Friday 15 December 2017

Trust, Transparency and Integrity in Racing – The Concluding Part 4 of the Series.

It’s been interesting as I’ve written the blog series around the subject of trust, transparency, integrity and corruption that not a single owner I’ve talked to about it has disagreed with anything I’ve raised. As in everything to do with life and commerce, perception really matters and unfortunately the overriding perception is that the breeding supply chain that brings horses through to owners is inherently stacked against the owner. On occasions it is almost certainly corrupt, and almost daily there are practices being perpetrated that while probably not illegal, lack the necessary standards of integrity.

It is clearly very difficult to gauge the overall impact of this on racing and ownership, but I definitely believe that the BHA is taking the right stance by putting a much greater focus on integrity in all aspects of our sport and is prepared to examine breaches of the necessary standards in the context of the whole sales process.

There must be an irony that I’m writing this blog having just bought a foal today at Goffs in Ireland, and when this blog goes live I’ll be attending the Tattersalls Cheltenham sale with some friends who are prepared to invest deeply. Unfortunately I can’t help but feel that owners are receiving inadequate value for money on too many occasions and cumulatively that must be acting as a potential barrier to new owners coming into the sport while discouraging retention of the owners who are already active supporters.

So I thought it timely to reflect on my “top ten” recommendations for addressing these problems. They are not in any priority order but I do believe that if the BHA puts a searchlight on them, it will definitely be to the greater benefit of the whole ownership community.
  1. Develop an end to end integrity framework. What I mean by this is to map out every stage in the equine supply chain from breeding through to the eventual retirement of the racehorse. At every step in the chain there is potential for corruption, and this should be mapped out so that the level of risk is made explicit.
  2. Set integrity standards. Having mapped out the supply chain, it is then possible to state unambiguously what the necessary personal, professional and commercial standards should be, and what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.
  3. Monitor and police those standards. Having developed an integrity framework and set the appropriate standards, the BHA then needs to have inspectors who can then monitor and identify the perpetrators of unacceptable practice. The whole industry through the various stakeholder groups to have been warned in advance of what is unacceptable behaviour and for this to be built into the rules of racing.
  4. Identify and copy best practice. Other countries, particularly Germany, are determined that the breed is strengthened on an ongoing basis by not allowing substandard mares to produce foals. The performance record of stallions should be tracked and minimum standards set for mares. The recent requirement for horses with first-time wind ops to be reported is a step in the right direction because over time it should be possible which stallions are passing on higher than average wind problems.
  5. Give every horse a log book from day one. In the last blog I commented that you wouldn’t buy a £100,000 car without a log book, and I don’t see why you should do the same with horses. The racing authorities in England and Ireland as a minimum should make it a requirement that any veterinary treatment to any racehorse is logged, and that when the horse goes into any sale, a PDF of that document can be accessed online for one month before the sale date.
  6. Improve pre-sale veterinary inspections and change the charging policy. All horses being sold at public auctions should be inspected properly and thoroughly once, with the cost of that being paid by the vendor. A full inspection report should be available. Furthermore the vet making that inspection should be held liable for the quality of it. If the report is inaccurate, the vet should be held to account both commercially and professionally.
  7. Full declaration of anything performance-enhancing. I know that many trainers argue that owners and the racing public don’t understand the pros and cons and limitations of many veterinary treatments and procedures, but I do believe that they should be declared. It is why I’m in favour of transparency on wind operations, but I would extend that to all major interventions.
  8. No limits to transparency. The simple guiding principle should be that if access to a piece of information can provide a trainer, owner or punter with a commercial advantage, then that information should be in the public domain wherever possible. So for example should there be a requirement to disclose when a horse’s tendons have been fired?
  9. Fund more evidence-based research. Owners are losing money every day buying horses which are genetically predisposed to certain maladies and conditions that will significantly constrain their performance during their life as racehorses. The BHA should fund research to collect evidence over time that will identify more of these conditions. As they will be recorded in the horse’s log book, then an informed owner can make an appropriate decision not to invest.
  10. Have all the information readily available. In the age of social media, all information should be at owners’ and prospective buyers’ fingertips. There may well be an accusation of information overload, but it would be better for the information to be there if an owner wants to access it, than to be left in the unacceptable position of buying horses where there is significantly asymmetrical information, i.e. where the prospective purchaser knows far less than other interested parties upstream in the supply chain.
I’ve now been involved in buying and owning about 100 horses, either on my own or with co-owners. Unfortunately I believe that if I’d had full information I wouldn’t have bought at least 20% of them. Assuming an average total cost of £50,000, that’s £1m of money in effect wasted. This issue is that serious. I hope that in ten years’ time I won’t have to write another series raising the same ten recommendations. I fear that the first horse of the sale today ought to be called “Pigs May Fly” (Apologies to Lot 1, Ilsnepasserontpas, who I hope turns out to be a magnificent horse giving superb pleasure to whoever buys him.)

