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Bulletin: McLain Ward’s World Cup Disqualification

After a full investigation, the FEI has determined that McLain Ward and Sapphire were incorrectly disqualified from the second round of the Rolex FEI World Cup Finals on April 16, 2010.

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.

© 2010 by Nancy Jaffer
McLain Ward and Sapphire have been vindicated after their World Cup finals ordeal.
© 2010 by Nancy Jaffer

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.

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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.

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