Thursday, November 23, 2017

Hot air in the wind

We're hearing plenty about wind operations, and I must admit that I'm baffled.  I went to an NTF East Anglian Regional Meeting last week when this was discussed, and (as I reported in the previous chapter) the misgiving which some trainers present (the ones who train for the international big spenders) held was that it would provide a disincentive to those owners against having their expensive colts trained in England.  That's a valid concern (albeit one which applies only to a small minority of trainers) but it's important to remember that that's the only one.  Nobody mentioned having any other misgiving.  However, I keep reading in the papers and hearing on the TV that our concern is that we are worried that being given this information is to the disbenefit of punters because they don't know how to interpret the data.  That's just nonsense, and anyone putting across the myth that that is the general trainers' view is doing us a gross disservice.

Of course it is true that nobody knows (the horse's connections included) whether having had a wind operation since his previous run means that a horse will run better (or worse) than the Form Book suggests.  But that's no reason not to make the information public.  It's not merely that it would be absurdly patronising and/or paternalistic for the training community to take it upon itself to decide that the general public is too stupid to appreciate the implications of information and consequently, for its own good, must not be exposed to the information.  No, it's not just that: on top of the fact that that view would be ridiculous is the fact that a similar dose of uncertainty applies to all data - and nobody (surely?) is suggesting that no data should be released.

One could make exactly the same observation about publishing details of the jockey, draw and pedigree - and even form.  There are all too many times when the race is won by a horse who, according to the Form Book, had no chance; when being drawn 1 turns out to have been a massive disadvantage; when the booking of a jockey who hardly ever rides a winner and who is widely assumed to be moderate results in a horse being perfectly ridden, or when the booking of a jockey generally regarded as a genius sees the horse boxed in the whole trip, or going too hard too early; or when a race is won by a debutant whose pedigree, whichever way you looked at it, had suggested that he'd need more time.  But nobody in his right mind could suggest not publishing the draw, jockey, pedigree or form.  Do they?  Do we?  I know that I don't.
Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The stranger song

Both of our fillies ran adequately.  Amenta finished fifth of 12 in her maiden race on a grey and wet but very pleasant afternoon Lingfield on Saturday; Freediver finished seventh of 12 in her maiden race on a grey and wet but very pleasant afternoon at Wolverhampton yesterday.  Both horses and their connections are probably wiser than we were as both fillies were having their first run for this stable, are still lightly-raced and hadn't run for a while (in fact Freediver was having her first race for exactly a year).  Most of what we learned was fairly encouraging: both fillies did plenty right through the day, coping with everything well and running on resolutely to the line in their races.  Onwards and upwards, we hope.

Otherwise, Altiorgate, or Windgate, has been the big topic on the wider landscape.  Funnily enough, this was the second time during the week that the topic of horses' wind problems had appeared on my radar.  Earlier in the week I had discovered why the implementation of the seemingly straightforward introduction of the reporting of wind operations to be made compulsory is taking so long.  Apparently the National Trainers' Federation is not keen on the idea.  I couldn't see what the objection could be, but now I do.  And it is a serious issue which the BHA are right to be cautious about.

Basically, the objection to making it compulsory to declare that a horse has had a wind problem is irrelevant for the vast majority of horses and the vast majority of trainers, but is a big issue at the highest level.  The worry is that making it public knowledge that a top-class stallion prospect has had a wind operation could potentially knock a million pounds off the horse's value.  More even.  If that's the case, then so be it; and arguably there's no harm in that because, if we are serious about the long-term good of the breed (which we should be), then we should be making things like this public knowledge anyway, so mare-owners can make informed decisions when choosing which stallions to use.

The problem is, though, that if the BHA do this, they will be doing it alone, ie Horse Racing Ireland and France-Galop won't be doing it too.  Which would be a massive disincentive to people putting their expensive colts into training in Great Britain, when they haven't got to worry about this potential compulsory devaluation of their stock if they have them trained in France or Ireland.  In practice the rule will be unenforceable.  And what would be a suitable punishment for failure to declare?  Warning off?  A warning?  A fine of £100?  A fine of £1,000,000?  Maybe a fine of twice the total prize money of the race in which the horse is running (on the basis that declaration is made if/when the horse has had a wind operation since its previous race) might be the answer in the extremely unlikely event of someone having failed to declare the operation and (and this is the unlikely part, particularly when the trainer is overseas-based and the operation was done abroad) being found out to have done so.

For a French- or Irish-based trainer, the answer would be either to ignore rule on the very rare occasions when you bring one such horse to Britain, knowing that you would have virtually no chance of being found out, and that, even if you are found out, the punishment would very likely be nothing worse than a slap on the wrist by comparison to the fortune which you would have saved your patron by preventing the world from finding out that his multi-million-euro stud prospect had a wind problem.  Or, if you are taking it seriously, just give him a prep run in France or Ireland before bringing him to England for his main target.

