Thursday 11 February 2016

Do Wind Operations “Work”, and Should They be Declared to Punters?

Last month Bruce Millington, in the Racing Post, argued strongly that because of the dramatic effect that wind operations can sometimes have on horses, the fact of having one should be declared to the betting public ahead of the horse racing. It was a forceful article and it even had an implication that in some way the public was potentially being deceived by a conspiracy of owners and trainers. This prompted a lot of discussion, correspondence and social media traffic, the vast majority of which equally strongly appeared to agree with Mr. Millington. From the owner / trainer perspective, there was more caution and this, in turn, prompted another debate about how many aspects of training and veterinary treatment of the racehorse should be declared, and what, if any, limits there should be on such disclosure.

The Owners for Owners default position in racing is always to advocate transparency. We believe that owners, racegoers, punters and all stakeholders involved in the sport should have full access to information where it is demonstrably relevant. The counter-argument is that it can sometimes be difficult to interpret information, but this argues for releasing not just the facts but also information and education to raise the overall knowledge and awareness of the challenges of training racehorses and keeping them fit, both physically and mentally. So why not apply this principle and disclose the fact that a horse has had a wind operation?

However there are clearly some practical difficulties in this, not least that there is no such thing as just a singular “wind operation”. Horses’ wind has been a subject of concern and conjecture for centuries. Some make no noise but the wind is poor, while others can be roaring like a steam-train but the wind is fine. There are over 20 veterinary procedures that can be used to improve or optimise a horse’s airways, palate and larynx, with the common ones being a hobday, palate cauterisation, tie-back, tie-forward and release of epiglottic entrapment (which is what happened to Cue Card, allowing him to win the King George). Some trainers give wind operations to horses almost as a matter of course from an early age, while others believe that as horses strengthen and mature the wind can naturally improve. And of course there are just as many different options available for bridles, tongue-ties and bits to facilitate breathing, and there are constant innovations with these; as an example, some trainers have recently started importing spoon bits from Australia which seem to have a positive effect in keeping the horse’s tongue and soft palate down. So which, if not all, of these procedures and trainer practices should be declared, when, how and how often?

Not surprisingly, the debate then spilled over into all aspects of training. In some countries it is mandatory to weigh the racehorse and declare that weight to the betting public ahead of racing. As an indication of fitness that sounds very sensible – assuming of course that you can track and relate that weight to what is deemed to be the optimum for that horse. Should ulcer treatment be declared? Or the horse’s blood profile? How about recent gallops? And for that matter the gallops surface that the horse has been on, and whether it has been in a water treadmill, etc., etc. Eventually information disclosure would push the boundaries and become ridiculous. Apparently there is a BHA study under way at the moment looking to provide guidelines, and while there will probably be more disclosure it is equally important to define the limits on it.

While the debate was going on, one of our horses, Thady Quil, who had previously had a cauterisation of the palate, had a tie-forward. Unfortunately the cauterisation hadn’t “worked”, and he was pulled up in his last run. What effect would declaration of that cauterisation have had on the betting public? At the moment there is no requirement to declare the tie-forward. Throughout the treatment we have had very interesting discussions with the veterinary surgeon looking after our horse, who is adamant that surgery as such is rarely a “miracle cure”, and that what he is doing is applying procedures that will hopefully help the horse to control his wind – but most importantly it is a voluntary rather than involuntary action on the part of the horse. There is a strong interplay between the physical modifications brought about by the operation and the confidence and ability of the horse to trust and control his breathing …. and how on earth could you declare how well that has been achieved?

Clearly you couldn’t, but it shows that there are absolutely no certainties whatsoever in this area. Information release to the public therefore needs to come with a health warning – wind operations don’t always “work”. Indeed when I asked the vet for his views on releasing the details he joked that it would put him out of business if everyone knew how difficult it is to predict the outcome. Don’t bet blind on wind ops!!

I am always interested to hear your views so please do leave a comment. If you can't see the comment box at the bottom of this post then navigate to the post using the right hand navigation or click here > and scroll to the bottom of the page. Look forward to hearing your views. Thanks very much for sharing them.

Monday 1 February 2016

Will the Change in Media Contract From Channel 4 to ITV Bring the Lost Viewers Back to British Racing?

Farewell to Channel 4, after 31 years of broadcasting racing, and welcome back, ITV – starting with Cheltenham on New Year’s Day 2017. The Racecourse Media Group, acting on behalf of British Racing, announced at the beginning of the year that ITV had been granted the exclusive rights to broadcast racing, having won the bidding battle and being prepared to pay £30m over four years for the privilege. Apparently the intention is to split the broadcasts, with approximately 30 days’ racing from the showcase meetings such as Cheltenham, Ascot and Goodwood on the main ITV station, and another 60 days or so on ITV4. If you were cynical you would say that ITV offered the most money and the racecourses accepted the highest offer. If you were more positive you would be hoping that lost viewers would be attracted back to the sport, and new ones be brought in. With the BHA’s growth strategy to 2020 now being implemented, this is yet another element which, if it works, will be of real benefit to the sport …. but equally if it fails, it could be a big step back for racing.

