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.


  1. Hi Jon,

    Our sad owner experience last Autumn (the death of Edgardo Sol) prompts me to make a couple of points.

    Firstly, I suspect in many if not most cases it is the trainer who takes the initiative solely in arranging wind ops. Owners in my view are often passive onlookers in the process or perhaps more accurately 'blinded by science' and convinced by the prospect of racing success. (A dubious assumption, as you indicate).

    Secondly, there is no such thing as a safe operation. Many of these procedures are carried out under general anaesthetic. For various reasons our horse was unable to cope with this; what makes our sense of loss even more acute is that we now realise the potential positive benefits may have been illusory or very limited in nature.

    I do feel there are some aspects of the practice of wind operations which need more consideration than they seem to be attracting, certainly in relation to risk to the horse.Is it ethical to be carrying out so many of them when we know to our cost they can cost horses their life-perhaps in exceptional circumstances, but if it is difficult to 'predict the outcome' and they don't work in many cases, should the practice be more selective rather than 'routine'?