How Much Have You Lost on Sick Horses?

I first heard this gag in the 1970s: “I gave a lot of my money to sick horses. Trouble is, I didn’t know they were sick when I backed them”. Hardly a LOL, but it did make me smile. From what I’ve heard in the past couple of days, maybe it’s not so funny now.

There’s been fiery debate on forums and social media about the forced break racing’s had to take because of equine flu. I have no knowledge of the science of it so haven’t commented other than on twitter today after I read Kevin Blake’s latest article.

In summary, Kevin says that because equine flu is endemic, there are sick horses to be found in yards pretty much every day. He says if a yard is out of form it’s likely flu or some other virus will be to blame and that trainers dometimes discover a horse is sick only after a poor run.

This makes perfect sense. I’ve never studied trainer form at any depth, although it has always seemed odd to me that a yard can suddenly start churning out winners relentlessly for weeks before dipping back to normal (whatever that is ). And, of course, it can work the other way and horses struggle to find a semblance of their best form. Philip Hobbs’s yard last year would probably make a strong case study in the latter.

When a fancied horse runs a dire race in a major event we often hear that it scoped poorly afterwards and had been sick. But horses run dire races every day of the week at small tracks. I wonder how many of those were sick and shouldn’t have been offered up as betting propositions?

I am not blaming trainers here. No right minded trainer would send a sick horse to the races. What I’m interested in is the scope of the problem and the chance of finding a solution. Aside from the punting aspect, there’s a welfare factor too. I wonder if horses who die on the track are checked to see if a virus was present?

Returning to the betting angle; for years punters called for formal declaration of wind surgery. We were told it was unnecessary, too difficult, not our business etc., but we got it in the end. A couple of twitter correspondents today told me that with sick horses ’twas ever thus and we must suck it up. Why should we? If a horse can be diagnosed with sickness after a five minute run in a race, isn’t there some medical accessory (or couldn’t one be commissioned) that will pick up that sickness an hour earlier?

A couple of others on twitter said (I paraphrase), ‘what’s the point of worrying about backing sick horses when so many are sent to the post with no objective other than to get their handicap mark down’? Well, that’s a completely different question and one where there are, at least, procedures in place.

Meanwhile, in a betting industry worth almost £5bn a year in the UK, nobody knows how many sick horses, carrying wagers that are already lost, go to post each day.

Does it total a dozen a year? A hundred? A thousand? Five thousand?

Wouldn’t you like to know the figures? And wouldn’t you like the BHA to be doing something about reducing those figures?

I would.

Joe McNally

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