I was at the London Racing Club in Gloucester Road last night. So were the Hill's: Lawney, National Hunt (mainly) trainer; husband, Alan, point/hunter trainer; and, son Joe, amateur rider and doubtless someday trainer.
Very pleasant company they were too. Coaxed and cajoled - not that much of either was needed - by Racing UK's Alex Steedman, our panel proffered forth on an array of matters.
Having met in 1985, Mr and Mrs Hill will celebrate thirty years together in September, a happy union that has produced not just young Joe - 19, and so clearly a chip off the old block - but also daughter Gaby, ear-wigging in the audience on this occasion.
It has also yielded not one but two training yards, adjacent, and with different license holders. Under rules, Lawney is the guv'nor, and she's a couple of nice ones to look forward to in the coming months. Between the flags, Alan continues to ply his trade with what seemed to this untutored eye to be a steely resolution, possibly even a stickler's perfectionism. He too has a pair of very interesting ones in waiting. More on both in due course.
As the banter to'd and fro'd, gently guided by MC Steedman, talk turned to ailments. Not the panellists you understand but, rather, frailties in equine stock. Hence the somewhat tenuous title of this 'ere scribble.
Specifically, there was talk of breathing issues. And how they're more likely to affect bigger horses, due to the fact that the nerve which controls the larynx runs from the right side of that area all the way down a horse's back, and then back up the other side to the left of the cob's gob.
So it is, apparently, that it's far more likely for there to be weakness in the left side of a horse's throat than the right.
Why would I be telling you all this? For punting purposes of course...
Because it can lead to a partial or full paralysis of the muscle, which in turn means it can collapse across the airway making for difficulty breathing. And because this was the background to a discussion about some of the various surgical procedures that can be undertaken to correct wind problems.
Lawney eloquently elucidated - with the occasional interjection from Alan - the differences between a 'palate fire', a 'hobday', and a 'tie back' (a more acute operation for more extreme cases). And there was plenty of discussion about the fact that these surgical procedures do not currently have to be declared to the BHA.
Given how material an impact they can have on a horse's performance, it seems an absolute slam dunk that they should be noted, in much the same way that a gelding operation is, on the horse's form record. That it is not surely contravenes the BHA's own guidance on 'inside information'... at least, there is a strong argument to that end.
For instance, I know of two horses that have had wind operations in a stable that I'm close to. I'm not at liberty to say which they are because they're not my horses. This information is still in the realms of "owner's prerogative", and in the information age, that's wrong. According to the panel at least. (I tend to agree).
So the fact that the likes of Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson, perennially atop their peer group, resort to such intervention on such a regular basis can be seen as further affirmation to its materiality. The Denizen of Ditcheat is reputed, according to Joe, to have about 60 horses a year treated in this way, and it was conjectured that Hendo would likely have a similar number of palates sizzled and twiddled.
Joe went on to make a really noteworthy point about Nicholls, and one which might be widely known, but was a new one on me. He made reference to the positive impact of first time headgear on Ditcheat inmates. Now, as someone who has habitually dismissed headgear as a sign of desperation on doggy nags or naggy dogs, I had to look into this further.
Sure enough, young Joe is onto something. Here's the data, courtesy of those fine people at horseracebase.com:
Looking at the year on year data, it seems there might have been some sort of epiphany too. Judging by the increased samples, it seems unlikely to be merely coincidence...
Note the relative nothingness of numbers of runners and strike rate, leading to a general leakage of cash for backers, up to 2013.
Then, look, the number of first-time headgear donners trebles, and then quadruples, and profits emerge at the same time. For such a high profile yard, this is a weirdly profitable angle.
Drilling into the data for the past three years is perilous, due to the possibility of statistical insignificance on less than a hundred runners... but let's do it anyway!
Crikey! The fabled hood, settler of many a buzzy beast, has hardly helped Captain Pumpkin and his band. And yet the initial application of either blinkers or the pieces has produced winners at a 30%+ clip. That's in the context of a trainer at the top of his game, who has struck with un-accoutred horses 'only' 22% of the time. Yikes! Good spot, Joe.
