Spontaneous applause erupted when Fédération Equestre Internationale president HRH Princess Haya announced that the Saudi Equestrian Fund would be the new sponsor of the FEI show jumping Nations Cup series for 2012, with plans for a refreshing new look.
But only a tiny handful of the 280 delegates at the inaugural FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne, Switzerland, held April 30-May 2, understood exactly what they were cheering. On the next day, many were stunned by revelations that the format of the current Promotional and Top leagues would be scrapped, and starting in 2013, the Nations Cup series would be run under a knock-out format involving dozens more countries from equestrian’s expanding world.
The first Nations Cup took place in 1909, but the FEI series has struggled to retain a true commercial sponsor since 2008, when Samsung ended its 13-year support. Meydan, Dubai’s showcase racing development, sponsored the series in 2009 and 2010, but in 2011 they too dropped their support. FEI officials said that the format currently in use, which was created in 1964, is outdated and does not meet the needs of the sport as it develops outside of Europe.
If the FEI Bureau ratifies the new proposal in November, then in 2013 there could be just three legs: a preliminary, semi-finals and a final. Each preliminary would be seeded, with two strong nations going up against six or seven that may not have jumped in a Nations Cup before. The track for the first round would be lower, with only the best jumping a second round the same day with no drop score.
Under the proposed reforms, all national federations interested in competing would be divided into groups, preferably by region and, in order to ensure fair competition, the strongest national federations would be equally spread over the different groups. Other national federations would be added to the groups based upon regional criteria and/or by a draw. A maximum of four teams from each semi-final would qualify for the final, producing either eight or 12 teams, depending on the number of semi-finals.
Just seven or eight shows could be involved worldwide, and a further condition of hosting these classes would be that the Nations Cup would be the most important competition of the event, with the highest level of prize money and media exposure. Shows hosting a Nations Cup would have to promote it above their signature grand prix event.
The participants at the forum accepted that the current system isn’t sustainable. In the absence of a sponsor, the FEI underwrote the eight-show Top League last year with more than $2 million, and FEI secretary general Ingmar de Vos made it clear it would not happen in that format in 2013.
But Damian McDonald of Ireland warned against “unintended consequences.” These included potential funding shortfalls for CSIOs excluded after 2013, campaign issues for far-flung federations like Australia that dare not travel for risk of being knocked out in Round 1, and suggestions that overall quality would decline.
“We don’t want to hurry this, as the side effects are not so obvious,” added George Dimaras of Greece. “We may achieve universality but lose the added value the CSIO has brought to all shows. Are other products pushing us to this direction, rather than us electing to make this change? It will mean just one team competition per year for most of us. Why would a country like mine go to compete against a strong country like Britain at Hickstead? That is completely without logic.”
Jan Willem Korner, the organizer of the Rotterdam Nations Cup (the Netherlands) and a board member of the International Equestrian Organizers Association said: “We recognize the need to change, but this is not a happy structure. It is not attractive to an organizer to have Germany but also Bulgaria, and it is not attractive to an audience to have such disparity in quality. I cannot imagine Rotterdam or Rome without their grands prix, so they will probably opt out and invite who they want.”
“I am not happy with your comment about quality,” retorted de Vos. “Sport is emerging in all parts of the world. One of the reasons it cannot improve is because we don’t give them a chance to go into a system to improve.”
The Saudi Equestrian Fund will only take up a five-year option to continue sponsoring if the Nations Cup is opened up in this way.
John Long, CEO of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, complimented the FEI Jumping Committee on its “intriguing” concept but asked if there would be help for transportation costs for teams competing out of their continent. This seems likely, but the Saudi fund had not yet finalized details or disclosed the value of the deal.
After a long debate, FEI Jumping Committee chairman John Madden said: “This is a great day, not a disastrous day for our sport. If we do nothing we will probably survive, but we could be a front page sport instead of a third page sport.”
The Nations Cup re-vamp was one of several proposals to bring “transparency” to international jumping. Madden said the calendar was cluttered, with too many wanting to jump at too many shows every weekend, raising horse welfare implications.
A system to solve date clash disputes was overdue, so the committee unveiled new criteria for star ratings. Prize money would no longer decide. Instead, a panel would assess stabling, footing, shopping and even hospitality. Shows failing on key equine issues would face downgrading.