It is funny how just thinking about ITV took me straight back to my student days when I first watched racing on that channel, under the enthusiastic if somewhat hesitant John Rickman, Raleigh Gilbert and Lord Oaksey. Indeed I used to frequent a local Chester pub, The Little Oak, and can still remember the smoke-filled tap room, agonising over selections for the ITV 7, then handing over a few pounds from my student grant (remember those?) before settling back with cheese and onion baps and a few pints of Greenall Whitley strong bitter, while the poorly-selected nags were duly beaten. It got me hooked on the idiocies of betting on accumulators and a fondness for beer glasses with handles.

In those days the transmission of racing was incredibly rudimentary, and yet somehow seemed very authentic and really engaged the racing fan. I have always felt that the stories of racing revolve around first and foremost the horses and their heroic deeds, with everything else secondary to that. I can easily do without high technology and mind-numbing analysis of betting patterns, as long as the equine heroes are allowed to captivate the viewer. Admittedly I also enjoy listening to highly knowledgeable, insightful people talking about their sport, be they trainers, owners, pundits, commentators, journalists or whoever. Sometimes in newspaper features you read of the interviewee’s ideal dinner guests, and my selections would be Sir Mark Prescott, Alastair Down, Johnnie Francome and Alice Plunkett. You know that the conversation would be lively and the stories fascinating, and probably scurrilous. My role would
only extend to wielding the corkscrew.

Like many people since the ITV announcement was made, I have been wondering about what should now change with the broadcasting, why it needs to change and whether there are any risks associated with it all.

Without any doubt there has been a dramatic decline in viewers under the most recent Channel 4 contract. Apparently Royal Ascot was down by 50%; similarly the Derby; while Champions’ Day last year had barely a third of a million viewers. Putting that into context: ITV often has well over 400,000 viewers to watch “important” darts games. ITV is probably second only to the BBC in terms of its prestige and popularity, so on that basis alone it ought to bring in substantially more viewers, and should be able to cross-promote racing to other parts of its sporting rights portfolio. After all, it covers top events such as the Tour de France (brilliantly), French Open tennis, Six Nations rugby and Euro 2016. Telling the stories of a sport well and connecting to viewers ought to be among their core competencies, so there isn’t any likely reason as to why they can’t do as good a job, if not better, than Channel 4. Indeed I actually feel that the overall standard of Channel 4 coverage has been excellent and they have probably been criticised somewhat unfairly. From a technical and content perspective they have done well – although like many people I believe that the programme had become dull and somehow lacked the fun and chemistry of the Alastair Down / Johnnie Francome era.

On the change front there is a need for a significant clear-out from the current Channel 4 team. Selecting the anchor presenters will be critical. Names that have been suggested include Oli Bell (RUK), Ed Chamberlain (Sky football presenter), Matt Chapman (ATR), John Inverdale (BBC), Mark Pougatch (ITV’s lead football presenter) and of course Nick Luck to transfer across. Even Jeremy Kyle’s name has gone into the frame. Personally I’d love to see Johnny Francome and Ruby Walsh closely involved, rather than any of the current ex-jockeys. And do bring back Alastair Down, but definitely not John McCririck. Gina Harding should definitely be in as well. While I’m neutral on more or less technology, I’d certainly like to see much stronger content coverage of the horses themselves, both on the track and behind the scenes.

A big debating point will doubtless revolve around bookmakers and the betting coverage. It is easy to forget that only a few years ago, Channel 4 had to be paid money from the Levy Board grant to ensure that there was coverage. Now, with the legislation change that allowed bookmakers to advertise on TV, there is a massive revenue stream flowing from the bookies’ marketing spend. This source of revenue is doubtless one of the major reasons for media companies being so keen to bid for the racing rights. As always with bookies though, they will expect a lot in exchange. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll see some real innovation in bookie offerings that can then become woven into the new coverage. ITV 7, anyone (or a modern version)?

Finally, are there any risks? I suppose the biggest, by a considerable margin, is that the viewer decline continues and racing finds that there isn’t that much interest any more in racing programmes per se, but that the British public only really likes racing as a backdrop to concerts, ladies’ days, fashion shows and prodigious drinking. Another one, I fear, is that we see an accelerating trend towards two tiers of racing: fabulous high days but, alas, far too many days of mediocrity. This could easily be reflected in the two streams of the ITV platform. The quality and success or otherwise of the ITV4 broadcasts will be critical.

I for one wish the new ITV broadcasts the very best of luck …. and next time I’m in Chester on a Saturday afternoon I think I’ll even pop into The Little Oak and see whether there’s a new generation of racing enthusiasts cheering on the latter-day equivalent of the ITV 7.

I am always interested to hear your views so please do leave a comment. If you can't see the comment box at the bottom of this post then navigate to the post using the right hand navigation or click here > and scroll to the bottom of the page. Look forward to hearing your views. Thanks very much for sharing them.