Endurance racing needed a smooth day out on Friday at Windsor, after the negative publicity that has surrounded it in recent days. The Queen attended, the United Arab Emirates took three of the first four places, and no positive tests were reported - for the moment at least.
For those not familiar with this niche equestrian pursuit, an endurance ride involves a course of up to 100 miles long which must be completed by one rider on one horse. It is little wonder that the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) has identified it as a hotspot for chemical enhancement, with 41 cases of doctored horses reported between 2010 and 2012.
Figures prepared by the Swiss Equestrian Federation suggest that the Middle Eastern states - which have come to dominate the sport since the 1990s - are at the heart of the problem. Horses from the UAE have repeatedly been cited - even one ridden by the Emir of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, himself. The connections between these mini-scandals and the rather larger debacle at Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin stables are not hard to draw.
Sheikh Mohammed's son-in-law, Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, rode in Friday's race, although with limited success; his horse Moro Famayev went lame and had to retire after the first 20-mile lap. Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Prince Nasser - whose father is the King of Bahrain - admitted that doping was a major problem in endurance racing, though he was wise enough to defend Sheikh Mohammed from any accusation of wrong-doing.
"What made this happen is like exactly the athletes in the human races, they want to beat the other runners and the other countries, and they start to miscalculate things," said Prince Nasser. "We understand that this is a very long distance, that the horses need what helps them to run but it has to be legal, like electrolytes and sugar supplements.
"We are going through a lot of studies because we want to be more strict," he added. "In Bahrain, we have not had a lot of occasions of doping, and we are in regular touch with FEI. We send them all the results and they are at all the races."
So, what about the 15 Godolphin horses found to have been injected with steroids by their trainer Mahmood Al-Zarooni? Prince Nasser smiled enigmatically. "I am very confident how Sheikh Mohammed is wise, and how he can react to it," he said.
"For him, winning the Guineas last week is a big success. It proves that if one individual takes a wrong step it is not the whole policy of Sheikh Mohammed. It is just one individual and he needs to take charges against him and get over it. I was happy when I turned on the TV and saw Sheikh Mohammed walking around, confident and a winner."
Not everyone has enjoyed the rise of the Middle Eastern horsemen. Endurance racing used to be a homely, low-profile sport - so under-resourced, in fact, that the 1990 world team title was won by a group of four British housewives, one of them riding a part-bred Exmoor pony. When the Sheikhs arrived - and Sheikh Mohammed owns around 700 endurance horses - it was rather as if the McLaren F1 team had entered the local demolition derby.
Many nations are unhappy about the resources and methods employed by the Gulf States, especially when the chemical subtext is added. There is even talk of setting up a breakaway organisation that would run races without any Middle Eastern representation.
But then, as Prince Nasser points out, there is a good reason why endurance racing appeals to his family. "It is the closest sport to our tradition, to my culture, I am not talking about history I am talking about my grandfather - he used a horse and he used a camel to travel around my country.
"Endurance racing started before the Arab states. It was in America and then it came here to Europe and then to South Africa and then all the way to Australia. We have the same kind of horses as everybody else, because we buy them from overseas. The difference is the training and the amount of effort we put into the horses, we take them to the next level which no one has reached yet, which is that we treat them like athletes.
"As a rider, you have to be fit," added Prince Nasser, who was a couple of years behind Prince Harry at Sandhurst, and recently recorded the impressive time of 2hr 20min in his first Olympic-distance triathlon. "But you also need to be well-rounded, a good horseman. This is what is interesting about it: sometimes I am riding a champion, sometimes I am riding a beginner.
"A lot of issues happen because once you reach a number, or a speed, everybody wants to keep close to that or break it, and they think every horse can do it. But that's not possible. So people are doping just to keep in the group, whereas if it is a very good-quality horse, it can do it on its own. It has internal strength."
Prince Nasser and his relations have become the establishment in this sport. Until last week, when The Telegraph revealed the issues around Sheikh Mohammed's endurance stables, the Dubai Equestrian Club was supporting four annual races at Euston Park in Thetford.
Now that sponsorship has been pulled, leaving only the Bahrainis to support Windsor. There is plenty more work to do if the equestrian world is to be convinced that endurance racing is clean.
(Author: Simon Briggs Source: telegraph.co.uk)
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