After an outbreak of equine influenza threatened to sideline British horse racing for the foreseeable future, the industry received great news late on Monday night (February 11th) when it was announced that fixtures will resume on Wednesday.
The announcement from the BHA means that, unless any more significant cases come to light, the Cheltenham Festival beginning March 12th should not be affected.
Last Thursday all meetings were cancelled in the UK after three vaccinated horses tested positive for equine flu from the yard of Donald McCain in Cheshire. Horses from his yard had raced at three different tracks between Monday and Wednesday of that week potentially exposing hundreds of horses to the disease.
The outbreak led not only to domestic cancellations but also to British runners being banned from racing in Ireland, something that was later rescinded.
After the initial outbreak, the number of affected horses rose to six before a further four were reported in the yard of flat trainer Simon Crisford in Newmarket, an operation whose runners had not come into contact with any of the McCain representatives on course and who are based some 170 miles away.
An assembled industry veterinary committee was instrumental in the temporary cancellation of racing but as of Monday night, the same committee have the BHA (British Horse Racing Authority) confidence enough to lift the ban with a controlled, risk-managed schedule in place.
The thousands of nasal swabs taken and subsequent tests done on behalf of the governing body has shown the disease to be apparently contained at present, though the BHA acknowledge that there is some level of risk to returning to racing this week.
Batches of swabs taken from over 1,000 horses were analysed over the weekend with none coming back positive, but while this is good news for the long term the immediate future is still hard for trainers to get to grips with as racing looks to recover some of what was lost.
All Wednesday fixtures declared at the 24-hour stage on Tuesday morning with Thursday’s flat meeting at Chelmsford doing the same on Wednesday morning, rather than at the usual 48-hour stage.
Ascot has put together a much larger than normal 9-race card this Saturday featuring the Betfair Hurdle and Denman Chase from Newbury’s cancelled card one week earlier, alongside the previously scheduled Ascot Chase (Grade 1).
Sandown play their part on Friday as the cancelled Kingmaker Novices’ Chase, originally to be staged at Warwick on Saturday, takes place at the Berkshire track while Warwick’s Listed mares’ hurdle will now be run at Haydock on Saturday afternoon.
In the interim until we know that the industry is fully cleared of this virus, the BHA has declared that no entries of runners will be accepted from horses not vaccinated in the past six months and all trainers must provide a health declaration for their entrants on arrival at the track.
During the foot and mouth crisis of 2001, the Cheltenham Festival was cancelled leading to a huge loss of income for the industry from betting money, attendance at the track and including a massive hit to trainers and especially self-employed freelance jockeys and it is very much hoped that there’s never a repeat.
With the risk of this year’s jamboree apparently averted, the industry is breathing a huge collective sigh of relief for now but mutual fingers and toes are crossed that no new positive tests are found in the coming days with only 28 days to go until the big one kicks off.