Monday 23 April 2018

Cheltenham silenced by the lambs

It's 10 years since the foot-and-mouth outbreak brought racing to its knees, as John O'Brien recalls

Shane McGovern hopped off Limestone Lad in the winner's enclosure at Navan and beamed a contented smile.

The old warrior had battled home four lengths clear of Boss Doyle to win the Boyne Hurdle, his sixth victory of an exemplary campaign. It was the third Sunday in February, three weeks before the 2001 Cheltenham Festival. Limestone Lad was a warm order for the Stayers' Hurdle. A spin at Leopardstown in early March, his trainer Michael Bowe reported, and he'd be spot on for the Festival.

Half an hour earlier, Ruby Walsh had steered Arctic Copper home to win a novice chase and enter the frame for the SunAlliance. The Noel Meade-trained gelding was owned by a cabal of politicians that included Brian Cowen, Jim McDaid and Dessie O'Malley. Plans were being hatched for a mid-March exodus across the Irish Sea. "They're mad to go to Cheltenham," explained a smiling Meade. The world was a simpler place back then.

Some 150 miles south, Istabraq was resting in his stable in Ballydoyle. Charlie Swan had cantered the horse the previous morning and felt a giddy sense of well-being. Their shocking last-hurdle fall at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting was a fading memory. An unprecedented fourth Champion Hurdle seemed inevitable; he was long odds-on to make history. Tuesday, March 13, would be Istabraq day. The ballads were being composed and the porter was on tap. The racing world would have seen nothing like it.

None of them saw the storm coming. How could they? It blew in like a zephyr the following day in an abattoir a few miles off the M25 on the eastern suburbs of London: a litter of pigs displaying symptoms of the dreaded foot-and-mouth disease. Still, no immediate panic. It was Wednesday before the Irish Times deemed the story worthy of a short paragraph.

By the following day, however, there was a scare in Cavan and the story was front-page news across the board. By Friday, Irish supermarkets were emptying their shelves of British meat and dairy products and Brian Kavanagh, then chief executive of the Irish Turf Club, was floating the scary prospect of the Festival being postponed or, even worse, cancelled. Suddenly it became a story worth panicking about.

It set the stage for one of the most surreal periods in Irish sporting history. Ten years on, Willie Mullins looks back and ponders the strangeness of it all. At the time Mullins was wearing two hats: one as a trainer with a stable to run and a livelihood to maintain, the other as chairman of the Irish Trainers' Association and the voice of a frustrated and worried group of people. Trapped in a double bind.

"There was a lot of frustration and a lot of pressure," Mullins recalls. "Pressure from trainers on one side wanting to race and from the Department of Agriculture on the other not to race. It was all happening as you went on. One minute there was no problem, the next minute you're being told you can't race or travel to England. You'd no real idea where the whole thing was going."

Mullins was just 11 when the disease had last struck in 1967, but he remembered the devastating effects caused by the 12-week lockdown of Irish racing. In ways it played to the age-old superstitious nature of Irish rural life. The disease was so feared people could barely stomach the mention of it, a Lord Voldemort stalking the countryside. "Foot-and-mouth was a huge dirty word," Mullins says. "Nobody liked to talk about it."

And if they didn't talk about it, how could they learn to deal with it? Ten days after the first outbreak, the Irish government finally reacted by imposing a blanket ban on Irish racing "until further notice" and strongly advised racegoers against travelling for the Festival. In the UK, the Jockey Club suspended racing for a week and was met with stern criticism from several quarters. "Racing has unnecessarily self-destructed," bellowed John McCririck.

They could live with a week, though. David Casey was sitting at home that night when Tony McCoy called to invite him to Dubai where a group of jockeys planned to spend the week. For Casey, it ticked all the boxes. After a relaxing week in the sun, he could travel back to England and stay until the Festival was finished. Frances Crowley's Sackville was a live contender for the SunAlliance Chase and Casey still held out hope of his first Festival winner.

And whether Sackville made it or not, Casey was determined to fulfill his part of the bargain. "It made sense to go," he says. "I just wanted to give myself every chance of being able to ride at the Festival if it went ahead. I knew I wouldn't be able to go back to Ireland but I didn't really mind that. With no racing on it wasn't as if there was a hell of a lot to come back for anyway."