There will be tougher limits on wild cards and pay-to-enter “invitations.”
“That is the elephant in the room. It may be news to some people, but not everyone in the world is honest,” said Madden, who felt both systems currently enabled riders of limited talent to climb the Rolex rider rankings.
The Global Champions Tour is known to offer many “pay cards.” Elenora Ottaviani, director of the International Jumping Riders Club, criticized the GCT for this and for the decision to compete with four European CSIO dates in 2012.
“We respect GCT and thank you for your series, but this does not have to be the model. Please remember there are other shows, that other people have other ideas, and discuss with the chef d’equipes when we have a date clash,” she said.
Francois Mathy Jr. outlined the IJRC’s changes to the rider rankings formula, limiting shows to four ranking classes each. “We have some five-star shows with nine ranking classes in a weekend, while 10 percent of classes have less than 16 riders, making points allocations unfair,” he said.
A Step Back For Horse Welfare
In the endurance forum, the delegates, who were largely veterinarians, held a passionate debate about alleged attrition and doping in Middle Eastern rides, seen as a step back for horse welfare. They expressed concern that these problems may lead to negative perceptions of general equestrianism, especially because endurance is now the FEI’s second-largest participant discipline.
There were calls for compulsory equine autopsies plus wastage monitoring after FEI judge and former Endurance Committee member Jean-Louis Leclerc raised allegations of multiple fractures from single stables in a season.
FEI Veterinary Delegate Fred Barrelet of Switzerland labeled the high level of endurance medication violations “disgraceful.” Of 23 multi-sport cases currently before the FEI Tribunal, 14 involve endurance in Arabic states.
“If we analyze the substances now found, they go from the usual ones due to ignorance, to substances only somebody with huge knowledge and imagination could dream of putting in a horse. This is malicious, intentional rule-breaking and should be hammered,” said Barrelet.
Leclerc wondered whether endurance should split in two: the racing sport favored in the Middle East, where some now use prepared footings causing even faster speeds, and the technical discipline as practiced in North America, Europe and elsewhere. This was unanimously rejected.
For the United Arab Emirates, Dr. Hallvard Sommerseth said that the practice riders being the Person Responsible meant that, in the Middle East, the wrong person was often punished.
There, endurance is trainer-led, using catch-riding jockeys from Bangladesh or Pakistan with no knowledge of their horses until the day. He said the UAE federation undertakes more national testing than most federations, reporting offenders to the FEI, which posts them online for months, making the incidence look worse than it is.
FEI director of non-Olympic sports Ian Williams said endurance’s extensive welfare-led rules must be better enforced. “To retain four-star status, apply the rules or you too will be subject to suspension and demotion,” he warned organizers.
Endurance also discussed rider licensing, as did eventing, whose mini-forum heard safety-led proposals to formalize rider competence and integrate it into qualifications. For instance, a two-star licensed eventing rider would need more qualifying results with a preliminary horse than a four-star rider. Equally, riders could be downgraded for two jump-related falls in a 12-month rolling period.
However, further safety-led proposals to reduce speeds at CICs to 20 meters per minute less than CCIs weren’t favored by technical delegates including Roger Haller of the United States.
“We think the faster speeds [at CICs] help you get ready for the main event. The obstacles are not as complicated, because the designers are making the adjustment,” he said. “I doubt the U.S. will change its national speeds to comply.”
Michael Etherington-Smith of Great Britain concurred. “The cross-country needs to retain its relative influence, but by reducing speeds you are potentially reducing its relevance, and that is the beginning of a slippery slope,” he said.
FEI eventing chairman Giuseppe della Chiesa of Italy said future rule changes must emphasize personal responsibility.
“The qualifying system has created a thinking that you are competent, nearly urged to upgrade. Some people may be great two-star riders, but they should not go three-star. We must find a way to make it clear that if and when you upgrade remains with the rider under control of their national federation,” he said.
To minimize confusion, CCI and CIC will be referred to in the future as long and short format respectively.
The forum was the initiative of Princess Haya, and her ambitions for good-natured but no-holds-barred debate were achieved. Next year’s forum will focus on dressage and reining, which weren’t included this time.
All proposed rule changes are subject to ratification by the FEI Bureau in November