Obviously a GB-based trainer could do so too, but overall this rule would definitely be a massive disincentive for the major investors having their good colts trained in Great Britain, rather than France or Ireland.  Or even a disincentive for them racing them here.  And that would be bad for British racing.  I am in favour of wind operations being made reportable, but even I see that that is a major drawback.  One of British racing's strengths is that, while financially we are in the old Fourth Division, we are still able to play in the Premiership (as regards the proportion of the world's best horses who are trained here and the quality of our best races) because of a combination of our heritage and the fact that is our policy to maintain a far higher disparity in value than is the international norm between the best races and the run-of-the-mill stuff.

Our Premier League status is invaluable, and the BHA's duty is to safeguard it.  Therefore it is only right that we think long and hard before bringing in legislation which (assuming that a similar rule is not brought in in France or Ireland) would almost inevitably lead to a reduction in the percentage of the world's best horses who are trained here and a reduction in quality of our best races.  Food for thought.  But, of course, my tendency always to go off at a tangent means that this isn't the end of my musings on the topic.  Let's look at it from the other end.

Why are horses who have had wind operations (or operations to remove bone chips, or otherwise strengthen their legs, or whatever) even allowed to race in Group One races, bearing in mind that it is only recently that geldings have been allowed to run in such contests and still are only allowed to run in a subset of such contests?  Why are they allowed to race in any races, come to that, bearing in mind that horses who have been treated with anabolic steroids aren't allowed to run in any race?  The idea of barring geldings from the best races (until the '80s they couldn't run in any Group One race in Europe, and even now can't run in the Classics or the Arc) was because gelding a horse artificially improves him, artificially enhances his performance, and the best races are supposed to find out who is the best horse as nature intended, rather than the best horse once man's technology has tinkered around to make him better than he was born to be.

Similarly with anabolic steroids (which I wouldn't use in a month of Sundays, I should hasten to add, lest there be any misunderstanding) which we are all agreed have no place in our (or any other) sport because they can artificially enhance the performance of a competitor.  But there is no anabolic steroid which can artificially enhance the performance of a horse to the extent that a wind operation can sometimes do to a horse who is born with a breathing mechanism which doesn't function properly.  I don't think that it's good enough just to brush this dilemma under the carpet, to say that anabolic steroids are performance-enhancing but wind operations aren't; to say that geldings can't run in the Classics because they have had a performance-enhancing operation but there's no problem about running horses who have had wind operations (or operations to remove chips from their joints, or whatever) in these races.

I don't know what the answer is.  But these are things which we need to think about.  We doubly need to think about them now because, by a bizarre coincidence (and I didn't know that this rule was about to be introduced) while writing this chapter I have received an email (twice) from the BHA telling me that the reporting-of-wind-operations rule has been introduced. To quote Leonard Cohen, "Please understand, I never had a secret charm to get me to the heart of this, or any other, matter.".  To quote Johnny Nash, "There more questions than answers; and the more I find out, the less I know".  But we do at least need to think about these things.
Friday, November 17, 2017

Once more unto the breach, dear friends

It isn't actually a long time since we last had a runner - I think it was three weeks ago today, Roy at Newbury - but it seems longer.  But our gap between the season proper and the winter season (which mirrors the official gap, which inexplicably creates a twilight zone which runs from the end of what our overlords have decreed is the end of the season proper on 21st October and the start of the winter season on 13th November; so if you rode a winner during that period, too bad - it doesn't appear in any table, even if it's the Group One Racing Post Trophy) has seemed a long period.  But it will end tomorrow.

We have two horses in strong work at present.  Neither has run for us previously so it'll be an informative outing in both cases when they run - and that 'when' means Amenta tomorrow at Lingfield and Freediver at Wolverhampton on Monday.  The former has previously run three times (for Roger Charlton, one last year and two this year) while the latter has had two runs (for Sir Michael Stoute, last year) so they both have had some experience, but they're both still relatively unseasoned, so the outings should both see them learning about racing and us learning about them.

It'll be nice to be going to the races again.  In one sense I should be able to predict Amenta's performance better as I always ride her - which means, as the pair have been doing their galloping together (as in this photograph, taken by Emma, of them on Sunday, with Georgia Cox on this side on Freediver) in recent weeks, I've galloped her plenty but haven't galloped Freediver since the summer.  However, with Amenta it's hard to know what to predict as she has a tendency to be very headstrong and, while she's been very tractable at home recently, it cannot be guaranteed that she won't blot her copybook tomorrow.  Freediver is probably more straightforward. (I hope so anyway).  Whatever, let's hope that we get two creditable and promising runs which will encourage us to head on into the winter with both horses.

