A Wind Of Change Blowing Through Racing?

A hobday operation

A hobday operation

Last week's Cheltenham Festival was a brilliant showcase of all that is spectacular about National Hunt racing. From first race to last, there were breathtaking performances at every turn. But, more notably than ever, there was also a series of, well, breath-giving performances, some of which left punters confused, perplexed, and somewhat dismayed.

Wins for the likes of 33/1 Darna, 14/1 Cole Harden, and 16/1 Next Sensation were harder to find than their odds imply because the reason for their improvement was not available in the form book. All three, along with numerous others at the Cheltenham Festival, had been under the knife since last seen on the race track.

They had all benefited from what are collectively known as "winds ops". For those who don't know, or hitherto didn't care, a wind operation is a corrective surgical procedure to address a problem with breathing in, usually, bigger horses. It helps a horse to breathe - especially under the stress of exercise - and, crucially, it is not required to be declared officially.

What are wind ops?

Before getting into the details of the issue, a quick summary of the problem and its cure is called for. There is a far better explanation here, but in essence, the issue is that the long nerve that controls the larynx (i.e. airway) 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 horse's throat.

So it is that it is far more likely for there to be weakness in the left side of the throat than the right. This weakness 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.

There are different degrees of intervention to address the problem: 'hobday' and 'tie back' (a more acute operation for more extreme cases) being the most common.

Inexplicably, these surgical procedures do not currently have to be declared to the BHA.

The problem for punters

Punters were hit hard in the pocket last week as Kim Bailey's Darna, the biggest winning starting price of the week, beat the heavily gambled 11/2 favourite, Monetaire in the Festival Plate. Monetaire looked to have been brought with a finely timed run by Tom Scudamore, as Darna had weakened late in his two prior starts. But not this time...

A third (yes, third) breathing operation successfully prevented David Bass' mount from racking up an unserviceable oxygen debt, and allowed the nine-year-old to keep on rolling to the line.

Cole Harden, too, was to keep finding when previously he'd hit the wall in the World Hurdle; and he too frustrated many punters by beating the favourite into second in the biggest race of the day.

Next Sensation, winner of the last race of the Festival, had attempted the same unbridled tape-to-line victory run last season in the same race, but had capitulated in the last 100 yards, eventually finishing a gallant fourth. This time, under a slightly more measured ride and with facilitated breathing, there was no stopping him and he came home unchallenged by four lengths.

There can be little doubt that none of the three horses would have won without surgical intervention. So what is a punter to make of such undisclosed improvement?

Now, in fairness to the trainers of both Cole Harden (Warren Greatrex) and Next Sensation (Michael Scudamore), they had shared with the media that their horses had been in for surgery. It may also be the case that Kim Bailey, Darna's trainer, had disclosed the same.

But that's the key. Unless you happened to read the particular bulletin in the particular newpaper/website, you would have missed this most material of snippets.

For punters who, like me, prefer the form book to the sound bite, we were left high and dry by the absence of any official information.

This is not a new phenomenon, and nor is the lack of official data regarding such procedures a new issue. Greg Wood raised the point over a year ago in a Guardian article. In that piece, written after high profile - and big priced - Saturday wins for Knockara Beau (66/1) and The Rainbow Hunter (25/1, trained by Bailey), Wood argued that the information should be added to race cards as a matter of course.

The potential solution

Wood compared breathing operations to tongue ties, in terms of the latter being denoted on a race card to inform bettors that equipment has been applied. Perhaps a more obvious comparison, however, is with the gelding of a horse.

This minor surgical procedure, which is known to help excitable horses settle, is flagged on the race card. As such, it provides a strong precedent for the inclusion of breathing operations in the same way, as it demonstrates that the mechanism by which trainers can notify the central bodies largely already exists.

Specifically, the trainer simply amends the details on their HIT (Horses In Training) list on the BHA website to state that a horse has been gelded. The information is also added to a horse's 'passport'.

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This is important because at the time of the Wood article, the BHA's Media Manager, Robin Mounsey, was quoted as saying, "We are committed to exploring any avenues whereby we can improve the levels of information provided to the betting public. Extending pre-race information to include news of wind operations is an issue which has been considered in the past and is again being explored now.

"Its introduction will be dependent on the findings of further consultation together with identifying a way to deliver the information in a manner that is both cost-effective and reliable."

That was fourteen months ago and, as far as I can tell, the last published information by the BHA actually goes back as far as December 2008. That classic piece of fence-sitting is reproduced below:

the Authority’s view is that whilst from an inside information perspective there may be a case for requiring disclosure of the fact that a horse has undergone surgical intervention for the purpose of altering its respiratory characteristics, there are wider issues that require assessment before it can finalise its position. In particular, the range of surgical interventions, and the lack of information to compare their effectiveness, has raised concerns that disclosure may be more misleading than informative. An independent research project considering this area has been in progress for some time. They have agreed to share their findings once they are available in the New Year and the Authority will assess these results before finalising its position, with its deliberations also extending to consider any regulatory and/or ethical implications.

