FEI Admits Sapphire “Incorrectly Eliminated” from World Cup, But No Apology

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McLain Ward and Sapphire. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
McLain Ward and Sapphire. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com


McLain Ward and Sapphire were “incorrectly eliminated” from this year’s World Cup when they were leading halfway through the event in Geneva, the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) admitted Friday but did not issue an apology.

In a four-paragraph statement issued from FEI headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland late Friday night and over the July 4th holiday weekend in the United States–minimum media coverage and exposure–the FEI said it “resolves legal dispute” over the disqualification of Sapphire, owned by McLain, Tom Grossman and Blue Chip Bloodstock.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation that McLain has praised for their support paid tribute to McLain for acting as the “consummate gentleman” throughout the ordeal that many riders, owners and others around the world have labeled a travesty. USEF President David O’Connor said the USEF agreed with McLain that the horse did not display a level of sensitivity that should have led to their disqualification, and did not agree with the process that was followed.

McLain of Brewster, New York, and the 15-year-old Belgian mare won Olympic gold medals with the U.S. team in 2004 at Athens and 2008 Beijing Games, World Equestrian Games silver in 2006 at Aachen, Germany, Super League series gold and in 2009 earned more than $1 million (€800,000) in prize money as one of the top jumpers in the history of the sport.

The complete FEI statement:

“After a full investigation into the facts surrounding the disqualification of Sapphire (McLain Ward) at the FEI World Cup Final in Geneva, the FEI has determined that the horse was incorrectly eliminated from the second round on 16 April 2010, however, Sapphire’s disqualification from the final round of the World Cup remains in place.

“McLain Ward will immediately be awarded all ranking points and prize money related to his second place finish in the second round of the FEI World Cup Final. This will not affect ranking points and prize money awarded to other riders in the competition.

“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. These guidelines will be communicated to all National Federations prior to the CHIO in Aachen (GER).

“The USEF, McLain Ward and Tim Ober (the U.S. team veterinarian) have stated that they do not agree with the FEI on the question of whether Sapphire displayed a level of sensitivity that justified her disqualification from the third round of the World Cup and also disagree with the process followed however, in the best interest of the sport, they have dropped their legal case against the FEI and will not challenge this disqualification.”

The prize money for the second round that had been withheld was €19,800 (US$24,880) and will now be paid out to McLain.

The FEI disputed some of the initial report by dressage-news.com.

“As stated in the press release, the FEI has determined that the horse was incorrectly eliminated from the second round on 16 April 2010, however, Sapphire’s disqualification from the final round of the World Cup remains in place.

“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.

“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. 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 USEF statement said:

“The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) acknowledges today’s announcement by the FEI that Sapphire (McLain Ward) was incorrectly eliminated from the second round of the FEI World Cup Final in Geneva on April 16, 2010.

“‘We’ve had full faith in the outcome of this unfortunate situation since the beginning,’ said David O’Connor, President of the USEF. ‘There could not have been a different result. The McLain/Sapphire combination has had and will continue to have the full support of the USEF. McLain has been the consummate gentleman and our hats are off to him for the way he has handled this regrettable situation.’

“In that McLain and Sapphire did not participate in the final round, it is impossible to know the outcome. In the spirit of competition everywhere and our sport specifically, Sapphire’s disqualification from the Final will not be challenged even though the USEF does not agree with the FEI that the mare displayed a level of sensitivity, nor do they agree with the process that resulted in her disqualification.

“As a result of this situation the USEF fully endorses the FEI initiative to issue mandatory guidelines that will strengthen the hypersensitivity protocol, which it believes is in the best interest of the sport.”

An agreement in principle to settle the disqualification was reached more than a week ago. The FEI denies this.

The FEI earlier released the results of testing of blood and swabs of Sapphire’s legs that proved negative for the presence of any drugs.

McLain and Sapphire went into the World Cup in Geneva this year after coming second in the 2009 event in Las Vegas, McLain pursued a strategy of a light schedule of competitions over the winter–selecting a few major Grand Prix in which they were successful–and maintaining a high level of fitness with the aim of becoming the first Americans to win the World Cup since 1987.

At the World Cup, McLain and Sapphire finished second in the first of four rounds.

Fifteen minutes into the second round, FEI veterinarians scanned Sapphire’s legs. The veterinarians said they detected hypersensation in one leg, but determined that the pair could jump the course. They did so and the American combination again placed second.

As the previous round’s leader incurred penalties, McLain and Sapphire went to the top of the leaderboard with just two rounds on the final day to go. At that stage they were clearly in the lead.

After the class was over, the FEI veterinarians conducted a second thermo-imaging scan and announced that Sapphire displayed “an abnormal level of hypersensitivity” and was disqualified.

The officials involved in disqualifying Sapphire were the President of the Ground Jury, Rene Billardon of France, Dr Paul Farrington, Foreign Veterinary Delegate Dr Emile Welling of Belgium and Dr Markus Mueller of Switzerland.

McLain, backed by the USEF, filed an appeal but it was dismissed on the grounds that the process did not allow any appeal.

The shock waves from the disqualification were felt on both sides of the Atlantic. Two days after the disqualification, The New York Times, which rarely reports on show jumping, published an extensive article including the disclosure by an FEI official that the tests on Sapphire were conducted “on the basis of confidential information received.” The FEI would not disclose the source of the information and that led to widespread speculation around the world about the identity of source and handling of the alleged information by the FEI.

The FEI also disputed an earlier report by dressage-news.com that the second round disqualification “effectively prevented” McLain from competing another horse as the eventual winner, Markus Ehning competed on two horses. Dressage-news stand  by its report as, at the time, McLain and Sapphire had been disqualified from the second round. While McLain could have ridden another horse in the the final day of competition, there was no purpose to do so–they had been disqualified from an entire round effectively ending any hope of a successful outcome.

Since the World Cup, Sapphire and McLain won the showcase Grand Prix at La Baule, France and in Rome against the best in the world.