It started with a fiasco, and ended in controversy.
The endurance competition at the 2018 World Equestrian Games is a new low point in a discipline that’s been mired with welfare and rule-breaking violations in recent years.
Reduced to a 120km race after the morning’s false start debacle, the ride dissolved in chaotic scenes when it was cancelled altogether, with the leader, Spain’s Alex Luque Moral, more than halfway finished the final 28.2km loop.
Questions remain as to the official time at which the competition was cancelled, and why many horses remained on course for nearly an hour after the announcement. Riders and supporters were outraged – already riled from the mishandling of the race start – and the crowd erupted, whistling and shouting, with many of them running towards the fences surrounding the vet check areas.
Calls for calm were ignored, and the security and police were quickly brought in.
The decisions both to reduce the race length and re-start it, after competitors had already completed a 40km loop, and then to call the whole thing off, are massively contentious, and will no doubt have enormous repercussions for international endurance.
The cancellation call was a unanimous decision between the president of the ground jury, the technical delegate, the president of the veterinary commission and the organising committee, citing welfare of the horses in the hot and humid conditions.
New Zealand’s two riders – Jenny Champion aboard Barak Obama and Philip Graham on Rosewood Bashir – were both on their second loop and had each withdrawn from the competition shortly before the cancellation announcement was made.
Jenny says her priority was to look after her 20-year-old horse. “He was really feeling the heat,” she says. “We had already done 90km if you include the first loop this morning. It is a long way to come for this to happen.”
She says the marking on the ride had been very good, but the track got very stodgy after a particularly heavy downpour. “It made it quite treacherous for horses and then when the sun came out it was so hot. I am disappointed, but I know I did the right thing.”
Philip had not long passed Jenny when he too pulled out of the race. “We had a drink at a creek crossing and he just was not as responsive as usual. With heat and humidity like that, things were only going to go one way. I am just disappointed for the day and the event and the way it transpired. It is quite an historic day for endurance.”
Philip said the terrain was very demanding even without the humidity. “We did the best we could.”
The president of the veterinary commission, Thomas Timmons, says the cancellation of the ride had been done with horse and athlete welfare in mind. “The conditions this afternoon after the rain resulted in extremely high levels of humidity and, combined with the rising heat, it was deemed unsafe to continue the ride.”
It’s a bitter, bitter disappointment for the riders who have travelled from all around the world to compete – and in the case of our New Zealand pair had fundraised extensively to pay for it – and who had already ridden for many hours.
The planned 160km championship ride got off to a terrible start – some of the competitors were sent on the wrong route by officials, and the competition was stopped at the first vet gate. By that time most riders had covered around 40km. Organisers then restarted the ride as a 120km championship, nearly five hours later, having put all the horses through another vet check.
But by then angry scenes were erupting, notably within the UAE camp. Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, was sponsoring the event through his Meydan corporation, and his son, Crown Prince HH Hamdan al Maktoum was vying to claim gold again following victory in 2014.
Officials tried to stop the UAE 4* judge Ahmed AL Hammadi broadcasting his altercation with FEI officials on Facebook.
On the official livestream, a Spanish team member could be seen being wrongly directed soon after the start, while the GPS tracking showed two other horses running back in the direction of the vet gate when they should have turned right. About 20 riders then encountered others coming the other way at a bridge.
Chef d’equipe for the New Zealand endurance team, Sue Reid, says it was a “challenging” start to the day. When the 160km ride was cancelled a petition was circulated calling for people to support horses and riders being flown to Europe for another shot at the championships. Eighteen of the 40 countries in the ride agreed, with two later withdrawing their support. New Zealand did not sign the petition.
“We worked for two years to get here,” says Sue, “there were just too many variables involved. The petition was very controversial.”
The Independent Equestrian Community Integrity Unit (ECIU) is now investigating the circumstances that resulted in some riders being “misdirected” in the early parts of the course. The FEI has said that the investigation will be made public after it has been presented to the FEI Bureau, and will include interviews with officials, volunteers, the organising committee and all other relevant personnel.
A statement issued to media said there was no possibility to re-schedule the ride, and that the ground jury had to take a “pragmatic” approach. It added that the rules allow this sort of decision. “In any unforeseen or exceptional circumstances, it is the duty of the ground jury and the veterinarians to make a decision in a sporting spirit and approaching, as nearly as possible, to the intention of these rules and to the general rules of the FEI.”
There are unconfirmed reports that the UAE has already offered to re-stage a world endurance championship in four months’ time and help all affected national teams with costs.
That would pose a further dilemma for the FEI, because it stripped Dubai of hosting the stand-alone world championship in 2016 “because horse welfare could not be guaranteed” at the Dubai venue.