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Racing abandoned until Wednesday but is the Cheltenham Festival in jeopardy?

Jonathan Vine 8 Feb 2019
A view of the runners at last year's Cheltenham Festival.

We take a look back at yesterday’s developments on Thursday 7th February and ask if this equine flu episode could possibly cause the cancellation of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival.

Thursday was one of the most dramatic days in recent horse racing history, without a single horse stepping foot on a race-track. British racing was sent into a state of complete lockdown, in an attempt to quell the spreading of a strain of equine flu which had been detected on Wednesday evening.

As Thursday’s drama unfolded, it was confirmed that three of Donald McCain’s horses had returned positive test results for equine influenza. McCain had runners at Ayr, Ludlow and Wolverhampton on Wednesday. Any yard which could possibly have come into contact with an infected horse was forced to shut down, bringing over 100 trainers and their stable staff to a standstill.

The BHA has to be commended in the swift, decisive way they have dealt with the situation. Firstly, by doing everything in their power to prevent the spreading of this highly contagious virus. And secondly, by informing the public in a prompt and timely manner that all racing will be abandoned until Wednesday, at the very least.

"The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has this afternoon taken the decision that racing will not resume in Britain until Wednesday February 13 at the earliest, including fixtures programmed by the Point-to-Point Authority." The BHA announced in a statement on Thursday evening.

"The BHA's veterinary team has today been in contact with more than 50 trainers and veterinarians to allow it to make an informed assessment of the risk of equine influenza spreading. Whilst no further positive tests have been received, at least three more days are required before it will be possible to make a decision about whether it is safe to resume racing."

"The disease can take up to three days before symptoms are visible, meaning it will take until Sunday at the earliest before the BHA can gather all the information required. This approach will allow samples to be collected and assessed by the Animal Health Trust in order that a fully informed decision can be made on Monday."

"This may then allow declarations to take place on Tuesday in time for racing on Wednesday, with 24-hour declarations for all fixtures on this day, should racing be able to resume. Declarations for Thursday would revert to the usual procedures."

The stands were empty and the track deserted at Doncaster yesterday, as equine flu brought racing to a halt.

It often takes up to three days for the symptoms of equine flu to blossom, so we will have a much clearer idea of where we stand by the beginning of next week. However, with the sport’s most prestigious, lucrative and important meeting mere weeks away, one question has been buzzing around the National Hunt racing world for the past 24 hours. Could the 2019 Cheltenham Festival be called off?

The BHA was asked this very question in a Q&A yesterday and their reply was unsurprisingly noncommital, claiming it was “far too early to say”. Yet, with all the evidence we have available at this time, and historic events we can use as a guideline, I think it would be sensible to conclude that the Cheltenham Festival is highly likely to survive.

The situation we find ourselves in the midst of is quite different to that experienced in Australia in 2007, where over 50,000 horses were infected and racing was put on hold for four months. 

At that time, Australian horses were not vaccinated against equine flu. Once the governing body and medical staff had managed to wrestle control of the situation, the ARB enforced a 30-day quarantine period as an extra precaution. The horses affected here in Britain have been vaccinated, which is worrying and reassuring at the same time. If the worst came to the worst and a 30-day quarantine period came into effect here, racing could still commence on the Monday before Cheltenham.

Experts, who have been in the sport for much longer than I have, have likened this week’s drama to that which unfolded in 2001, when Britain was rocked by foot-and-mouth. 

There is a huge difference between a strain of equine influenza in vaccinated horses and foot-and-mouth - an aggressive, lethal disease which wiped out a huge proportion of farming livestock all over the country. We also seem to have a better handle on the situation than the governing bodies had 18 years ago - with the BHA applying concise, decisive measures, compared to 2001, when everything was up in the air and people within the sport began to turn on one another.

My optimistic approach may be different come Monday morning, when we should know whether racing will, indeed, return to racecourses during the week. Until I, and the racing community as a whole, are given any definitive reason to fear the long-term effects of this endemic, then I think we should treat Cheltenham as “business as usual”. Roll on the Festival!

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Racing abandoned until Wednesday but is the Cheltenham Festival in jeopardy?

We take a look back at yesterday’s developments on Thursday 7th February and ask if this equine flu episode could possibly cause the cancellation of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival.

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