The reduced endurance ride at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games dissolved into chaos this afternoon when it was cancelled with the leading riders having just come in from the third of four loops.
The very contentious 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 horse as the key driver.
As the decision was announced, the crowd erupted, whistling and yelling their disgust, and running towards the fences surrounding the vet check areas. Calls for calm went largely ignored, with security and police quickly brought in.
New Zealand’s two riders – Jenny Champion aboard Barak Obama and Philip Graham on Rosewood Bashir – who were on their second loop withdrew their horses before the decision was made.
Chef de mission Sarah Dalziell-Clout said it was a real credit to their horsemanship, recognising the conditions were just too tough. Jenny said her priority was to look after her horse. “He was really feeling the heat,” she said. “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 said 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 called 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 40km loop was very demanding even without the humidity. “We did the best we could.”
The president of the Veterinary Commission Thomas Timmons said 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.”
The planned 160km championship ride had not got off to the best of starts – this morning some teams were misdirected at the beginning of the ride and the competition was stopped at the first vet gate. By that time most riders had covered around 40kms. Organisers then restarted the ride as a 120km championship nearly five hours later. The FEI has tasked the independent Equestrian Community Integrity Unit with doing a full investigation how it all went so wrong. The investigation will include interviews with officials, volunteers, the organising committee and any other relevant personnel to provide a full picture of just what happened.
Chef d’equipe for the New Zealand endurance team Sue Reid said it had been 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,” said Sue, “there were just too many variables involved. The petition was very controversial.”
By Diana Dobson – NZ Team Media Liaison
Photos by Libby Law/ESNZ