Nic Coward, Chief Executive of the Authority, said:

“We recognised that these issues needed to be addressed – not just from a perspective of establishing what might be considered ‘inside information’ but also taking into account the rights and needs of race-goers and punters for access to information. This is still a work in progress, and the Authority will be guided by the findings of ongoing research, ensuring that any decision we make is taken based on the facts available to us.”

Tim Morris, British Horseracing Authority Director of Equine Science and Welfare commented:

“It is important that the Authority’s decisions are informed by good scientific advice. The information on the effect of pregnancy is a good example of where proper scientific analysis has clarified the situation. The situation involving wind operations is more complex and requires more extensive scientific review and we await the results of that review with interest.”

**

The frustration from a punters' perspective, or at least from my perspective as a punter, is that there seems to be some sort of spoon-feeding going on here. To suggest that "the lack of information to compare their effectiveness, has raised concerns that disclosure may be more misleading than informative" is tantamount to implying that there is utter clarity about the effectiveness of the various headgear deployed by trainers in the hope of squeezing improvement from their charges. With the possible exceptions of a hood and a tongue tie, there is no such clarity.

That fuzziness is replicated on the racecard where information on blinkers, cheek pieces, visors, and eye shields, as well as the aforementioned apparatus is freely available. This is a thoroughly inconsistent stance on data provision.

Moreover, it is for punters, not the BHA, to decide which data elements are material and immaterial as suits their wagering approach.

Whilst there are differences between a gelding operation and a wind op - the varying types/grades of intervention, and the possibility of multiple separate interventions - it is a relatively simple change to the operational procedure, and the technology which underpins it, to accommodate the change.

Another issue?

Although I'm far more comfortable - and confident in my position - discussing the public wind op disclosure issue from a betting information perspective, there is a further possible consideration which may be a factor in the BHA's lack of progress. And that is one of public perception.

Put simply, the scarring of an animal ('hobday') or the placement of sutures to hold open the airway ('tie back') will not read well in some quarters, despite the fact they are largely painless procedures and lead to better health and less stress/pain in the operated animal subsequently (as I understand it).

Additionally, given the fashion in National Hunt racing for bigger horses - which are by definition more susceptible to the laryngeal hemiplegia (one-sided paralysis) that requires intervention - it could be argued that this is a problem which is being systematically proliferated in the breed.

That is perhaps to what the 2008 press release referred when it mentioned considering "ethical implications".

I'd much prefer to trust the veterinary science community on such matters as those, whilst flagging it as a possible element in this wider debate.

What next?

The issue for the BHA in my opinion - and it's a far broader issue than just the subject of wind op's - is a lack of communication. The team at High Holborn seem to make statements, or kick off working parties, or otherwise start things, without ever getting to a point of conclusion that results in positive change. Or, at least, without getting to a point where those conclusions are shared with the public.

This example, where consideration has been given to the declaration of breathing operations for over six years (!) - and, further, where there was an additional opportunity a year and more ago to topically deal with the issue - is one of the more long-running ones, even by BHA standards.

Specifically, what appears to have happened is that the BHA told the public via those press releases/media man sound bites that the matter was being considered... but no conclusions were shared. It is highly unlikely that no conclusions were drawn, and the balance of probabilities is that they were simply not disclosed publicly. The reasons for that are beyond me.

This is unquestionably not an issue that will go away, nor will it resolve itself, and it is a real shame that the BHA appears to have ducked it.

Unless and until trainers are mandated to notify the BHA of such surgical intervention, and that information is made available in the official data feed - and therefore on racecards up and down the land - it will remain the worst (best?) kind of 'inside information', as it is clear (anecdotally, at the very least) that wind op's do improve performance.

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30 replies
  1. Ian says:

    Quite simply this is something which should be declared and then the information is in the public domain, what a punter does with that information is entirely up to themselves thereafter i.e. the fact that the BHA isn’t sure what types of op are likely to improve a horses performance are neither here nor there. The fact an owner more often than not at the suggestion of a trainer at the suggestion of vet will choose to spend money on any such operation indicates an improvement is expected so simply make this information available to the betting public. Thereafter it simply becomes another factor to consider before making an informed decision, you cannot make an informed decision if all the information isn’t available!

  2. Richard S. says:

    I was amazed by both Darna and Cole Hardens improvement! Now I know why, great article Matt. Regards Richard S.

  3. Alan Carr says:

    This is an excellent article. Is it worth starting a campaign to make the BHA take some action?

