Social media was abuzz this morning after last night’s (Monday, 21 December) controversial events at Olympia. Irish rider Bertram Allen was eliminated from the grand prix having recorded the fastest time in the jump-off when blood was found on Quiet Easy 4’s flank at the mandatory post-competition check.
Let me start by telling you what I know, which may be relevant.
While I do not know Bertram well, I have watched him ride live at four events, all this year — the World Cup final in Las Vegas, the European Championships in Aachen, the Global Champions Tour final in Doha and at Olympia in the World Cup qualifier on Sunday afternoon.
On each occasion he has struck me as an extraordinarily talented jockey, skilled way beyond his tender years. He is also a rider with a notably sympathetic and light style — he is fabulous against the clock because he has the ability to ride fast and forward without fear, barely touching his horse’s mouth. His mounts respond to that with willingness and brilliance.
I have spoken to Bertram a few times. This makes me sound like his grandmother, but he seems a polite and pleasant young man. He is also shy — speaking to the media does not come naturally to him, but he is obliging and I have never detected a trace of attitude behind the fact he is not the most voluble of riders. From what I have seen of what he said to the press last night, I am impressed by the way he conducted himself in a very difficult and upsetting situation — the quotes I have seen are eloquent, balanced and considered.
I do not know any of the stewards in this case. Let me qualify that. I may know them — but I was not in the collecting ring at Olympia last night and I have not, as yet, looked up their names.
However, I have met many FEI stewards and other officials and I know a few pretty well. They are generally deeply entrenched in the sport, generous with their time (and money — no one became rich being an FEI official), conscientious, kind-hearted and fair-minded. They are also not shrinking violets. They couldn’t do their jobs if they were.
Let me tell you what I believe.
I do not believe the way Bertram rode yesterday compromised horse welfare. Having seen the round online and watched him ride on several previous occasions, I would be very surprised if he would do anything which might be damaging to his horse. This was, I believe, an unfortunate scratch and while it’s never nice to see a horse marked by a spur, there are many worse things which can happen to horses which go unseen and unpunished.
However, I also believe the stewards and officials did their job correctly. No official wants to eliminate competitors. Their dream is a hassle-free, smooth-running competition. But the rule in question here is not open to interpretation or discretion. Any horse with blood on its flank, however little, is eliminated. It’s a completely black and white situation. A steward who turned a blind eye or a ground jury who bent the rule would not be carrying out their duties correctly.
Let me tell you what I’m unsure about.
The question really here is this: should the rule be changed? Should officials be able to use discretion to decide whether a horse should be eliminated in situations like this, or whether the blood is so insignificant that it can be disregarded?
The latter seems like a sensible solution, but it puts a lot of pressure on officials to decide where the line lies. If people are steward-bashing now, when the officials had no choice, how much worse would it be if they knew there was an element of discretion?
I’d hate to think also of the worst case scenario — that one corrupt steward decides for whatever reason, whether nationalistic interests, personal connections or simply the fact he can’t take the hassle, to disregard a serious amount of blood. He and the rider or connections wipe the blood away surreptitiously, throw the winner’s rug over the horse’s back to cover his flanks and he trots into the prize-giving in a good deal of discomfort. That’s not what we want for our sport.
This is a tough subject and there is no right answer. I hope the FEI take the time to re-examine and re-debate this rule. If there is a commonsense solution which would have avoided the desperately sad events we saw last night but which would still keep the horse’s welfare as our number one priority, that would be brilliant. But I am not sure how easy it will be to word such a rule change to ensure the right outcome for both horse welfare and sport in every case.
Full Olympia report in H&H this week, out Thursday, 24 December.