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.


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