ALL horse racing in Britain has been called off until next Wednesday at the earliest after an outbreak of equine flu was confirmed.
The measure was taken after three horses at the yard of former Grand National-winning trainer Donald McCain tested positive.
The six-day shutdown began late on Wednesday night when the British Horseracing Authority confirmed that the virus had been detected.
It led to the immediate cancellation of yesterday’s four fixtures, including a National Hunt card at Doncaster.
While the infected horses have not been racing this week, the McCain stable has had runners at Wolverhampton, Ayr and Ludlow.
As a result any trainer who ran a horse at those meetings had immediate restrictions placed on the movement of their animals until checks have been carried out.
With dozens of yards in lockdown it inevitably led to the abandonment of forthcoming meetings.
No decision will be made on the timing of racing’s resumption until Monday.
High-profile fixtures that will be lost include Newbury’s prestigious meeting tomorrow where reigning Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Native River was due to clash with King George VI Chase hero Clan Des Obeaux.
With the blue riband Cheltenham Festival less than five weeks away, the BHA are already under pressure to come up with new dates for those meetings where major trainers intended to finalise the preparations of their stable stars.
But with racing facing its biggest crisis since the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak in cattle led to widespread restrictions in the movement of horses, the priority is establishing the original source of the virus, its containment – and whether existing vaccines and protocols are effective.
In a statement the BHA said their “approach will allow samples to be collected and assessed by the Animal Health Trust in order that a fully informed decision can be made on Monday”.
They added: “This may then allow declarations to take place on Tuesday in time for racing on Wednesday. Trainers support a precautionary approach and we thank them for the collaborative manner in which they have worked with us to address this unfolding situation.
“This precautionary approach is intended to ensure we put the health of the horse population and control of the virus first, and avoid any unnecessary risk that might come from returning to racing too quickly.
“We appreciate the impact that this may have on the sport commercially, but disease control in order to mitigate the risk of further disruption to the sport – and safeguard the health and welfare of our horses – must be a priority.”
The origin of the infection is unclear, with Cheshire-based McCain – whose late father Ginger trained triple Grand National winner Red Rum – keen to emphasise he would never knowingly have run a potentially infected horse.
In a statement issued through the National Trainers Federation, McCain, who won the 2011 National with Ballabriggs, said: “I have been aware of the recent news about equine influenza outbreaks in France and Ireland, and over the last couple of days I have been concerned about the health status of a small number of horses in the yard.
“Their welfare is at the front of our minds, so at my request our veterinary surgeon has examined them regularly and we have followed his advice on testing and treatment. It was by following this protocol that the positive results for equine flu came to light.
“The BHA were contacted immediately and we are liaising closely with them about bio-security and management of all the horses. It follows we would never race any horses that we could have known were infected.
“Over the last two months all potential runners have been scoped and their blood checked within 36 hours of their races to ensure that only healthy horses compete for the yard.
“When new horses arrive at our yard we, as much as possible, try to keep them separate, but at this stage cannot know if the infection came from recent arrivals or from horses returning from racing.
“We have three confirmed cases and this morning have taken blood and swabs from all the others for testing.”
David Sykes, director of equine health and welfare at the BHA, added: “We would like to thank Donald McCain for his co-operation in this matter, and for the responsible manner in which he has dealt with this issue, under the guidance of his veterinary surgeon.
“He has acted professionally with the interests of the racing industry and the health of his horses as his priority.”
Meanwhile, officials at Doncaster played down the loss of its fixture. “We didn’t have any travelling horses on site, so that’s not an issue,” said spokesman Sam Cone.
“In the grand scale of fixtures at Doncaster it was not the biggest meeting, but it’s not ideal for a racecourse or the industry when a fixture gets called off.”