When is enough information too much?
Will the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s reporting of veterinary issues become so transparent that Sunday form guides one day contain images of bone scans and results of blood tests to analyse ourselves?
Will TV pundits point to the usually high enzyme levels of a fancied runner, or that he left a quarter of his feed one day, as a cause for concern?
It can be a fine line between due diligence and information overload when reporting horse injuries or health issues, especially when it comes to dealing with the most demanding punting fraternity in the world.
In an effort to ensure transparency and trust, the Jockey Club’s website - easily the best of its kind in the world - contains a myriad of details from race results to trackwork times. It also features relatively extensive veterinary records, but it doesn’t contain everything. When it comes to veterinary procedures or issues, the point of discretion is still left with stewards and regulatory vets to decide what is relevant and announced to the public, and what to keep in-house, so as not to cause confusion or unnecessary concern.
The Jockey Club is in the unique situation of having all horses stabled in one complex. Vets are employed by the club and handle every procedure on the horses, so the club should know everything about every horse and are left with the decision of what to pass on to punters. The data provided is already far more than anywhere else, but how much information is too much? There have been three instances this week where stewards put ailments that might have been kept secret in other jurisdictions under the public spotlight.
John Size’s Access Years was a dominant winner up the straight on Sunday at Sha Tin, but during the week stewards alerted the public to the fact he had missed 11 days of trackwork because of a foot abscess. The fact Access Years missed trackwork is available with the click of a mouse anyway, but it’s the follow-up from stewards that is a new feature: stewards find the missing work on a pre-race check, question trainer Size as to why the horse missed the work, and then inform the public. It’s a typically thorough measure by Kim Kelly and the panel.
Then there was Take The Rap, a Class Five battler probably better suited to more leisurely pursuits than racing, who had missed a far more substantial amount of work early last month because of a mild fever before finishing seventh last Wednesday. How many people were filthy they dropped off Access Years because of doubts and how many were relieved they didn’t back Take The Rap?
It is actually a rule of racing (Rule 50 (7) to be exact), albeit a rule with some vague outlines that offer a fair bit of wiggle room, that trainers notify stewards of any condition that “might have the potential to affect a horse’s performance in a race”. Richard Gibson was following the rule when he notified stipes that Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse hope Mizani pricked his right front foot with a nail this week. Mizani was a disappointing 12th, pulling up sore, but it was his left leg that was the problem. That shows just how inexact this can be - horses have problems all the time, not all of them apparent to trainers or vets, even under examination.
A thoroughbred in training is just like any professional human athlete, and just like with people, ailments run from a temperature to the equivalent of a sore toe. Aches and pains are common, as are bruises and scrapes from stable mishaps, most of which don’t stop a horse from running at or near its best on raceday. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, plenty of runners go to the races with something preventing them from running anywhere near their best, or at other times, have a problem that isn’t uncovered until put under extreme pressure in an actual race.
Issuing a press release every time a horse suffers a problem would do most punters’ heads in, causing enough consternation to confuse betting markets. When news broke that Ambitious Dragon had suffered severe lacerations to a leg in a trackwork incident a day before last year’s Hong Kong Mile, he was usurped as favourite, but went out and destroyed rivals anyway. Last season a first-starter – the Tony Cruz-trained Luffy – scored at 55-1 after an alarming vet report had punters scrambling for dictionaries.
The test will come when a queried runner is allowed to race, and then flops as a highly fancied favourite. “Why,” the masses will wail, “did you let it run?” In other parts of the world, the stewards question the trainer and jockey after an under-par effort, and in one memorable case earlier this year, a disgruntled owner caused a long running controversy in Australia by airing inside knowledge of a horse’s pre-race problems. But in Hong Kong the onus is as much on stewards or vets to answer the hard questions given they should already know all of the pre-race circumstances.
All punters want is a fair go, and to trust that the horse they back is ready to run at its best. In Hong Kong bettors aren't just left to trust the trainer, even if sometimes it seems they need a veterinary degree of their own.