The official government stance was that racing couldn't resume until 30 days had elapsed since the last outbreak. How long did that mean, though? Ages anyway. "The hardest thing about it was the not knowing," says Casey. "At least with injury you knew where you stood. You'd have a target to aim for. With this you had no idea when you might get to race again. For lads who depended on riding fees, it was a tough time."

Ruby Walsh was determined too. Just 20 at the time, Walsh was hungry for Cheltenham glory and sniffed it when Paul Nicholls offered him the ride on See More Business in the Gold Cup. It was too enticing an opportunity to turn down. If that meant contravening official guidelines, then the jockey was prepared to live with that. Barry Geraghty signalled his intention to travel too and, according to travel companies, racegoers were still prepared to travel in their droves.

Clearly, this presented a problem for the government and the strict guidelines it was trying to enforce. One junior minister, Hugh Byrne, singled out Walsh and warned he was setting a bad example. "Britain is currently in the midst of a foot-and-mouth epidemic," Byrne said, "and to have Irish racegoers mingling with people from all corners of Britain in the Cotswolds is beyond belief."

But the next day a flock of "rogue" sheep were discovered grazing on Cheltenham racecourse and, under British regulations, racing couldn't proceed for at least 28 days. "Silenced by the lambs," ran the famous Racing Post headline. Walsh's dilemma was postponed and government policy held firm. In a country where agriculture remained of vital importance, it was deemed essential that everybody toed the line. So the burden was spread around. Six Nations games were postponed. Entire rugby and soccer schedules were wiped out as every sport from the GAA to rowing to rallying faced severe restrictions and crippling loss of revenue. When fears spread to the border counties, where illegal livestock smuggling was known to be rife, the restrictions were so severe that local Masses had to be cancelled.

In Britain, things were radically different. By March 13, what should have been Istabraq Day, over 200 cases of foot-and-mouth had been discovered and, as palls of smoke began to drift relentlessly over the countryside, British farmers lost patience. Ireland, with just one positive case, had suspended racing indefinitely. Yet Britain, experiencing an epidemic, raced merrily on. To suffering farmers this was adding insult to injury.

"You'd hear stories about the problems they were having in England with the farmers," says Kavanagh, "and it was clear they were completely unprepared for the level of anger that existed. I'd talk to Paul Greaves of the BHB [British Horseracing Board] and he'd tell me the amount of abuse they were getting was incredible. Thankfully, it wasn't that bad over here.

"But you had to feel sorry for farmers. They were hearing about how important the racing and breeding industry was but some of them had cattle with bloodlines going back 100 years and they were watching them been burned and buried outside their houses. And then they were seeing people heading off to the races every day and, as far as they were concerned, giving two fingers to them."

In Ireland, it was the racing people who finally snapped. The forlorn hope of staging Cheltenham had expired on April 1 when a fresh outbreak occurred close to the racecourse. Aintree was only a week away, though, and the Irish government finally relented, allowing Irish horses to travel. Then came the news that racing, after a 50-day gap, would resume on April 16. The 30-day rule was conveniently forgotten. The government knew that a suffering industry could simply take no more pain.

Ten years on, some still wonder why so much time was lost. For all the mysteries of the disease, it is accepted scientifically that neither humans nor horses can transmit foot-and-mouth and the restrictions seemed needlessly draconian. Did Istabraq really need to forfeit his shot at history? Were Bowe and McGovern needlessly deprived of their best shot at Cheltenham glory? Did jump racing's Christmas really have to be cancelled?

For Kavanagh, now CEO of Horse Racing Ireland, the crucial factor is that lessons were learned that had been either missed or ignored from previous outbreaks of the disease. "I think we learned that if you shut down the racing industry for six or seven weeks it just cannot survive. Jockeys need to earn a living. Prize money needs to circulate. So you need to have bio-security measures in place to ensure racing can go ahead.

"If you can't prevent it, then at least be better prepared for it. And the industry has got itself more organised. Veterinary Ireland has been doing great work as have people like Des Leadon in the Irish Equine Centre. We've developed better relations with these bodies and have back-up plans in place. So if, God forbid, we suffered another outbreak we're in a position to say to the government, this is what we can do. We would be on top of it very quickly."

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