Joey Haynes will ride Amenta and Freediver will be ridden by Nicola.  Joey rode a winner for Amenta's owner Liam Norris a few years ago and was thus an obvious choice.  He hasn't ridden for us since he was an apprentice, but I've always been very happy with him and I particularly remember him giving Zarosa a beautiful ride to be placed in a staying race at Newcastle a few years ago.  I'm pleased to be using him again - and it goes without saying that I'm pleased that Nicola is able to ride Freediver (whom she is riding in this picture, taken yesterday).  She rode another winner today (on an 18/1 shot at Lingfield with a perfectly-judged front-running ride which deserved to be rewarded with victory) and would be an asset even without a claim.  As it is, her 7lb claim (which won't last much longer) is a gift.
Monday, November 13, 2017

Better be home soon

We're always told that social media brings out the worst in people.  Happily, that has not been my experience.  I've generally found that it brings out the best.  In fact, I'm frequently touched by the positive and kind feedback which I receive from things which I put up on Twitter, Facebook and this blog.  Unkind comments are generally very few, while words to warm the heart are many.  Under the circumstances, I should not have been surprised recently that, when I wrote a chapter saying how demoralising I had found it when Delatite was struck down with a freak and life-threatening problem, I received a huge amount of moral support coming down the lines.  I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was.  And I was hugely heartened, and I hugely appreciated it.

I was greatly touched by how many people cared about Delatite's plight, and it meant a lot to me.  It always helps to know that people care.  Consequently, I am delighted to share the good news that (the result of the outstanding care which he has received at Newmarket Equine Hospital over the past 20 days) Delatite came home today, and that as I write this he is tucking into his tea out in his stable just outside the window.  He isn't out of the woods, and it's not impossible that he could regress seriously; and it's far from certain how complete his ultimate recovery will be.  But, as of now, things have gone as well as they conceivably could have done.  It's great to have him home, both because that means he's well enough to come home, and because it's lovely to have him back.  And it's great to be able to pass on the news, knowing that so many kind people care.
Saturday, November 11, 2017


We've had Sandgate this week, ie Raul da Silva's one-day suspension because he "had appeared to gently throw a handful of the polytrack surface at his filly's quarters to encourage it into the stalls" at Chelmsford on Thursday night.  He was consequently "suspended for 1 day for improper behaviour as it was deemed to be an unacceptable method of encouragement".  Yes, ludicrous, isn't it?  Especially in advance of an AW race in which the horse was about to have a much greater quantity of Polytrack kicked in her face much more violently.  We can all see how silly this is.  And I presume that the on-course stewards saw it too, hence their insertion of the word 'gently' into their summation.

As I understand it, this farce wasn't the fault of the on-course stewards as there is apparently a rule in the book which obliged them to act as they did.  Let us hope that common sense can prevail and that the rule can be reviewed (and altered/removed) before we have any more consequent miscarriages of justice.  Happily, this miscarriage of justice which the on-course stewards were obliged to make (and, don't forget, their job is to apply the rules, not to decide whether natural justice suggests that on this occasion the rules should be followed or ignored) isn't a big deal in the greater scheme of things.  Life will go on as normal, even for Raul da Silva, bar on that one day if it turns out to be a day on which he would have had a ride.

What if something similar were to happen in a more serious situation, though?  In other words, what happens if there is a different and more serious instance of the stewards facing a dilemma of either convicting an innocent man or ignoring their own rules, neither of which options is acceptable?  Well, we'll have to find out at some point because we already have such a situation.  One can understand why it is taking so long to bring Hughie Morrison's case to court, but that's what's happening there.  The option is either warning off a man who we all believe to be innocent, or over-ruling the rule-book.  Neither option is acceptable, so one can understand the procrastination, just in case something comes up.

In retrospect, it was lunacy to bring in a rule that said that in anabolic steroids' cases the trainer is automatically warned off, irrespective of whether he was or wasn't responsible, unless he can prove that he wasn't responsible.  Too easy, isn't it?  You don't like a trainer, so you surreptiously give one of his horses a dose of anabolic steroids, call the BHA's crime-line and pass on the anonymous 'information' that the horse in question might have been given something, and stand back and watch your enemy swing.  Defies belief that the rule-makers could have, as a knee-jerk over-reaction to a bunch of Godolphin horses testing positive to anabolic steroids four years ago, brought in a rule which potentially leaves the door wide open to making a miscarriage of justice compulsory.

Sandgate has caused quite a storm, but it's nothing compared to what lies ahead.  I presume that Hughie is trying to leave no stone unturned to find out who has set him up.  But if/when this quest draws an ultimate blank, one would like to hope that there would be some scope in pursuing a challenge against the legality of a rule which obliges the BHA to warn off someone without proving their guilt, ie which flies directly in the face of the basic principle of law-making which means that someone is deemed to be innocent until proved guilty.  Just a thought.