But I digress. The gurgly-windy situation of horses struggling to breathe evolved into chat about its low-tech alternative, the tongue tie. Often no more than a nylon stocking tied around a horse's tongue - hence the name, brilliant, right? - to keep it from flapping about and blocking the flow of oxygen, the tongue tie was hailed as a wonder of modern design by Alan.
Moreover, he noted that it is often not on the first application that a horse derives the benefit. This, he opined, was due to the fact that a horse that has been struggling with a breathing issue will, at a certain point in its exercise/stress cycle, expect to encounter difficulty breathing.
Thus, it will recoil or otherwise act to prevent the struggle for breath. It is only by going through this mental barrier - see, there's the second bit of the (granted, inordinately laboured) headline - and realising that hey, actually, that wasn't so bad, a horse will be increasingly more likely to put the full shift in.
I wanted to look at this for data corroboration (I'm a bit sad like that) and, sure enough, Mr H is spot on. I'd heard it said before about wind ops that, for exactly the same reasons, a horse can often derive more benefit from the operation on its second and subsequent starts than first time after. (That may depend on whether the nag has been pushed beyond its threshold in training or not - some work their horses harder than others...)
Again, I asked horseracebase to show me the performance of horses wearing a tongue tie, based on the number of times the apparatus - OK, the stocking - has previously been applied. Again, the findings were instructive, and in line with what those wily Hill's were saying.
The chart below shows how horses wearing a tongue tie fared, based on the number of previous times they'd worn a tongue tie. So for instance A) 0, the first line, is for horses wearing a tongue tie for the very first time.
What's really interesting about this is that it seems, judging by win and/or place strike rate, that a horse will continue to improve for the application of the tongue tie for up to ten runs.
There is nothing to trouble the profit and loss judges in this dataset - not on its own, at least - but the conformity of the curve, and the size of the sample, means that the results look highly significant.
Incidentally, in case you're wondering which horses have had 131+ career starts wearing a tongue tie, the two that accounted for those 24 runs were Jonnie Skull and Cape Royal. As you might have guessed, I was!
What else did we learn last night?
We learned that Venetia Williams' horses don't have an affinity with rain, mud and heavy ground by accident. Rather, they're pretty much all turned out in a field - dressed accordingly, natch - every day, regardless of the inclemency of the elements.
Here are the data for Venetia's handicappers, by going:
Again, although the softies actually returned a small profit at BSP, more tweaking would be required to turn this into a profitable angle. But the respective strike rates speak for themselves.
Highest win rate on heavy, next highest on soft, next highest on good to soft... an interesting snippet to file in the data banks.
[We also learned that Alex would rather be a diary entry in Venetia's log book than read her entries, but that's a tale for after the watershed...]
And so, as the evening drew to its end, the inevitable, and always welcome, "giz' a horse" question was asked.
Joe responded with Brians Well, which runs at Higham point to point on Sunday (does anyone know how to get a bet on a point-to-point without going? If not, is anyone going?!)
Alan offered his 'milk bottle' horse - one for which he's been posting twenty's into a glass vessel each week prior to its first run - which, I hope he doesn't mind me sharing, is Harris Garden. No engagement as yet, but added to my geegeez tracker!
And Lawney told us that she's very hopeful for Shimba Hills, a stoutly bred ex-Mick Channon inmate, who has run really well in two novice hurdles, and now has a mark of 116 which is felt to be workable. Taunton on 5th February is the current plan.
If it's not too presumptuous or incongruent, I'd like to add my own 'one to follow' from the Lawney stable - remember she was flagged in this post as a friend to punters. Since that post was published, the nominated horse there, Changeofluck, finished second at 8/1 on its only subsequent start.
That one could win soon, but one that really catches my eye is So Oscar, a nicely bred son of Oscar, who was good enough to win a bumper just over a year ago. Since then he's been lightly raced, but qualified for his handicap mark last week when sixth at Fakenham.
A rating of 113 is far from punitive, and I reckon this lad will be winning soon on top of the ground.
So there you have it, a night with the Hill's. Engaging company, and some insightful pearlz amidst the bantz, as the kids might say.