New suspected equine flu cases force closure of 54 more yards
The crisis that has shut down British racing until Wednesday at the earliest escalated yesterday when the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) put another 54 stables into lockdown and confirmed three more horses had tested positive as it tried to contain the outbreak of equine influenza.
There are now 174 yards closed after 120 were forced to shut on Thursday.
The positive news that James Tate's Newmarket yard had been the first to be given the all-clear was soon overtaken by two worrying developments.
One of the three further horses that had tested positive at Donald McCain's yard was his Ayr runner on Wednesday, Raise A Spark, while a new "suspicious"case - not yet confirmed as positive - had been found in Rebecca Menzies's yard, which is unconnected to the original outbreak.
Raise A Spark, which brought the number of positives in McCain's yard to six, showed no clinical signs of illness on the day but finished tailed off last in a four-horse race, which suggests he could have been sickening at the time and therefore carrying the virus while in the racecourse stables.
That may be bad news for trainers who had runners at the Scottish track that day, but it was in anticipation of that precise scenario that the BHA stopped racing and put all those yards with runners at Ayr into lockdown - which is to say horses cannot be moved to and from the yard, although they can still be exercised as normal - until all their horses have tested negative for equine flu.
There are three horses causing concern in Menzies's yard, which had runners at Newcastle last Tuesday and Wolverhampton on Wednesday.
The BHA has informed all 54 yards with runners at those meetings that they were also to be unable to make entries until given the all-clear.
In its daily update on the situation, the BHA said it and the Animal Health Trust, which is doing all the testing, would be working through the weekend and the BHA still hopes to have enough analytical evidence to make an "informed and evidence-based decision" on Monday about whether racing will be able to resume at the four meetings scheduled for Wednesday.
Earlier, on ITV's 'Good Morning Britain', the BHA's chief executive Nick Rust said he was confident the authority's quick response and a "war-room" of vets would restrict the shutdown in racing to a few weeks rather than for months.
"If we play Russian roulette with the evidence we've got, we could have a problem for three to six months," he said. "And nobody would thank us for that.
"This is a serious form of flu, which debilitates horses. The welfare of our horses is really paramount, above all economics. First and foremost, we have no sport without healthy horses.
He also said that the BHA was making plans for alternative arrangements to cover the lost meetings, particularly those that impact upon Cheltenham preparations.
Keith Ottesen, clerk of the course at Newbury, which was due to stage an informative card today, confirmed he was talking to the BHA and other stakeholders - including the sponsors, television and trainers - about restaging the meeting.
However, he said it was not as cut and dried as rescheduling when the weather gets better after a cold snap. "It is difficult planning for something that might not be able to take place," he said. "It will all come down to timescale. It's an evolving situation, but the longer it goes on before racing starts again the harder it will be to reschedule.
"Obviously, we are hugely disappointed because it was shaping up into a terrific day. There is insurance in place for the abandonments of certain meetings, this being one of them, but it is, frankly, secondary to what we're missing."
Trainer Colin Tizzard, who had planned to run last year's Gold Cup winner Native River in the Denman Chase today, said he would be keen to support the race if it was rescheduled.
"I'd like another run [before Cheltenham], so I'd seriously consider if it was rearranged soon," he said. "The Gold Cup is five weeks today and it would make life easier to run rather than take him for a racecourse gallop."
His whole yard was tested yesterday and the BHA confirmed that the huge cost of testing would be funded by the Levy Board, which also pays for the swabbing of the non-thoroughbred horse population. After swabs sold out, some trainers and their staff were taught how to make their own 'Blue Peter' style. (© Daily Telegraph, London)