On February 6, the UK racing scene was rocked by the news that all events would be called off until February 13 at the earliest. The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) announcement also stated that it was a ‘precautionary measure’ due to the possible identification of equine influenza at a racing yard.
It was trainer Donald McCain who was the unfortunate central figure to this story. On February 6, three of his horses were exhibiting troubling signs including grey discharge from their noses. The following day, a vet named Alasdair Topp visited the McCain yard and took swabs of the three horses.
After passing the samples to the Animal Health Trust (AHT) in Newmarket, it was discovered that the horses had the equine flu. As one might expect, McCain felt guilty and blamed himself for shutting down the UK racing industry. Of course, it was not his fault; there has been an outbreak of equine flu in the UK, and McCain was just the victim of bad luck.
According to the AHT, there have been eight times as many flu cases to date in 2019 as in the whole of last year. In fact, 16 locations in Scotland and England suffered an outbreak up to and including February 12. The BHA felt that the best thing to do was shut racing down for a minimum of six days.
Dr. Richard Newton of the AHT is the man who tested the samples of McCain’s horses. He said it was the fastest spreading virus he has ever seen. It takes up to three days to become viable, but a significant proportion of the industry was unhappy that the BHA shut everything down.
How Much Did the Shutdown Cost the Racing Industry?
Six days is a long time in racing, especially with several meetings scheduled each day. By my count, 26 scheduled meetings, with a total of over 150 races, were cancelled. A six-day cancellation was not something the BHA did lightly. Most media reports estimate that the shutdown cost the industry somewhere between £150m to £200m.
It also cost the bookmaking industry a fortune. Shares of bookmakers such as Betfair, Paddy Power, and William Hill fell between 2% and 4%. Of course, they tried to cash in on the shutdown by offering odds of 1/5 on the suspension being lifted before February 18, which it was.
The effects of the shutdown were felt throughout the racing industry. Newbury had a major meeting scheduled for Saturday, February 9 which included races such as the Denman Chase and Betfair Hurdle. Musselburgh lost its richest-ever National Hunt meeting which had been scheduled for Sunday, February 10. That particular meeting went ahead on the first day of racing’s return on Wednesday, February 13, and attendees were allowed in for free.
A Can of Worms
Suffice to say, trainers, owners, and jockeys were not happy with the BHA’s decision. At the height of the flu panic, 174 racing stables in the UK, over 25% of the total in Britain, was shut down. Newton admitted that the equine flu was only found in two yards despite over 3,000 samples being analysed.
Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies was one of the first to criticise the BHA and claimed the shutdown was a ‘total knee-jerk overreaction.’ He also voiced concerns over the new rules which require all horses competing in races to have been vaccinated within the previous six months. Previously, it was only necessary for a horse to be vaccinated annually.
According to Henrietta Knight, the entire episode was a “can of worms which would have been better left shut.” Knight joined Twiston-Davies, and several other trainers, in the belief that a six-day shutdown was excessive. She said the shutdown would mean the public would see the outbreak as a ‘plague’ when it is actually a problem that humans deal with 12 months of the year.
Twiston-Davies continued his attack on the BHA by referencing their ‘draconian behaviour.’ He said that while it was prudent to have a brief shutdown to establish the severity of the flu in vaccinated horses, there was no need to keep racing on lockdown. According to the trainer, when it became clear that vaccination reduced clinical signs to a minimum, it was apparent that racing should continue.
Not every trainer was angry at the BHA. Oliver Sherwood believes the BHA was right to ‘err on the side of caution’ until they knew what they were dealing with. Martin Pipe said it was better to go over the top than under it. Andrew Balding said it was “an alarming reaction,” but it would not have a significant impact on the racing industry going forward.
Did the BHA Make the Right Decision?
When we hear trainers and others moan about the shutdown, you have to remember that their main concern is a loss of revenue. It is a short-sighted viewpoint, to say the least. In 2001, the Cheltenham festival was cancelled due to the Foot and Mouth epidemic which cost the industry £30 million.
The BHA’s head of media, Robin Mounsey, said that equine influenza is an extremely contagious disease and possibly the most damaging of all respiratory viruses that happen in UK horses. One of the reasons for the shutdown was because of concern over the Florida Clade 1 strain of the virus spreading.
Let’s say the BHA had succumbed to pressure from members of the racing industry and allowed racing to continue without being completely sure the virus was contained. Imagine if it affected a few horses who then spread it to others at meetings. Soon, entire yards would be infected, and the shutdown, and eventual cost to the industry would have been a LOT worse!
Now that we know the flu didn’t affect many horses or yards, it seems like an overreaction; but it is all too easy to be wise after the event. Had they made a mistake at this time, it would have thrown the fate of the Cheltenham Festival next month in jeopardy. Horse racing lovers may not agree, but on this occasion, it seems as if the BHA were right to be safe, rather than VERY sorry.