Racing politics

The Trainer, The Tipster and The Wind Ops

Yesterday the BHA sent out a press release about the formal declaration of wind surgery:

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has today announced that, as of 19 January 2018, racecards will be able to carry information that confirms when a horse is having its first run after having undergone a wind surgery.

This has been introduced with the needs of the sport’s betting customer as the focus, and in the interests of openness and transparency. A survey led by the Horseracing Bettors Forum (HBF) recently found that information on wind surgeries is the piece of information most requested by the betting public.

As well as enhanced data for betting customers – and the beneficial impact this will also have on the integrity of betting markets – this development will also allow the BHA to collect research data on the nature, frequency and impact of wind surgeries on racehorses.

Full press release is here.

The National Trainer’s Federation (NTF) issued this statement in response:

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) sent an email to trainers yesterday informing them that they would have to notify the BHA of certain types of wind surgery carried out on any previously raced horse in their care before that horse’s next run after surgery.

The National Trainers Federation (NTF) is concerned about the new rule on several fronts. First, any rule change should have been prefaced by more research. The BHA has made it clear that its motive for implementing this rule is to provide information for bettors that might influence their betting behaviour. The NTF understands the desire to fulfil the needs of racing’s customers but in this data driven world, reliable data is essential.

In the consultation we proposed that the BHA’s first step should be to collect data from trainers about wind surgeries carried out over a two year period. That data would then be analysed to assess the extent to which different wind surgeries have a significant effect on the performance of a large enough cohort of horses to have some confidence in the value of information provided to bettors. The BHA has opted to ignore the opportunity for an evidence-based approach on this issue. We believe that is poor regulation.

The NTF’s other concerns include the impossibility of effectively policing the rule, especially in relation to horses trained outside Britain. Some types of surgery cannot be detected post-operatively. We urged the BHA to seek alignment from Ireland and France before introducing the rule. The BHA chose to make the running but we fear this will leave British racing connections at a disadvantage and undermine the objective of the rule.

Racing folk on twitter got busy. Most applauded the news but a number of trainers, notably on my timeline Jim Boyle and Ralph Beckett, thought it a bad idea. I asked both men if they’d care to expand on what appeared to be strong feelings using this blog. Mister Beckett declined ( I see he has commented briefly on his own site today, but Jim Boyle was happy to let me publish his thoughts which appeared first on his website.

Jim has been training in Epsom since 2001. He’s trained the winners of over 350 races and over £1.85m in prize money, with winners as far afield as Ayr and Hamilton, and runners in both Ireland and Dubai.

Here are his thoughts on this:

A flurry of social media activity in response to the new BHA ruling on the mandatory declaration of wind-ops led recently to a number of trainers (myself included) being branded anti-punter, patronising and stuck in the dark ages, amongst other things. This was all for daring to air a different viewpoint to that espoused by the multitude of punters on Twitter who are convinced that this ruling was long overdue and essential. Even the newly elongated Twitter format wasn’t long enough for me to get my points across, hence this blog post. 

For a start, let me make it quite clear that I am not anti-punter.  I fully recognise that the funding model of our sport is predicated on encouraging people to bet on it. Hence, if racing is to thrive, I am more than aware that we need to grow the betting market, not try to shrink it. So my thoughts on this issue have nothing to do with being anti-punter in any way. I would like to qualify that statement by also stating that betting should never be the only policy driver of our sport.

The NTF were indeed consulted, but clearly not listened to, on this ruling. We voiced a strong opinion that if these procedures were to be declared, there ought to be an analysis of data undertaken in order to come up with robust, evidence-based information on the efficacy, or not, of various wind operations. We suggested a two year window to allow a sufficient sample size so as to be statistically meaningful. At the end of that period we could all be provided with useful information on various procedures that could inform both their application in the first place, along with their usefulness (or not) as a punting pointer. At this point it would have been easy to decide what information should, or should not, be put in the public domain.

One well known punter tweeted that there had been 12 cases this year where in a subsequent stewards enquiry the reason for a massive improvement in form had been down to the horse having had a wind op. I asked which procedure this was, and of course he was unable to tell me. And herein lies the problem. The way the BHA have framed this ruling is that the betting public will be alerted the first time a horse runs after having had a wind procedure. But they will be completely in the dark as to which one. So not only will they not have that specific information, but even if they did have that information, they would be guessing in the dark as to how likely it was to have an effect. This punter said he would rather know than not know, as it would help inform his decision, but I just can’t see how. Let us say that those 12 cases he mentioned had been broken down into individual procedures, rather than all being lumped together. And let’s say that on analysis, of those 12 cases, 6 were shown to have been down to procedure A, 4 down to procedure B, 1 each to procedure C and D and none to procedure E. This punter has no idea whether the horse has had procedure A or procedure E. So how is he able to make a judgement call on whether the horse is likely to improve, or by how much? However savvy a punter is, I don’t believe he can make good use of incomplete information. And there will be plenty of less savvy punters who will be sucked into backing horses regardless. This to me is not a sound basis for putting information in the public domain.

