernible from the results.
You don’t have to qualify as a combination if the rider is a “senior elite athlete” (a misnomer if ever there was one). The rules even allow for “senior elite athletes” not to have previously ridden the horse at all, the case with Juma and Hamdan’s rides. Winning on a strange horse isn’t something to be proud of in this day and age. This is another aspect of qualification painfully overdue for review, especially when the FEI website continues to spout that “the rider must know his mount well enough to bring them through a gruelling day.”
From the extensive footage I have viewed from Samorin, it seems officials turned a blind-eye to mobile crewing with slosh bottles and the five crew limit per horse being exceeded at the gates. It was pretty humid, and when FEI officials have already ceded control of the sport to the extent that only a minority can be relied upon to ride according to the conditions, it’s become non-negotiable to allow the mobile crewing to make things minorly less stressful for horses?
The high speeds and low completion rate were entirely predictable on this flat course. After stripping Dubai of the 2016 WEC, the FEI rejected bids from Fontainbleau and Brussels, technical courses with the modicum of possibility for slowing horses down. The FEI said those two venues would have staged WEC at a time of year when shorter daylight hours posed safety issues. The FEI has often approved schedules for night-rides in Group 7 (Middle East), so the sceptic in me feels that Samorin was favoured to sweeten-up the venue’s owner Mario Hoffman. Samorin is a major centre and a possible host for WEG 2018 now that Bromont has dropped out.
As it turned out, many horses didn’t look especially safe in Samorin. While credit should be given to vets for doing their job rigorously, the overriding concern was, well, all the over-riding. The resultant eliminations seem to be accepted as a necessary evil. Where is the notion of easing back and nursing home your horse for a completion?
I thought “fit to continue” meant what it says, or nowadays is it simply code for “still upright?” The provisional winner Nopoli del Mar (Saif Ahmed Al Mozroui, number 71 for the UAE) could barely put one foot before the other on the trot-up strip. This clip shows him being dragged along from about 1 min 11 secs. The vets made the poor bugger jog again before he was vetted out, if you can bear to keep watching. Yes, folks this wretched creature was individual gold medal contender at a FEI World Championship!
Quran el Ulm, the provisional third was ridden by the UAE’s Abdullah Ghanim al Marri. Al Marri had more results voided than any other after the phantom rides scandal. Aged 21, he has already been disqualified twice from rides that apparently did take place for “not complying with many rules.” At Samorin, Quran el Ulm failed on metabolics. He also went out at gate 3 for metabolics at WEG 2014 – a colic requiring veterinary intervention, when also piloted by Al Marri.
At Samorin his vet card suggests Quran was tiring and dropped back in speed in the fourth loop. But Al Marri could not then resist joining in the cavalry charge to the finish line with a loop average of nearly 30kph. No surprise he left it to the 29th minute (cut off is 30 min) for his final presentation with pulse rate of 80/80. To pass it must be 64/64. Shaddad, the fifth UAE horse, ridden by Sheikh Hamed Dalmook al Maktoum, went out for metabolics at gate 3.
After every major event the FEI issues a ready-made competition report which of course many media will use without further embellishment because it is free. The FEI press release about Samorin was remarkably brief and did not arrive in my mailbox till after 2am, 10 hours after Juma was confirmed as winner. It must have required a lot of work by the damage-limitation department. The UAE’s failure to complete and Ajayeb’s demise are mentioned, though the dire completion rate isn’t recorded at all.
In general terms, are the medal-winning Spaniards giving a better message about the direction the sport needs to take? Juma recorded final loop speeds of over 29kph (as did seven others) and the eventual silver medallist Alex Luque Moral a staggering 34.2 kph.
Best condition – or “least worst?”
Meanwhile, I hope the British Equestrian Federation (BEF) and Endurance GB (EGB) are suitably chastened about cosying-up to the Maktoums so as to enable the reintroduction of FEI rides at the Dubai contingent’s long-time British base, Euston Park. New-look Euston has taught the UAE zip, zero and zilch.
While other nations who practice classic endurance have been actively distancing themselves from Group 7, some Brits have peddled the nebulous line that the UAE could be reformed through education and being led by our example. The only entities which have been “led” are the BEF/EGB – right up the garden path.
From the start of the millennium to August 2012, Euston hosted 27 Maktoum-funded weekends of competition. Records show the official FEI sampling vet attended just 11 times. When the Godolphin thoroughbred doping scandal in April 2013 led to increased media scrutiny of UAE endurance too, Dubai cancelled the 2013 Euston season in a hissy-fit.
I guess they then realised this was a tad hasty, giving them nowhere to compete over their preferred fast courses during the English summer. Euston is in East Anglia, one of the flattest parts of the UK. So having apparently been offered a lump of money by the Maktoums’ Meydan corporation, EGB had a go at reintroducing Euston. This caused a huge ruckus within the EGB membership, some of whom had become increasingly alarmed by welfare issues in Dubai. EGB dropped the idea just days before the UAE federation was suspended by the FEI in March 2015.
I mentioned in this blog in January that these talks were back on, though it was many months before our horsey authorities steeled themselves to confirm it publicly. Instead of Meydan, the ride sponsor was nominally Dubai’s Emirates Airlines. Longines also stumped up some dosh. I am bewildered why the FEI president provided a gushing welcome message for the 2016 Euston publicity material when the venue is still associated with personnel with whom FEI is declining to work in Dubai.
Leading show jumping promoter Horsepower (of Olympia fame) was hired to be Euston organiser, a new acceptable face. I have no doubt whatsoever that Horsepower’s Eustons were beautifully managed, but that’s not the point. No OC is responsible for the conduct/athletic effort of competitors. That’s down to the FEI officials, and the ones listed didn’t seem much different to before. When people variously contacted EGB, BEF and/or Horsepower to ask if the Euston revival was on, one invariably referred the caller back to the other two.
Once the four summer Euston CEIs were underway, some clashing with established rides who were apparently not consulted about their incredibly late appearance in the calendar, the educational plan revolved round a handsomely-funded “best condition” award.
But anyone who understands the nuances of training for recovery saw straight through this ruse. For this reason, there were no Euston-related editorial commissions available that would have even covered my travel expenses, so I did not go up there to watch. I daresay some reckon I am not qualified to comment if I didn’t attend, though you can learn everything you want to from the results – low completion rates, and speeds just as fast as old Euston, indeed, faster. Ajayeb’s 2-star 120km win here under Rashid recorded an average 26kph, four weeks before Samorin.
If Euston genuinely wanted to educate it could have adopted the well received (well received everywhere other than Dubai, that is) BouThib best condition protocols. They pivot largely around a controlled average speed of 20kph, and tighter presentation times and heart-rate parameters. Their promoter HH Sheikh Sultan al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi firmly believes that a heart-rate recovery parameter of 56 bpm (beats per minute) in every loop is the only way to claw back the core values, and reduce attrition.
But no, “new” Euston contrived a scenario enabling the UAE to conduct business as usual. Its “best condition” was open to those finishing within an hour of the winner, giving front-runners, i.e. the Emiratis, no incentive to slow down and the hangers-on, i.e. the Brits and sundry other foreign nationals, every incentive to push on out of their comfort zone. Not so much a best condition award as the least-worst.
Unusually, there were five prizes per class – FEI rules provide for a Best Condition award in the singular. All the money was to be pooled if there were fewer than five contenders, which in itself tells you a lot about expectations. In one young riders’ 120km class there were only two starters and so the only one to finish pocketed £11,500!