No new positive cases of equine flu are found
The chances of racing resuming in Britain next week received a boost on Saturday as the BHA revealed there has been no new positive tests for equine influenza.
Those desperate for normal service to be resumed following the cancellation of racing since Thursday will be cheered by results from the Animal Health Trust (AHT), as a batch of over 700 equine nasal swabs did not uncover any more positive tests for the highly contagious virus.
Since Wednesday six horses, all trained by Donald McCain, have tested positive, with the virus now identified as the Florida Clade 1 strain rather than the Clade 2 strain endemic to Europe.
What is Florida Clade 1?
Equine Influenza, known scientifically as the H3N8 virus, was first identified in 1963 in Miami before evolving into two lineages: one American and one European. The European strains were largely isolated to within Europe and Asia forming a single clade, whereas the American lineage progressed to form three different strains: South American, Kentucky and Florida.
The Florida Clade 1 strain is endemic to North and South America with this year’s strain considered more virulent, explaining why some horses have become infected despite being vaccinated.
As a result of the outbreak, racing in Britain will not recommence until Wednesday at the earliest, with hundreds of yards placed in lockdown while testing takes place to prevent the spread of the illness.
The AHT is working through thousands of samples, and having analysed 720 of approximately 2,100 nasal swabs, no new cases have been uncovered.
The swabs included samples from the yard of Rebecca Menzies, where a horse had been identified as potentially high risk having been tested at a different laboratory.
Responding to the results, Menzies said in a statement released through the National Trainers Federation: “The Animal Health Trust have today informed the BHA that the three horses which I had in isolation have returned a negative test result for equine flu.
“My grateful thanks on behalf of ourselves and all racing fans to the huge amount of work the BHA and their teams have exercised in the last few days and undoubtedly the actions that have been taken will ensure we are back racing as soon as possible.”
The decision on whether racing will resume on Wednesday will be made by the BHA on Monday, but Paddy Power reacted to the test results by slashing the odds on a resumption this month.
It is now 1-3 (from 6-4), racing will take place by next Sunday, February 17, with the firm.
With thousands more swabs to be submitted to the AHT in the coming days, BHA director of equine health and welfare David Sykes urged caution despite a promising start.
He said: “We are very grateful to all those trainers whose horses may have come into contact with those from the infected yard for working so rapidly with us and the Animal Health Trust to test their horses.
“There are many more tests to analyse and the nature of the incubation period means that a negative test now does not mean that horse has never had this flu virus. So these yards continue to remain locked down and their horses kept under observation.
“Although hundreds of tests have been completed already, there are many hundreds more to be analysed over the weekend before we will have a fuller picture. The nature of disease control means that if a positive did emerge elsewhere, that could lead to more yards being locked down.”
He added: “I would advise against anyone drawing any conclusions or making any predictions based on this set of results. Our focus remains on containing the virus through the strict adherence to biosecurity measures we are seeing across the industry.”
As the enforced cancellation of fixtures moves into its fourth day on Sunday the BHA’s robust handling of the situation has come under fire in some quarters.
Nigel Twiston-Davies described the BHA’s efforts as a “massive overreaction”, and leading owner Marwan Koukash questioned the regulator’s actions on Saturday.
He said: “It should be left to the trainers to assess their horses. They’ve been tasked with looking after valuable animals for a long time and they are the ones who should be able to make the decision of whether the horse is infected or not. If they are, don’t send them racing.
“I appreciate we need to protect horses and curtail the spread but we can’t afford not to race. I hope on Monday they’ll come out and say it’s not as bad as we thought and let’s start racing on Wednesday.”
Trainer Charlie Mann also supports Twiston-Davies’s claims. The experienced Lambourn handler did not have any runners on Wednesday, where infected horses ran at Ludlow and Ayr, and he believes racing should be resumed.
Mann said: “We get colds and sniffles and I completely agree with Nigel Twiston-Davies – it’s absolutely ridiculous. We’ve got a cold and they’re stopping racing because of it.
“We weren’t at those courses involved so we’re not closed down, but so what? We can’t race anyway. In theory we’re all closed down aren’t we? Talk about overreacting.
“At worst, you close down the yard the infected horses have come from, so surely the right thing was to say to Donald McCain you can’t run for two weeks until it’s clear and we’ve tested them.”
And he added: “Forget what I’m saying, just read what the guy who has backed up what Nigel is saying [equine vet Pete Ramzan] – he knows more than me, the BHA and anyone. He can’t have it wrong.”
Gay Kelleway is not expecting a swift resolution to the outbreak, and said: “I think they should have immediately said no racing until March 1 to really stamp it out – like DEFRA did with foot and mouth.
“I don’t think racing will go ahead on Wednesday and it’s bad to keep people second guessing when they’re preparing horses for Cheltenham with entries and jockey bookings.”
According to the BHA, planning for the Cheltenham Festival is taking place as normal and chief regulatory officer Brant Dunshea said: “We are acutely aware of the short-term impact of the decision to suspend racing. The BHA remains grateful for the assistance and the sensible precautions being taken by trainers and the patience shown by our racecourses and all those involved in the industry.
“The continued adherence to controls on the movement of horses and people and to strict biosecurity measures will protect the health of our horses and allow racing to return as soon as possible.”