Cases of equine influenza were found in the UK just weeks before the Cheltenham Festival, forcing horse racing authorities to shut the sport down temporarily as a precaution.
While the big National Hunt extravaganza – scheduled to take place between Tuesday, March 12 and Friday, March 15 – is under no threat, 23 horse racing meetings were cancelled by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) in a six-day period as soon as cases at the Cheshire yard of Donald McCain were discovered.
This is because the infected yard sent runners to the all-weather venue at Wolverhampton and over jumps at Ludlow and Ayr in Scotland in the days before the virus was found. A horse representing the McCain stable at the latter course has since tested positive for equine influenza, but showed no signs of previous symptoms.
Containing a contagious virus like this is essential to avoid a repeat of the foot and mouth disease crisis that swept through the British countryside in 2001. That led to the Cheltenham Festival being called off, but there is no evidence that the equine influenza problem is on anything like that scale.
Although further cases were reported at the stable of Simon Crisford in Newmarket, the BHA have since resumed the sport but with new requirements for runners. Only horses vaccinated in the last six months will be allowed to race.
Some British Meetings Schedules Changed
A number of key races across the 23 confirmed cancelled meetings haven’t been run in their traditional slot as a result. While some have been arranged, the fact that they are not taking place at the usual point in the calendar has adversely affected healthy horses that are preparing for tilts at the Cheltenham Festival.
Supreme Novices’ Hurdle favourite Angels Breath was set to run at Huntingdon in a Listed race over an extended 2m 3f. British champion jumps trainer Nicky Henderson will have to find another race to give the Kennel Gate winner more experience before going in the Festival’s traditional opener.
Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Native River, meanwhile, looked set for a third consecutive Denman Chase at Newbury, but a King George rematch with Kempton conqueror Clan Des Obeaux is no longer the plan. Connections are set to give him a racecourse gallop before going straight to the Festival as he bids to defend his crown.
Although the Super Saturday card was lost, both the Denman Chase and Betfair Hurdle have been transferred to Ascot. Another key Newbury race from the meeting is the 2m Game Spirit Chase that has produced the winner of the Racing Post Arkle and Queen Mother Champion Chase in the last couple of years.
Warwick is another racecourse that was set to host graded action in the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase. Like the Game Spirit, this event holds Grade 2 status and is one of the final races Arkle hopefuls have before Cheltenham. Sandown will now stage this race.