July 2, 2010 (Updated July 6 with the FEI’s response) — There was no way to turn back the clock, but McLain Ward and the U.S. Equestrian Federation finally have found closure as the show jumper’s Rolex FEI World Cup Finals nightmare ended with an admission of error from the sport’s international governing body.
The announcement came this evening, at the start of a holiday weekend, the preferred timeframe for delivering controversial news that is embarrassing to one of those involved.
“After a full investigation into the facts surrounding the disqualification of Sapphire (McLain Ward)…the FEI has determined that the horse was incorrectly eliminated from the second round on 16 April 2010,” the FEI stated.
McLain is being awarded the ranking points and prize money that were denied him after the ground jury decreed that Sapphire was hypersensitive and should be barred from continuing further in the Geneva, Switzerland, competition.
Naturally, the FEI couldn’t rescind its decision to keep him out of the final round, where he might have won the title. McLain was leading after the second round, and the way that Sapphire was jumping, it seemed that he was finally ready to hoist the Cup in triumph.
But an FEI spokeswoman emphasized that “the second round elimination was reversed because, from a purely technical standpoint, Sapphire should not have been retroactively eliminated since the USEF was told she was permitted to jump in the second round. However, the FEI maintains that the ultimate disqualification on hypersensitivity grounds was valid and for that reason it remains in place.”
But the situation was handled badly, leading to worldwide outrage.
The spokeswoman said the “FEI absolutely stands by the protocol and its application in Geneva. The Sapphire case has, however, provided us with an opportunity to strengthen the protocol going forward. This is a protocol that was passed by the Jumping Committee, approved by the FEI Bureau and voted into effect by the FEI General Assembly in 2009.”
She added, “The protocol was two years in the making has been applied successfully in the past and will continue to be applied at top events throughout the year. The FEI will continue to use all the means at its disposal to ensure that horse welfare remains absolutely paramount and, if a horse is found to be hypersensitive, it will be disqualified.”
Although nothing was revealed by thermography, which can detect heat in a horse’s leg, poking by a veterinarian caused Sapphire to, not surprisingly, move her limb a few times. That led to a conclusion of hypersensitivity, which the ground jury decided was grounds to keep Sapphire from competing any further.
The spokeswoman elaborated on what was done to the mare, saying, “Significantly, she was only touched on the sensitive spot above her coronary band seven times and each time she reacted in exactly the same fashion, snatching up her leg in protest. The other times she was palpated on different parts of her legs to allow her to get used to the vet handling her and for the vets to be able to get a comparison with other points on her legs. The hypersensitivity finding was agreed unanimously between three equine vets with over 100 years of experience.”
The USEF objected to Sapphire’s elimination to no avail, but then it pushed the case for a full hearing to the FEI Tribunal, with an eye to justice for the future. McLain, the USEF and all the other international riders eventually got it.
“As a result of this investigation, the FEI has also decided to issue mandatory guidelines to be applied by the Veterinary Commissions appointed for FEI Events in order to strengthen the hypersensitivity protocol that was applied in Geneva,” noted the FEI statement.
These guidelines will be communicated to national federations before next week’s Aachen, Germany, show. They include the opportunity to re-present the horse to a veterinary panel if the next competition is more than 12 hours away. That was something McLain was not allowed to do in Geneva, where it was nearly three times as long from his elimination until the final competition.
While the USEF, McLain and U.S. veterinarian Tim Ober do not agree with the FEI on the question of whether Sapphire displayed a level of sensitivity that justified her disqualification, not to mention the fact that they disagree with how the situation was handled, they are not pursuing the matter further.
“As I said all along,” McLain told me tonight, “the most important thing was that changes were made by the FEI in these rules and in these protocols. Obviously, you’ve always got to crusade for horses and fair play but at the same time, make sure there’s a actually a protocol that protects athletes, that there’s not collateral damage.”
McLain noted that “the new additions to the guidelines certainly protect…the horses and the athletes as well.
It’s against the rules to make a horse hypersensitive so it hurts for the animal to hit a jump, but as Sapphire’s case demonstrated, extreme care must be taken when diagnosing the situation. All her drug tests and tests of her leg surface for prohibited substances were negative.
“There are a lot of steps being taken in last couple of years in championships to clean the sport up,” said Mclain, noting that he doesn’t believe “horse welfare is in jeopardy. The top 20 or 30 riders in the world, the care that they take of their horses is remarkable.”
He added, however, “I do think they always have these steps to control cheating, (but) these are a lot of new rules and I want to believe I was just unfortunately the guinea pig of rules that weren’t that thought out.”
But, I persisted, why was McLain the guinea pig?. There was a lot of talk that he was singled out for a reason, that there was a “tip” to the FEI that Sapphire had a problem, among other rumors. There was a swirl of gossip the size of Hurricane Katrina around this debacle.
“If I knew the answer to exactly where this started, I’d be a soothsayer or a mind reader,” McLain replied.
Does he think he’ll get a fair shake at this fall’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, where he seems set to be a pillar of the U.S. team?
“I do,” he said.
“Maybe I’m an eternal optimist, but I think I got a fair shake when I went to shows after the World Cup finals.” Post-World Cup, Sapphire demonstrated she was in perfect form, winning the grands prix in La Baule, France and Rome in succession.
McLain rightly believes that even if he didn’t have a chance to earn the Cup, he left an impression of being a winner under difficult circumstances.
“I think for the way that we handled ourselves and the fact that we had nothing to hide and were so up front and honest and had the truth on our side, there was a measure of respect gained,” he said.
“That’s certainly a good thing.”
He added, “The most important thing was that these rules change before the World Championships (WEG). That’s been accomplished and that’s going to happen and that’s a good step.”
While he noted about the decision, “On a personal level, it doesn’t change the World Cup situation, I’m not going to get that World Cup back,” McLain pointed out, “we can make changes that help other people in the sport and hopefully myself down the road. That’s a very important thing.”
I’ve been impressed at how McLain handled all this. It’s tough to be cool while your dream gets destroyed., but he managed it and is looking ahead.
“Luckily, I don’t have to go anywhere to get my life back. We continued on and accomplished some good things. I can honestly say I am happy these protocols are being adjusted,” he commented.
Though he noted, “We can’t forget what happened and how it was handled,” McLain emphasized, “if we can make it better from here, it’s going to be a better sport for all of us. I think that’s a great step.”
And what about that elusive World Cup title?
“I’m still a young kid,” the 34-year-old two-time Olympic team gold medalist said with a chuckle.
“I’ve got a few more chances.”