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Why is there no horse racing today and what is equine flu?

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 07/02/2019 Marcus Armytage
Side profile of a brown horse's head against a black background. © Getty Images Side profile of a brown horse's head against a black background.

Why has racing been cancelled today?

The BHA has contingency plans in place if an infectious disease strikes and that was triggered once it became clear horses in Donald McCain’s Cheshire yard had tested positive for flu – even though they had received their compulsory flu jabs.

McCain had runners at Ayr and Ludlow on Wednesday and it buys the BHA time to test his runners at those meetings. If they test negative, racing will give a big sigh of relief and it will hope this can be restricted to one yard. In the meantime all trainers with runners at Ayr and Ludlow, including Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson, have been stopped from declaring runners today for tomorrow at Bangor and Kempton.

What exactly is equine flu?

It is a bit like human flu – it can affect different horses in different ways. Some will have a high fever while others mildly affected will just be under the weather. To put it in context, it could be a lot worse were it strangles, a disease which usually compromises a horse’s breathing long term.

What are the symptoms?

In most cases the horse becomes dull or quiet, goes off its food, runs a temperature, may start coughing and has a snotty nose.

Has this happened before?

There have been isolated cases of flu but they have not led to racing being cancelled. The last time racing was cancelled due to an infectious disease was during the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001, even though horses are not susceptible to the disease.  

How contagious is the disease?

Very. It can be airborne, more directly by one horse nuzzling another or indirectly by human touch. Most yards have fairly stringent bio-security measures in place from isolation yards for incoming horses to dipping the bits on the bridles in disinfectant after each horse has been ridden.

How dangerous is it?

As in humans it is not usually very dangerous but it can be more serious for the very young, the very old or those already compromised by illness or injury. Unlike swine or chicken flus it is not believed to be possible to spread to humans.

Trainer Donald McCain Jnr at Ludlow Racecourse (Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images) © Getty Images Trainer Donald McCain Jnr at Ludlow Racecourse (Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)

How is it treated?

There is not a whole lot you can do to treat a virus. There are anti-viral treatments, but they get a mixed review from vets, and anti-biotics will only be effective if the flu has led to a secondary infection. An anti-inflammatory can be given to bring down a temperature but otherwise normal, good animal husbandry; clean, dry bedding, a warm well-ventilated stable, plenty of water and light exercise as opposed to galloping.

How long do the effects last? 

It depends on the horse and the strain of flu. It is mandatory for all racehorses to receive a flu jab – they are not allowed on a racecourse without an up-to-date flu jab which is signed off by a vet in their passports - which should supress the worst symptoms.

However, like with the human flu vac, the makers are constantly playing a mixture of catch-up and prediction about the exact strain that might hit next and how this strain has mutated to affect a vaccinated population will be a worry to the BHA and Animal Health Trust.

Is Cheltenham at risk?

Not at this stage. But it would certainly compromise the chance of horses being struck down with equine flu and there will be knock-on problems for those horses which miss their prep races because of the cancellation of racing. There is a big meeting at Newbury on Saturday which holds a number of key Cheltenham trials and a very valuable Betfair Hurdle.

How much could this cost the industry?

How long is a piece of string? It is impossible to speculate at this stage. Racing usually anticipates losing fixtures to the weather at this time of year. It has been an open winter meaning fewer fixtures than normal have been lost and if the lock-down lasts only a few days racing will deal with it as it would snow. If it were to last six weeks then it would, of course, have huge ramifications to everyone financially.

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