Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer, Kevin Blake puts forward his latest views on the Equine Influenza outbreak which has halted racing in Britain, insisting the British Horseracing Authority must be decisive in their imminent decision making.

  • Saturday 09 February
  • Blog
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The equine flu outbreak has dominated the headlines in horse racing in recent days. The ramifications of the outbreak have already had a serious impact on the sport in Great Britain, with no racing having taken place since last Wednesday and well over 100 yards being in lockdown as they await the test results for their occupants. With no end in sight, fears have been raised that it will impact the Cheltenham Festival preparations of many horses and potentially even the Festival itself.

The reasoning behind the BHA’s decision to shut down racing last Thursday is clear. They were reacting to a serious situation without all the necessary information at hand and they exercised caution rather than risking the situation escalating unbeknownst to the potentially affected trainers. This action may well have prevented a serious escalation of the situation and must be applauded.

However, in continuing their pursuit of the equine flu outbreak as aggressively as they are, they have unwittingly opened a can of worms. By locking down every yard with a horse that may possibly have been exposed to a horse with equine flu and shutting down racing until it is contained, the BHA risks setting off a chain of events that could lead to there being no racing for a needlessly prolonged period.

The frank reality of this situation is that if the BHA or indeed the IHRB rolled into every yard in Great Britain or Ireland on any one day in the winter and tested all the horses for equine flu, one can be near certain that there would be a significant number of positive tests. The reason we don’t hear about them is that the majority of trainers are unlikely to test for equine flu, as the symptoms in vaccinated horses are moderate and easily manageable.

If a horse shows flu-like symptoms, they are isolated, treated and are expected to be back to full health in a matter of days rather than weeks. When one hears about a trainer getting “a virus” that “goes through the yard” and results in the yard’s runners hitting a poor patch of form, there is a fair chance that equine flu is the culprit, albeit officially undiagnosed. That may not be the way it should be dealt with “by the book”, but that is the on-the-ground reality of the situation.

While the first 720 of the 2,100 tests that have been conducted have come back negative, the odds are the BHA are likely to come across more cases of equine flu. It is a disease that is endemic in Great Britain and the strain that is being found of late is more likely to affect vaccinated horses than more common strains. With the BHA having set the precedent of cancelling racing while the equine flu is being found in racing yards, they are risking having to continue cancelling racing going forward, which would be a disaster for the sport.

Equine flu
British racetracks have been empty since the 7th of February

With a view to getting this sorted, it should be remembered that the precedent to continue racing during an equine flu outbreak is there. Back in 2003, there was a far more serious outbreak of equine flu in Newmarket from March to May which affected 21 yards with over 1,300 horses testing positive. Racing continued during this time and indeed many yards directly affected by the outbreak sent out winners during the height of it. In one notable example, the John Ryan-trained Aldora caught equine flu after running at Lingfield on April 3rd, but recovered well enough to win the Dahlia Stakes at Newmarket on May 2nd.

Considering that precedent, the BHA need to be just as decisive in the coming days as they were with their initial decision. In terms of the next step, they can perhaps take some guidance from the IHRB. They announced on Friday that from February 18th, it will be mandatory for every racehorse to have had a booster vaccination containing the Clade 1 virus within eight weeks of any race they are due to contest. This will be a significant inconvenience for trainers, but it is far more preferable to the alternative of no racing or the potential consequences of doing nothing.

With horses not being permitted to race for six days after receiving a flu vaccination, if this measure was implemented by the BHA early next week, racing could continue with a freshly-vaccinated population of horses from February 18th. One potential foil to this proposed move is whether there are enough stocks of the relevant flu vaccines in Great Britain to serve what would be a huge sudden demand, but one can only hope that there is.

The British and Irish horse populations are already very well armed to cope with equine flu thanks to the strict vaccination requirements in both jurisdictions, but these additional measures would make the herds better protected than any time in history. With such measures in place, combined with the heightened attention of all trainers, their staff and racecourses, whom all will be paying extra care to hygiene and equine health, that will be more than enough justification to take the calculated risk of restarting racing.

Common sense now must prevail before this situation becomes hugely damaging for not just the participants in horse racing, but for the finances of the sport too. Every day that racing doesn’t take place results in a direct loss to British racing’s primary funding mechanism. Racing must commence as soon as is reasonably possible.

The BHA can be proud of their initial reaction to this situation. They have shown that they can react quickly and effectively in the event of an unexpected outbreak of contagious disease. They have also shown that their communication flow in a time of crisis is excellent too.

However, this is not strangles or equine herpes we are dealing with, it is equine flu. If the BHA doesn’t get hold of this situation and take decisive action to get racing back on the road, they are in danger of letting their reaction and consequences of it far exceed the seriousness of the actual problem.

Kevin Blake
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