All British horse racing meetings on Thursday have been cancelled because of an outbreak of equine flu.
The decision by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) comes after three vaccinated horses in an active yard tested positive for the disease.
Horses from the infected yard raced on Wednesday, potentially exposing a significant number of horses.
Four British meetings were scheduled for Thursday – Huntingdon, Doncaster, Ffos Las and Chelmsford.
A decision on whether Friday’s fixtures – at Newcastle and Southwell – can take place is likely to be made on Thursday evening.
Horses that have contracted equine flu can develop a high fever, coughing, nasal discharge and sometimes swelling of the lymph nodes. The incubation period is usually days but recovery can take weeks, or even months.
There are no known consequences for humans exposed to the disease.
“The fact that the cases have been identified in vaccinated horses presents a cause for significant concern over welfare and the potential spread of the disease and the action to cancel racing has been viewed as necessary in order to restrict, as far as possible, the risk of further spread of the disease,” the BHA said in a statement.
“The BHA has worked quickly to identify which yards could have potentially been exposed today and identify the further actions required.
“The BHA is presently communicating with yards potentially exposed to ensure appropriate quarantine and biosecurity measures are put in place and horse movements restricted to avoid possible further spread of the disease.
“The full extent of potential exposure is unknown and we are working quickly to understand as much as we can to assist our decision making.”
Since the start of 2019, there have been seven outbreaks of equine flu – in Essex, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Suffolk.
The two cases in Suffolk involved thoroughbreds – one centred on eight vaccinated two-year-old horses and the other was six unvaccinated animals.
This news, which broke late on Wednesday night, has rocked horse racing at a time when anticipation is building before next month’s showpiece Cheltenham Festival meeting.
“As you can imagine, a normal race meeting will have circa 70-100 racehorses stabled in a close proximity from all parts of the country, all housed together for a day and then they all go back home to their own yard, so it could be catastrophic,” trainer Seamus Mullins told BBC Radio 5 live.
It is unclear at this stage whether other fixtures may be affected, with the ‘Super Saturday’ meeting at Newbury in Berkshire on 9 February – where last year’s Gold Cup winner Native River is due to run – the next high-profile fixture.
What is equine flu?
Equine influenza is a highly infectious disease that affects horses, mules and donkeys occurring globally caused by strains of the Influenza A virus.
It is the most potentially damaging of the respiratory viruses that occur in UK horses and disease symptoms in non-immune animals include high fever, coughing and nasal discharge.
The outbreak at the infected yard follows the identification of a number of equine influenza cases across Europe and the UK, including several in vaccinated horses.
Following the recent outbreaks, guidance was sent to racehorse trainers to inform them that all horses that have not had a vaccination against equine flu within the last six months should receive a booster vaccination, and that trainers should be extra-vigilant.
However, equine influenza can be highly contagious and – unlike other infectious diseases – can be airborne over reasonable distances as well as be transmitted indirectly, including via people.
“It’s very similar to human flu; the symptoms are the same and the horses feel the same,” said Mullins.
“You get a high temperature, a nasal discharge and eventually you get coughing and the horses feel rough. It’s similar to humans – but they get over it.”
Cornelius Lysaght, horse racing correspondent
There is such a feeling of deja vu here, 18 years almost to the day since I recall being at Wincanton races when news first emerged of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK in 2001.
Racing was stopped for a while, and eventually the Cheltenham Festival was called off altogether.
There’s no suggestion that this incident will cause the same kind of disruption, but that said there’s big element of uncertainty about what happens next, and any further shut-down – Cheltenham is again looming – would clearly have a considerable effect on the sport but on all the ancillary industries that go with it.