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.

Friday 1 December 2017

Why Disclosing Wind Operations is the Right Approach for British Racing. Part 3 of a Series Examining Issues in Integrity, Transparency, Trust and Corruption.

Anyone who’s been reading my blogs will know that a major theme, right from the start of Owners for Owners, is the need for British Racing to be far more transparent at every level of its operation – whether that is the governance of the BHA, the actions of trainers and owners, and across the whole breeding industry. So it’s hardly a surprise that I’m very much in favour of the change to the Rules of Racing whereby the BHA will introduce, on 19th January 2018, a requirement for trainers to declare when a horse in training in the UK has had wind surgery. Trainers will be compelled to do this prior to a horse’s first run after such surgery, and it will be revealed in race cards and newspapers with the initials WS. Trainers will have to tick a box at declaration time and indicate which of five procedures is relevant to that particular horse, even though there will be no indication to the racing public as to which has taken place.

The five procedures in upper airway surgery which will have to be declared are tie-back (prosthetic laryngoplasty), hobday (ventrilectomy / cordectomy), epiglottic surgery, tie-forward (dorsal displacement soft palate surgery) and soft palate cautery.

Since becoming an owner, I’ve been with vets, particularly Ben Brain, in the assessment of horses requiring all of these procedures and indeed have witnessed the operations themselves. As an example, Ben always assesses our horses initially through scoping of the larynx and palate and then, before deciding on an operation, does an overland scope where a small camera is put into the horse’s wind pipe and the horse is galloped. Ben then records the broadcast and reviews it to assess whether any surgical intervention is required to improve breathing. Normally it is obvious when that is the case, and particularly when the soft palate flips during a gallop, it is immediately apparent on the video, and usually the rider is equally aware of the moment when this takes place.

It has been obvious for a while that wind operations would need to be disclosed because they can certainly be performance-enhancing. The problem with this however (as punters will soon discover) is that wind operations themselves have a very mixed success rate and it can be very difficult to predict what the outcome is going to be. Like many aspects of veterinary practice, there is a need for a holistic perspective. With horses the challenge is whether the problem with respiratory conditions is to do with the structural operation of the wind pipe and larynx or whether it is more a mental issue with the horse being wary of exerting itself properly. However, I believe that everyone, and particularly punters, should be aware of wind operations and I’m certainly not someone who feels that the information is privileged and should only be available to trainers and owners.

In the context of this series of blogs on transparency, trust and corruption, there is a broader issue here which is that information asymmetry is at the heart of bad practice. If one group has access to information that another group doesn’t, then it is very easy for the privileged group to manipulate that knowledge for its own purposes and gain. I would argue that privileged access to information, or the limited release of it, is potentially the bedfellow of corruption.

So full marks to the BHA for taking this step, even though it wasn’t universally welcomed. One group, the Racehorse Owners Association, seemed to get hot under the collar about it, saying that they “did not feel it is in the best interests of the industry” and that it would be the owners who “would be compromised the most”. I find this disturbing because the ROA appears to have been at odds with the BHA on a couple of issues recently, and I fail to understand their stance at the moment. I’ve always been very much in favour of the ROA campaigning for improvement on fronts such as prize-money and the owner experience, but I don’t think they should be advocating a privileged position for owners in this area.

Obviously there are likely to be some negative commercial consequences as a result of the declarations, as indeed there most certainly should be. For some time it has been clear that a number of stallions are passing on respiratory defects, so you would expect their fees to decline. Equally there are a number of mares who probably shouldn’t be producing foals. I’ve long argued that the German system under which mares have to be assessed for conformation, racing standard and wellbeing should be adopted in the UK. There is clearly a risk that because we are adopting a different approach to France and Ireland, there will be a disincentive for horses racing and breeding in the UK. It will be interesting to see if any trainers elect to run horses for the first time after a wind operation outside the jurisdiction of the BHA. On the other hand, one of the greatest benefits that may come from the disclosure is proper research into the effect of wind operations. Over time it should become clear what their impact can be, and hopefully also on the stallions and mares which are genuinely improving the breed rather than passing on harmful defects.

In the next blog I will draw this series to a close by identifying ten practices that I’d like to see adopted under the greater transparency heading. In the meantime, despite a number of trainers and stakeholders grumbling about the declarations required on 19th January next year, I think it is a positive and bold step forward.

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.