  4. Mike Oliver says:

    Hi Matt

    Great minds obviously think alike as I emailed the Weekender yesterday to make exactly the same point – see below. I don’t know if they will publish it.

    mike Oliver

    Dear Editor

    During this jumps seasons an increasing number of my selections have been beaten by horses I had discounted as having no chance because they were poor finishers only to find in the post-race interview, the trainer stating that the improved performance of the winner was down to a recent breathing operation. The latest example of this was the World Hurdle where my selection Saphir Du Rheu was turned over by Cole Harden, a short runner if I ever saw one. Afterwards the trainer said he was expecting a big run from the horse as they had ‘sorted his breathing out’.

    I’m not suggesting any wrongdoing in any of this but, as it’s now mandatory to declare a tongue tie on the racecard, surely we could do the same for breathing operations at least for the first three runs after the procedure has taken place.

    Mike Oliver
    Rochester

  5. Ian says:

    Well i had a nice bet on Darna ( as well as a friend of mine ) plus I won on Cole Harden

  6. Chris Worrall says:

    Surgery is surgery and in simplistic terms, if a procedure is carried out to improve performance, it needs flagging, just as geldings are marked out on the card.

  7. B SMith says:

    And what do punters make of the performance of Wicklow Brave in the festival compared to its lamentable performance just a few days earlier ?????

  8. Paul Brooke says:

    An excellent article and pertinent responses, BUT, will the BHA take any action? Let’s hope so and I feel a campaign coming on.

  9. Alan Ward says:

    Cole Harden was the EW bet of the week for many tipsters with better ground and a wind op the reasons why, However I didn’t see any information regarding Darna anywhere. As for Wicklow Brave being left at the start twice the reason for the 30 length improvement was laughable.

  10. Albert says:

    It always surprise me that the people who run sports of ll sorts always feel they know what is good for those who support those sports. Most of them appear to have little regard for the most important part of their respective industries.

  11. TonyMac11 says:

    Hi Matt

    As expected, a fantastic piece.

    Fully agree with what you say and don’t really have nothing to add to your article.

    What I would like to highlight is the fact that, following the wins of Knockara Beau and The Rainbow Hunter, two members of the televisual media made known their unease at the non-declaration of ‘Wind Ops’ and were in unison in their view that the BHA should address the situation.

    Since Thursday, I have emailed both gentlemen on two separate occasions to gauge their feelings towards the wins of Cole Harden and Darna.

    As of today I still have not received a reply to any of the four emails.

    I have also noted that it was not ‘highlighted’ on RUK’s Cheltenham Review.
    I still have to watch The Sunday Forum on ATR.

    Maybe just a time issue following the festival, but I find it strange that only Matt seems to be raising the point again.

    Tony McCormick

  12. David says:

    Brilliant article Matt and some very good comments that followed.It seems incredible that such a potential performance enhancing operation is not notified to the public via racecards on a mandatory basis. I am sure the majority of trainers would not have a problem disclosing this information even on a voluntory basis,after all even they don’t know what effect the operation will have on the horses performance until it runs. In my little village we tackle problems on a mass email basis. Companies/organisations hate to get 400 or so emails arriving in their in box protesting about a particular issue. It soon gets attention and action taken. Just needs to be directed at the email address of most senior official responsible. Just a thought.

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Hi David

      It’s an interesting thought, and thanks also for your comment.

      I’ve been in touch with the PR man at least, and will await his response before considering a more ‘vigilante’ approach to what is clearly a significant issue to the integrity of the sport from a betting perspective.

      Matt

  13. sandown says:

    Hi Matt ,
    During the Festival I managed to get the info from Twitter following Andrew Smith .
    He just wrote down on a scrap bit of paper and posted first time blinkers , wind ops , cheek pieces etc by taking a pic .
    I was grateful but this info should be common knowledge . it’s not as if all of them go on to win
    first time up .
    Well done highlighting this , lets hope we have more transparency in the future .

  14. Nigel Wilson says:

    Excellent article, Matt. I was gutted to find out after the race that Next Sensation had had an op because I knew nothing about it and, having been following the horse, had put his moderate recent efforts down to soft going.
    The question is, what will the BHA do? I have every confidence in their ability to put out a slick press release and use soothing, anodyne, words which imply some decisive action will be forthcoming. Unfortunately, I have no confidence whatsoever in their acting to safeguard punters’ interests.
    As you say, the situation is so easily remedied. But I won’t be holding my breath.

    Oh, and don’t get me started on this latest hare-brained scheme to mess about with the dates for the flat jockeys championship…

  15. blamirecolinColin B says:

    Apart from the abomination that the procedure can inflict pain on a horse ( (you state ” largely painless, thus must have some pain) for others benefit,) non disclosure from a betting point of view is a scandal as to have the op done without it being declared is in fact potential manipulation of the market and allows a betting coup for those in the know
    Thank you for raising it, Matt.
    Not only a welfare issue but possibly malpractice to the detriment of the everyday punter – those who’se money largley allows racing to exist – being cheated

    Colin B

  16. Evelyn says:

    Why is everybody so OK with these operations being performed in the first place .What will they do when this is no longer good enough implant bigger lungs? Ridiculous. No animal should have this procedure unless medically essential. Humans and animals with a natural exercise
    program natural feeding program and a will to win should be enough.

