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May 21, 2013

Doping Scandal Rocks Middle East Endurance

Prominent European federations are pressuring the Fédération Equestre Internationale to “clean up” endurance riding in the Middle East. Photo by Lisa Slade.

Prominent European federations are pressuring the Fédération Equestre Internationale to “clean up” endurance riding in the Middle East, citing the high incidence of doping and equine fractures in the area.

The Swiss Equestrian Federation is currently in strong correspondence with the FEI—some of which has leaked onto the web—saying the “negative evolution” of endurance is so unacceptable a breakaway sport should be considered. Belgian officials have complained about “unimaginable proportions” of leg injuries, and the French are asking for a clean-up before the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in their country to avoid “a welfare scandal at a major event.”

And while the FEI is understood to have already taken stronger action, including directly appointing some of the officials at rides in the United Arab Emirates from the start of their next winter season, the Swiss remain dissatisfied with the FEI response and last week made further written demands.

Swiss Federation President Charles Trolliet produced graphs using data from the FEI Tribunal website to illustrate that from January 2010 to December 2012, 41 endurance horses globally tested positive, and more than 80 percent of the eventual cases before the FEI Tribunal came from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan and Qatar, all in FEI Group VII. Thirteen people from Group VII were suspended, seven of them UAE. 

If Group VII countries are excluded, endurance worldwide has a cleaner doping record than show jumping.

Trolliet said: “We abstain from listing the multitude of witnessed and documented cruelties to horses, including shocking veterinarian reports concerning health issues, tremendous fracture frequencies and dangerous treatment protocols, speed-inducing changes in topography of the competitions, as well as cheating actions before and during the endurance races, in parallel with the non-taking of responsibility of certain officials and FEI staff.”

All this makes uncomfortable reading for Princess Haya, FEI President. Doping linked to the employees of her husband and his family comprise a notable proportion of the positive tests across the Middle East flagged by the Swiss.

The FEI replied two weeks ago, but a spokesman said they had no plans to publish the reply.

By chance, equestrian concerns have come into the wider domain at the same time as intensive U.K. media scrutiny of world endurance champion Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin horseracing operation in Newmarket. Last month 11 horses tested positive for steroids during a spot check by the British Horseracing Authority and led to trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni being banned for eight years. 

Al Zarooni then admitted to giving steroids—banned in training as well as in racing in the United Kingdom—to four further horses. Since a lockdown by Sheikh Mohammed of the Al Zarooni barn, the BHA has detected steroids in seven extra horses, including Encke, who unexpectedly ended Camelot’s live bid on the European Triple Crown by beating him in the St Leger last September.

The media have registered that Al Zarooni worked for a year under FEI offender Mubarak Bin Shafya, who has trained both race horses and endurance horses for the Maktoum family from Al Aasfa stables in Dubai in the UAE.

Bin Shafya was first fined as an endurance rider, but he was not suspended in 2008 for a doping offense. In October 2011 the FEI Tribunal noted that in two years, five endurance horses trained by Bin Shafya had tested positive, four of them to the steroid stanozolol. Bin Shafya initially escaped censure because FEI rules deem the rider the Person Responsible, but in 2011 he was banned for two years (ending January 2013 due to back-dating) under strengthened FEI powers to sanction “support personnel.”            

It has now emerged that more than 20 endurance horses trained in Dubai at barns owned by members of the Maktoum family have been involved in doping cases since 2005. The Tribunal has banned several horses for welfare reasons, one of them Lienka, an older mare at Al Aasfa. In imposing her 24-month suspension the Tribunal cited Bin Shafya’s failure to “unequivocally explain the occurrence of the 2009 and 2010 anti-doping cases of horses in their care.”

Sheikh Mohammed’s brother Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid owns the Seeh Al Salaam endurance barn in Dubai. Its main trainer Ali Mohammed Al Muhairi is currently serving four years, equestrian sport’s longest ban, for his second doping offense. The length was influenced by his disrespect for an existing suspension, according to Tribunal reports, during which he entered the field of play. He was snapped in a press photo, standing on a winner’s podium onto which Al Muhairi claimed he had been invited by the general secretary of the UAE Equestrian Federation. Al Muhairi was first banned for 10 months when the horse Sudan tested positive to etorphine, an opioid analgesic. At that time, the FEI Tribunal viewed “with abhorrence” the riding of a horse for 100 miles on this substance.

Meanwhile, Sheikh Mohammed walked away on live TV when revered broadcaster Clare Balding asked him about the Godolphin scandal during network coverage of the Guineas, first Classic of the U.K. racing. Pundits are trying to gauge the likelihood of Sheikh Mohammed withdrawing his massive investment in U.K. horseracing because the story will not go away.

One early apparent casualty is the four-ride FEI season at Euston Park, cancelled suddenly two weeks ago. Endurance GB was given no reason by Euston Park—host of last year’s world championships—or its sponsor, Dubai Equestrian Club of which Princess Haya is chairman. The United Kingdom has only six remaining FEI rides, and many competitors will now have to travel to Europe to get WEG qualifications.

Top endurance rider Christine Yeoman told Horse & Hound magazine:  “You're always going to be one step behind them; they have the most amazing facilities. But at least if you knew they weren't using drugs you could compete. They [the Middle East] will compromise their horses; we won't.”

Tents have still gone up at Euston. The UAE squad, now in residence for the European summer endurance season, is expected to go ahead on the old FEI dates with private “training rides.” 

 
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