Racing cancelled for six days after 'mutant' horse flu outbreak plunges sport into crisis weeks before Cheltenham Festival

The BHA cancelled all four meetings on Thursday, while Saturday's meet at Wolverhampton was axed following three confirmed cases in horses, who had been vaccinated.

Announcing the latest round of postponements, the BHA explained they needed time to check on the status of quarantined animals with over 100 yards affected.

The organisation released a statement, which read: "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.

"We are grateful to trainers and veterinarians for the rapid flow of information and feedback  we have received today. Because of this, we have been able to make an informed decision earlier than we expected and before we have any test results back from horses from the affected yards that travelled to the three meetings.

"Trainers support a precautionary approach and we thank them for the collaborative manner in which they have worked with us to address this unfolding situation."

This week's outbreak is the first time the disease has forced the abandonment of a race meeting in Britain since 1981, although the Foot and Mouth crisis hit Cheltenham in 2001 – costing the industry £150million.

The racecourse released a statement this afternoon, insisting: "We are working with the BHA on this matter and hope that the early actions of the BHA will ensure that this outbreak of Equine Influenza can be contained.

Eight-time champion jockey Peter Scudamore, partner to Lucinda Russell, who had runners at Ayr, added: “It’s extremely worrying.

“I’ve never known anything like this in all my time in racing.”

In 2007, an equine flu outbreak in Australia took six months to lock down and devastated the racing industry with over 200 meetings affected.

Action at Chelmsford, Doncaster, Ffos Las and Huntingdon was all called off and 'Super Saturday' at Newbury – which was set to include last year's Gold Cup winner Native River – is a major loss. estimates the Thursday cancellations alone could end up costing £20m. Racing continues in Ireland but British horses are banned from competing.

Over 100 yards have been placed in lockdown by the BHA, with the likes of Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson and Jonjo O'Neill all affected.

The organisation said: "Trainers whose horses may have come into contact with affected horses will be contacted on Thursday and will need to quarantine all horses in the yard.

"This means that these horses must have no contact with any other equines until restrictions are lifted. This is likely to be until samples have been taken from horses and negative test results received."

AP McCoy has opened up on the potential impact of the outbreak – recalling the Foot and Mouth nightmare 18 years ago.

The 20-time Champion Jockey told Thursday’s Alan Brazil Sports Breakfast: “I can remember it well in 2001 when we lost it to foot and mouth.

“Losing something as huge as the Cheltenham Festival has a huge impact on the sport.

“But hopefully it won’t go on that long, hopefully they would have got hold of this pretty quick and get it sorted out as soon as possible.”

2001 Cheltenham called off over Foot and Mouth

Cheltenham is due to take place on March 12, with the Grand National on April 6, and talkSPORT’s racing correspondent Lee McKenzie admits a cancellation is a possibility. The nightmare scenario could lead to over £200m in loses, plus a £15m hit for the local Gloucestershire economy.

He said: “Luckily the Cheltenham Festival is still five weeks away, so there is a bit of time to get something into the place and, who knows, it may blow over rather quickly.

“But at the moment you have to say that there is a possibility that could be the case.

“I remember back in 2001 when there was an incident of foot and mouth and the horse racing with severely affected by that and that did indeed end up with the postponement of the Cheltenham Festival. This is something different, though."

Because equine flu is so infectious, all precautions must be taken to stop the disease spreading.

The three horses that tested positive for the flu on Wednesday came from a yard that had runners at Ludlow and Ayr, putting more horses at risk. It is the yard of Donald McCain Jr, son of Red Rum's trainer Ginger.

McCain issued a statement confirming the news this afternoon.

It read: “I have been aware of the recent news about equine influenza outbreaks in France and Ireland, and over the last couple of days, I have been concerned about the health status of a small number of horses in the yard.

"Their welfare is at the front of our minds so at my request our veterinary surgeon examined them regularly and we have followed his advice on testing & treatment. It was by following this protocol the positive results for equine flu came to light Wednesday evening"

Cheltenham fact file

  • £100,000,000 – how much the festival is worth to Gloucestershire every year.
  • £4,590,000 – record amount of headline prize money on offer at The Festival 2018 – the most of any Jump festival in the world, over £1,000,000 per day.
  • £2,300,000 – the amount of money taken from the cash machines at The Festival 2016
  • £625,000 – record prize money available for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup.
  • 105,000 – people using Cheltenham Spa train station over the four days of racing.
  • 80,000 – number of movements between the racecourse and the town on the shuttle bus service.
  • 70,000 – maximum capacity at Cheltenham on Cheltenham Gold Cup Day (when all the temporary facilities are open).
  • 65,000 – average attendance over the four-day period of The Festival.
  • 45,000 – bread rolls eaten at The Festival 2015.

McCain had two runners yesterday: Raise A Spark, who was fourth at Ayr, and Dry Lightening, who was pulled up at Ludlow.

Trainer Gordon Elliott had five runners at Ayr yesterday.

He told the Racing Post: "We didn't take them back to the yard. They are in isolation in a yard 10 or 15 miles away from our own that has no racehorses in it.

"The authorities have to take every precaution, which is understandable. We've been told it's a million-to one chance that it will impact our runners, but we're not going to take any chances. We'll leave them in quarantine as long as we have to.

"If the three horses from the affected yard that were racing on Wednesday test negative, well then it will be a big sigh of relief for everyone.

"If they come back positive, well then anyone else who brought horses back to their yard, more so English trainers as they might not have got the notification on time, then it's a concern."

Unlike the case in Australia, the horses had been vaccinated but the virus that causes the flu can mutate and make the precaution ineffective.

Latest BHA update on equine flu outbreak

"We will endeavour to issue regular information but we are still in the early stages of assessing the scale and severity of the outbreak.

"We are working quickly to identify the extent of the infection and will have more information when further test results are returned today. The results from those tests will not be known until this evening.

"Following these results being known a call will be convened to discuss the implications and a decision will then be made as to the impact on racing in the coming days.

"We are aware that people want to know the situation as regards racing tomorrow and this weekend and we will seek to provide more clarity as soon as we are able.

"It is likely that any definitive decisions on whether racing can take place tomorrow will be taken later this evening."

Brant Dunshea, the BHA's chief regulatory officer, told Sky Sports Racing: "It's highly contagious and an infected horse can shed virus on to a human on their skin, clothing or equipment and  it can be transmitted that way but it doesn't affect humans.

"We're still trying to understand what particular strain of equine influenza this is. The fact it has appeared in a vaccinated population does cause us some concern so we're working quickly to understand what's happening. It's not a racing issue it's a horse health issue."

The disease can affect the upper and lower respiratory tract of horses and is similar to human flu.

It can be transmitted between species but does not affect people.

Once the virus has been inhaled it can cause a very sore throat and nasty cough.

It is not usually fatal for horses, although foals are at risk of death if they are infected.

A spokesperson said: “Equine welfare is the absolute priority for the industry and is a non-negotiable aspect of the sport.

"Any disruption to race meetings – of any size – is always going to be financially damaging however and should the Cheltenham Festival get cancelled this year, it could be the most costly racing postponement of all time not just for bookies but businesses big and small in the area too.”

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