  17. peter says:

    beaut article Matt ! I wonder how many big pro punters were enlightened and walked away with an over flowing basket!? the every day punter wouldn’t have a clue what a snorkel op.was and barge on regardless However The BHA should come to fore or enter themselves in the next gelding stakes Peter.G.

  18. Steve Newton says:

    Couldn’t agree more, it can, but not always, materially affect the performance of a horse. If the BHA are interested in the betting public, a point for another day, then it would be a simple thing to impliment. If a horse has more than one op , the annotation could be add e.g W (Wind Op) 2

  19. buckieboy says:

    Today:
    340 Gowanauthat
    410 Arthur McBride
    have both had ops. Maybe others?
    All pertinent info should be easily accessible to the public and on the racecards like headgear.
    Gelded 3 y. olds on the AW don’t have a bad SR since 1st Jan FTO. However it isn’t easy to identify them from the paper.
    More power to this campaign, says I.

  20. bristolgambler says:

    I posted wind op’s, tongue ties, blinkers etc on my twitter account, the information was there on trainers websites or In other publications, it was all there but just took time and a little delving through records to find out. Im happy to keep the rules as they are and if it means working harder to find out the so be it.

  21. George says:

    Again, a wonderful article. I would be more concerned with the dramatic improvement of Wicklow Brave than that of the other two. I suppose I’ve never regarded it as a poser before because, it can be seen at the course in the parade ring. If it was to affect any race selection, which it now shouldn’t because of this article, you could always have a good look for any scarred tissue or scar on the horses throat. I find any surgical procedure, to eke out any major improvement in any animal an unethical action. Gelding, fair do’s, but opening a horses throat to increase and improve respiratory performance should be a no no. The evolution and advancement in medical science, equine or otherwise, has some questions to answer. I couldn’t imagine David Pipe or Gordon Richards risking an animals long term health for short term gain. I wonder again, how it may affect these horses in future years.

  22. heavypaul says:

    Just out of interest buckieboy how did you find out that the runners you mentioned have had the wind op, thanks in advance.

  23. oliverc says:

    Hi Matt

    An excellent and informative article as always and I wholeheartedly agree with your views.

    There is clearly no doubt that a ‘wind op’ may improve a horses’s performance and that this information should therefore be available on the race card (and I have no doubt it will be in time).

    Although Darna won nicely the result might have been different if Montecaire had got off on level terms?

    Given the variety of possible procedures and interventions available I suppose there may be logistical problems in devising suitable symbols to indicate the different types of intervention on race cards but I don’t see this as an insurmountable problem?

    I’m not entirely sure that the perceived ‘public perception’ of these procedures may be a sticking point. I don’t know about you but the thought of gelding brings far more tears to my eyes ?!

  24. Terry says:

    Hi Matt
    An excellent article,The only way i find information such as wind ops etc,Is in the Racing Post
    Weekender trainers pull-out.Some trainers inform the media of these ops.Also on certain trainers websites you can get snippets of info.Maybe these trainers are not gambling yards?
    Anyway,I always enjoy your articles of racing.
    Regards,Terry

  25. Tony says:

    Excellent Article Matt and considering the results I think it’s quite evident that at least concerning the horses that you have mentioned, all of which showed improved form as a consequence of those operations. Deprive any Athlete of oxygen and his performance will diminish, however if you restore that oxygen the performance will clearly improve. This information is vital from a punters perspective and should not be that difficult to provide, sadly it seems those in the BHA are not bothered about the interests of the punter.
    Regards Tony

  26. Chris B says:

    Top drawer Matt as always.
    Do you think a multiple email appeal to BHA would work? It’s the same old story of blinkered old farts running sports with no regard to the paying public that keep them viable.
    On another matter, and I don’t know if this will start a thread (I hope so) the same old farts are also starters! If anything currently materially affects the outcome of races more than the, sometimes, outrageously unfair starts in NH racing then I don’t know what it is.
    Am I naive or missed something? Why is it not possible to have starting stalls in NH racing as per flat?
    Thanks as always for your excellent, insightful, thoughts on our beloved sport.
    Chris B

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Hi Chris

      The BHA are aware of both issues and are working on them. The problem, as is usually the case, is that getting approval from ‘the horsemen’ (i.e. trainers and jockeys) is like herding cats.

      Unless/until the BHA becomes more dictatorial on such matters, we are stuck with frustrating situations that render the betting menu less palatable, alas.

      Matt

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