Cheltenham officials confident that flu outbreak won’t threaten festival

Prolonged cancellation of British racing will prompt fears of situation similar to foot and mouth crisis

A view of a sign at Huntingdon Racecourse after Thursday’s racing was abandoned. Photograph:  Joe Giddens/PA Wire

A view of a sign at Huntingdon Racecourse after Thursday’s racing was abandoned. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

 

There are only 33 days to the Cheltenham Festival but officials there are hopeful British racing can resume well before the start of National Hunt racing’s greatest meeting.

The cancellation of cross-channel racing until next Wednesday at the earliest due to an outbreak of equine influenza means some significant festival trials, such Saturday’s Denman Chase at Newbury, will at the very least be postponed.

Should racing fail to resume next week, however, it will prompt fears of a potentially similar situation to 2001, when foot and mouth stopped racing for almost two months, forcing the cancellation of Cheltenham that year.

Veterinary officials have stressed equine flu is a different disease situation and Cheltenham’s management appears confident the famous meeting will be unaffected.

“We are working with the British Horseracing Authority on this matter and hope the early actions of the BHA will ensure this outbreak of Equine Influenza can be contained,” it said in a statement.

“We look forward to racing resuming as soon as possible and hope that this will be well in advance of the festival in five weeks time,” they added.

Asked if the festival might be under threat, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board’s chief veterinary officer Dr Lynn Hillyer said on Thursday: “If we do everything right at this point in time you’d have to hope not.

“We don’t know what’s around the corner and to be honest the next 48 hours are going to be key. Diagnosis and analysis will be going on so that we get a better idea. We need to get a handle on it.”

On the back of confirmation that three vaccinated horses trained by Donald McCain had tested positive for equine flu, comparisons were made to Australian racing which was severely disrupted by an outbreak in 2007.

In some parts of the country it was months before the outbreak was contained.

“The big thing we’ve got here as opposed to Australia is that our horse population is vaccinated,” explained Hillyer. “That does two things. It limits the effects of the disease if they get it, and aids their recovery. But it also reduces their chances of getting it in the first place.”

A BHA spokesman said on Thursday: “In general we would not expect the situation to be as bad as in Australia in 2007 when racing was stopped for an extended period.

“British horses are vaccinated and the virus is endemic in the UK. The situation is very different in Australia where the virus is not endemic and horses are not vaccinated.”

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