Now let’s say, as recommended by the NTF, we had two years of data on the various wind ops. The data could be analysed to provide, for instance, an average (mean and median) improvement in form on not only a horses first run back, but subsequent runs also. Now, there is a big caveat here that there will be many instances of all 5 procedures where there is no positive impact whatsoever. But a picture could be drawn up of how likely a particular procedure might be to have an impact, and following on from that, how much of an impact it might have. There would be other useful info gained, for instance, on how long these positive outcomes tend to last and so forth. I don’t know how any savvy punter could argue that this information would be infinitely more useful to them than what they are going to be handed. And the argument that this data analysis can be done anyway doesn’t really cut it for me – why for the sake of waiting two years should we be releasing data of very spurious benefit, when at the end of that period we could release proper, evidence-based and usable data.

I recognise that there are still many people who will not agree with my viewpoint, and they are entitled to that opinion, but I would challenge them to define what part of this argument characterises a trainer as anti-punter, patronising or stuck in the dark ages.

 

One of the keen debaters with Jim on twitter was the very successful At The Races pundit and tipster Hugh Taylor. Hugh also published a piece this morning and I’m grateful to him and to ATR for permission to reproduce it below.

The wind operation issue has created lots of debate on Twitter, but even with the extended number of characters permissible (some may say especially since that number was extended), that’s not the ideal medium for in-depth analysis, hence this blog.

The main objection by the National Trainers’ Federation (NTF) (and most trainers whom I have seen quoted) to the compulsory declaration of wind operations has been the lack of information about the effectiveness of the varied, different operations and procedures which will fall under the generic banner of “wind operations” under the new directive.

In my opinion, it’s right and responsible that trainers are making this point, and many trainers have done punters a great service by highlighting the fact that there are so many differing procedures, that they are often ineffective or of limited effect, and that enough isn’t known about which procedures are most effective.

It’s also easy to see the sense in the NTF’s suggestion that a two-year trial be undertaken in which the BHA collect data from trainers on different wind procedures undertaken and their effect on performance.

What I can’t agree with, however, is the suggestion that, in the interim period, the current system should continue with no information given about wind operations.

Sprinter Sacre
High profile horse, Sprinter Sacre had multiple wind operations during his career

Consider the following situation. I’m looking through the form of a handicap chase. There is one horse whose recent form under similar conditions is very solid, and I’m interested in backing him at his current price.

However, there are a couple of rivals who are returning from a short break who are troubling me before I back my selection. Both have run dismally on their last couple of starts under similar conditions to those they will encounter today. But both have form prior to that which suggests they would beat my selection if suddenly bouncing back to that form.

Their profile makes me very wary that one or both may have had some sort of wind operation since their last run. On their recent runs, I make both 50-1 chances. But if they have both had wind ops, even if the chance of that wind op being successful is very small, that possibility will significantly change my idea of a value price about my selection.

Under the current legislation, I have no way of knowing if my suspicion of a wind op is true, unless connections are kind enough to make an announcement before the race. But under the new legislation, if neither horse has had a wind op (assuming connections haven’t failed to declare an op), I will know that fact, and there’s nothing incomplete or confusing about the fact that a horse hasn’t had a wind op. That is going to have a significant impact on my betting confidence, and decision, in that race.

Of course, there are other possible reasons why a horse might suddenly bounce back to its best for a reason that’s not in the public domain after a short break, having been completely out of form. I’ve seen various factors cited such as change of feed, change of work rider, change of shoe type etc.

But I haven’t seen multiple instances of connections citing such reasons when interviewed by the stewards after a much-improved and winning performance, whereas I was very quickly able to find 12 instances this year alone of connections attributing a massively-improved (or back-to-form from out of the blue) winning performance to wind operations. Those are just the ones where the transformation was so big as to trigger a post-race stewards’ enquiry.

As a punter, I recognise that the information we are set to receive from January about wind ops will be imprecise, and certainly not something to use as a single-issue punting strategy. But the decision as to whether or not that information is of use to me should be mine.

Punters need to listen, and listen carefully, to the very wise advice that has been shared by many horsemen about the varied range of wind operations and procedures, and the incompleteness of information that is available about them. But it’s important that relationship is reciprocal; sometimes there can be things to be learned from punters, too.

Nicky Henderson appears to share many of Jim Boyle’s concerns. Mister Henderson told the Racing Post:

It’s only right that people who bet on horses have all the relevant information in front of them. Trainers have got nothing to hide.

Surgeries have improved and science has moved on since the days of Party Politics winning the Grand National after being tubed.

Cauterisation of the soft-palate is a routine procedure rather than an operation. It’s very straightforward, whereas hobdaying is a significant operation,” Henderson said. “Yet both will be coming under the one umbrella of wind surgery, and I have huge concerns about that. It’s a difficult issue.

Once an issue has been declared you are tagging a horse for life that it’s had a wind op.

I’m not quite sure what the point of that last line is. If a horse had a wind op last year or if it has one in January 2018, it’s a wind op just the same. The horse last year is surely and rightly ‘tagged’ with a wind op even though it did not need declared.

