The FEI: At the crossroads?

1 Oct


These past few months, the governing body of horse sport has been rocked by very serious yet rather ironic problems.

The head of  horse sport’s international federation (FEI),  Princess Haya, campaigned on  the platform to make ‘clean sport’ one of her priorities and so far, seems to have erred mainly on the side of over-zealous removal of  horses even or especially at Olympic level ,using the incredibly bizarre FEI -mandated condition of ‘hypersensitivity’: ie, a natural occurrence whereby a horse is found to be sensitive on its legs due to absolutely nothing more than its own skin (no drugs/treatments/preparation) BUT is removed from competition because it jumps too well and does not touch the  fences.

(Note: this condition, which is natural and unpreventable, is NOT the same as the FEI category, ‘hypersensitization’, in which drugs/treatment/preparation  DO  contribute to the horse having an unfair advantage over competitors because it jumps too well and does not touch the fences). Hypersensitization was used as a means to disqualify several Olympic competitors in 2008.

Hypersensitivity was used as a reason to disqualify US Olympic mainstay  McLain Ward and his great partner Sapphire from the World Cup Finals a few years ago,  just as they were poised for their historic win. (Much later, the FEI apologized and said it was ‘wrong’ to have disqualified them… just another day at the office.) More recently, hypersensitivity was used at London Olympics  to DQ one of the Canadian show jumpers. The intense reaction from  the Canadian team, their federation—not to mention public ridicule—seems to have made this quasi-legitimate FEI tool go dormant.

Now, it is Princess Haya’s  highly visible husband,  Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum,  in the middle of not one but several widely publicized drugging incidents in not one but two horse sports: endurance over several years and more recently, Thoroughbred racing.  

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has been making  drug test visits to race horse yards since 1998 and in 2002, after years of results and data, made the “testing in training” policy into UN-announced visits.  Some eleven years later, in April, 2013, Sheik Mohammed’s head trainer at one of his British Godolphin  racing yards  was found to have positive steroid tests in 22 of the 45 horses tested.

 The sheikh  responded swiftly:  steroid use in horses is now a criminal offense in his country of Dubai and  all his British race horses were examined thoroughly and moved to another Maktoum training yard which has already  been  examined by the BHA and found drug-free.

The fallout to not only British racing but racing worldwide is still to be seen should the Sheikh  (let alone any of the other  sheikhs) close down any  of their  global racing operations that basically keep the industry afloat—everywhere.  Sheikh Mohammed is arguably the single most powerful figure in current worldwide flat racing.

In Great Britain, the racing authority realized it had to pursue a drug-free sport in order to keep the public’s interest and money flowing. In the U.S., there is growing sentiment that the racehorses deserve better protection from the manipulations of trainers and the desire for win records before the horses are cast aside at age 4 and 5. The court of public opinion turns out to have significance after all.

It is public opinion that  has caused racing’s international  governing body, The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, or IFHA,  to  possibly recommend a total, worldwide ban on administering steroids to racehorses at all times. The IFHA will meet in October,  and the ban could be in place by January, 2014. Here’s hoping.

Endurance  as a sport has basically been transformed by the enthusiastic participation of the sheikhs, from a competition that measures rider and horse’s ability over all kinds of terrain and conditions, with the emphasis on the concept of endurance itself, to what it is now—endurance racing, with horses travelling at speeds that have resulted in unprecedented fractures and other breakdowns.

Endurance used to elicit images of super-conditioned horses, serious, lean riders, negotiating difficult terrain. Best-conditioned horse was an award sought after nearly as much as first place overall.

Much great nutrition and conditioning info came from the endurance ranks, where riders tried to find ways to better manage caloric needs ,shoeing, feet, electrolyte  balance, sweating, fatigue, hydration/etc.

 The emphasis these days is on all-out flat racing  that demands  speed, more speed, and close to heart-stopping speed. Which sometimes  goes  over the limit, resulting in dead horses. Horses  with multiple fractures.  Horses  in grave distress.  Because steroid use exacerbates  bone fractures and breaks as well as joint problems..

Since 2005,more than 20 endurance horses trained in Dubai at stables owned  by Sheikh Mohammed and other members of the Maktoum family have been involved in doping cases that reached  the International Equestrian Federation’s (FEI) disciplinary tribunal . Both the Sheikh and his son have served suspensions.

Sheikh Mohammed married Princess Haya in 2004, two years before she won the presidency of the FEI. In addition to campaigning on the ‘clean sport’ platform, Haya also spoke out for  term limits, and once elected, made sure an amendment was passed limiting a presidency to two consecutive terms. Under her own edict, the Princess is due to step down when the FEI’s General Assembly meets in Montreux, Switzerland in early November, 2013.

Maybe.  And then again, maybe not.


The timeline looks something like this:

April 25, 2013

   The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) bans Mahmood al Zarooni, head trainer,  for 8 years after 22 of 45 Maktoum racehorses test positive for anabolic steroids

May 3, 2013

  At Stansted airport (the local airport for Britain’s racing hub, Newmarket) a huge, illegal shipment of unlicensed veterinary goods (but so far not steroids)  labeled ‘horse tack’  was seized from a Dubai government private jet by UK authorities.


June 2013

  Princess Haya  convenes  crisis talks about endurance and a five-member strategic group is appointed

July 2013

  Various European  federations critique the ‘strategic group’ as not possibly being neutral, as  it includes Saeed Al Tayer, a senior employee of Sheikh Mohammed.


July   2013

  Official press release from FEI informs that “by unanimous decision,” ALL the Regional Chairs of ALL the National Federations  have voted for Haya to seek a 3rd term and have asked for her own amendment to be so changed.

August 7,2013

   124 bottles of unlicensed, illegal drugs  seized during unannounced visit to Moorley Farm, one of the Sheikh’s endurance horse bases in Great Britain.

The BHA insists there is no link between the seizure at either Stansted or Moorley Farm and the racing industry. Putting the ball squarely into the corner of the Sheikh’s endurance interests and trainers.

September 12, 2013

   Princess Haya sends directive to the major components of Sheikh Mohammed’s equine operation, including Darley and Godolphin, to establish a centralised auditing system in order to maintain control over the purchase and movement of veterinary goods.

September 24, 2013

 Princess Haya announces she will NOT seek third term.

Sept.30, 2013

 Sheikh Mohammed directs Princess Haya to open investigation into the drug problems that have cast a heavy cloud of suspicion over  the Sheikh’s farms and horses.


So here we are, about 5 weeks before the FEI General Assembly meets.  The unfolding reality just continues to amaze .




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