by Fran Jurga | 17 April 2010 | The Jurga Report at Equisearch.com
A shocking announcement arrived via email tonight. Reports from Geneva, Switzerland on Friday indicated that the USA was potentially poised for victory, led by Olympic double-gold medalist McLain Ward and his mare Sapphire, at this weekend's FEI World Cup Finals in showjumping. US rider Rich Fellers and Flexible had also won the opening round on Thursday. Wonderful Sapphire seemed to be in fine jumping form, and very fast; Ward was leading the standings after Friday's event.
But then, this news arrived at midnight. I will print it verbatim, since FEI policy and rules are involved. We'll have more from the press conference on Saturday afternoon.
Sapphire, the superstar 15-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare, is shown being ridden by US Olympian and double-gold medalist McLain Ward of Brewster, New York in Geneva before their disqualification. Photo from fOTOGLIF.
Unedited text received from the FEI:
Sapphire, the horse ridden by McLain Ward (USA), has been eliminated from the second round of the FEI World Cup? Final last night (16 April) and disqualified from the rest of the event following a positive hypersensitivity test. The horse was selected for thermography testing on its legs yesterday and US Team Vet Dr Tim Ober was notified in the late afternoon that the horse would be tested at 7.30pm (CEST).
The test involved the use of a thermography camera and a clinical examination of the legs, which was carried out by FEI appointed veterinarian Dr Paul Farrington and Dr Emile Welling, the Foreign Veterinary Delegate. Following the examination, Dr Farrington informed Dr Ober and the two grooms that were present at the test that the horse was showing sensitivity in its left foreleg but that it was fit to compete at that time.
McLain Ward and Sapphire went on to finish second in the class to take over the lead in the overall standings, but the FEI made a decision to re-examine the horse post-competition, using both thermography and clinical examination.
The second test was carried out at 12.30am on Saturday, 17 April in the presence of the President of the Ground Jury, Rene Billardon (FRA), Dr Ober, the two grooms and Lizzie Chesson from the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). Dr Paul Farrington, Foreign Veterinary Delegate Dr Emile Welling (BEL) and Dr Markus Mueller (SUI) each re-examined the horse and declared that, due to the level of hypersensitivity, it was unfit to take any further part in the competition.
The FEI Foreign Veterinary Delegate Dr Welling immediately informed the President of the Ground Jury, who notified the rider (the Person Responsible) that the horse was eliminated from the competition and disqualified from the rest of the event. Dr Farrington stressed that there was no indication or evidence of any malpractice by McLain Ward or any member of the team.
Under the FEI General Regulations (Art. 159.6.2, 159.6.4), there is no appeal against the decision of the Ground Jury to eliminate or disqualify a horse from an event for abnormal sensitivity.
(end of FEI text)
To any one who has been around the sport-horse world for a while, this story may bring on a case of deja vu. McLain Ward was found guilty of putting sharp plastic particles inside his horse's jumping boots at a show jumping event in Aachen, Germany in 1999, although he always proclaimed his innocence.
In February, Ward and Sapphire were named to the "long list" for selection to represent the USA at the upcoming Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Owned by her rider and Blue Chip Bloodstock, Sapphire had an amazing year in 2009: Besides winning three major events in Florida, Sapphire and Ward were then runners-up in the Rolex/FEI World Cup Final in Las Vegas. In May, they won the Devon Grand Prix, the grand prix at the Hampton Classic and topped off the year with a victory in the $1m CN International Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows, Canada. Sapphire and Ward won Team Gold medals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games and were on the Silver medal-winning team in 2006 at the FEI World Equestrian Games in Aachen.
The FEI statement did specifically say that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing on McLain Ward's part.
The FEI has had regulations prohibiting hypersensitivity abuse for years, with the current testing protocols using thermography combined with palpation in use since January 2009. A horse has about a one in three chance of being tested at an FEI event. The FEI does not specify whether the first test was routine or if there was some reason that Sapphire was selected for the test.