One of the reasons I wanted a trainer’s perspective was that I did not understand the crux of their argument. Jim’s main point, and Nicky Henderson’s if I’m understanding it correctly, appears to be that the information is not fit for purpose, that there is limited quality to the data because each affliction and its proposed cure is being bundled with the other four and treated as one. It seems to me an argument born of frustration with the perceived usefulness of the information trainers are being asked to supply.

At first I too thought that grading the seriousness of the ops was a good idea. I quickly came around to the BHA’s belief that only one classification was required; WS, for wind surgery, based on the logical premise that a trainer and vet are, in all cases, going to be working in the best interests of the horse and its owner. They will opt for the surgery best suited to giving the horse a chance of realising its potential, and that simplifies matters beautifully, I think.

Such a system removes any need for punters to research five different types of surgery. It means that a simple WS on the racecard will suffice rather than one with codes added.

I wonder what the reaction would have been had the BHA opted for what some are now proposing? If they had said that they want a separate classification for each op I suspect that quite a few trainers would have been saying, ‘Do you think I don’t know my job? Do you think I employ a nincompoop for a vet? The horse will get whatever surgery it needs.’ I’m not suggesting that Jim Boyle, Nicky Henderson or Ralph Beckett would argue in such a fashion, I’m just trying to illustrate the fact that however they structured this, the BHA would probably have drawn protest from trainers.

One point about the BHA’s decision that does strike me as odd, they have chosen to exclude certain wind ops from declaration. I asked them:

“Other than the 5 surgical procedures listed in yesterday’s BHA release, are there other procedures which a vet or trainer would classify as a ‘wind op’?  If so, can you tell me what they are and why they’ve been excluded?”

Joe Rendall, standing in for head of media Robin Mounsey said,

“The five selected are the major routine wind surgeries. There are other procedures, but the five, which for reference are:

 

  • Tie back (prosthetic laryngoplasty)*
  • Hobday (ventriculectomy/cordectomy)*
  • Epiglottic surgery
  • Tie forward (dorsal displacement soft palate surgery)
  • Soft palate cautery

 

Account for the vast majority of routine wind ops.”

I sent  this follow-up to Joe: 

“Many thanks for the quick response. It seems though that the answer is that there are some wind ops which will not be declared. My thoughts are that a clarification of that at the time of issuing the release would have achieved clarity. As it is, the picture is still cloudy on the information front.

“I’m not saying that the declaration of non-included ops will contribute to the overall objective, but if they do not then it might have been better to explain why not.  Many of the complaints from objectors seem to be based on the decision to have a blanket classification of wind surgery rather than a breakdown by surgery type.  Most people, including me, would be with you on sticking to the blanket classification, but if it’s to be a blanket, it ought to cover everything; if my interpretation of the situation is correct, that blanket does not do so. But, if you are happy with it, I will use your first response”

Joe replied that he was happy for me to stick with their first response. A minor point, perhaps, but one that would have been easy to clear up, I think. EDIT: The day after I published this, the BHA sent me this addition:

“The list of surgeries captures what we believe, and have been informed, are the most common surgical procedures. However if there is the belief that there are additional surgical interventions routinely performed which should to be captured, these could be considered and added in the future.”

 If anything, I’d expected protests from trainers on the basis that it was a lot of hassle or that it would unsettle owners or that the bloodstock market as a whole would be adversely affected. These, although not arguments that would have changed BHA plans, would at least have been more understandable to the public. Instead, the tone of the NTF’s response allied, perhaps, to the inadequacies of twitter for nuanced debate have led to the types of reactions Jim Boyle mentioned where people are turning on trainers and snapping at them.

It seems to me that the NTF ought to have put a much more positive spin on its actions and briefed members accordingly on how best to voice individual concerns. Nobody seems to be protesting the main objective here – to give punters what they’ve long sought. As such, the sport would, I think have been much better served by a united front.

Should the BHA share the blame here? Who knows?  There have obviously been discussions behind the scenes on this for some time. Agreement could not be reached and the BHA appears to have taken an adversarial stance.  But maybe the debate reached deadlock. It’s tough being a regulator and it’s tough being an industry body like the NTF.  But surely they should have come to some agreement on how to present this so that both bodies – and therefore the sport- could be seen in the best light?

A way could, I’m sure, have been found for trainers to express publicly their concerns at least enough to merit a ‘told you so’ at some point. And it could have been done with subtlety. Instead, the NTF have been left amidst a perceived storm of toys flying from prams. They’ll feel unfairly treated as will Jim Boyle, Ralph Beckett and others who share their concerns.

In PR, Racing needs to do a better job than this. Sadly, another row has erupted over anti-doping rules, so the prospects of improved relations look poor. Before the situation worsens, lets hope the BHA and the NTF agree to hold hands at least for long enough to go and see a counsellor.

So, over to you. The comments section is open and will remain so until this has run its course.  My thanks again to Jim Boyle and Hugh Taylor.

 

 

 

Categories: Racing politics

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