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'.
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.
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.
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.