BHA ‘war-room’ of vets out to stop flu calamity

Huntingdon's cancelled meeting on Thursday was one of the first casualties of the equine flu shutdow

The British Horseracing Authority is confident its prompt action and “war-room” of vets can stop equine flu shutting the sport down for months.

BHA chief executive Nick Rust has warned a ‘three to six-month problem’ might have become reality if the national governing body had chosen to ‘play Russian roulette’ with its response to the outbreak.

Instead, he insists that the initial decision to cancel all racing for six days following confirmation of three positive cases at Donald McCain’s yard – from Thursday through to next Tuesday – will ensure the shut-down lasts no longer than “a few weeks at most”.

Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Rust said: “We’ve got to get a hold of it quickly.

“If we play Russian roulette with the evidence we’ve got, we could have a problem for three to six months – and no one would thank us for that.

“This is a serious form of flu which debilitates horses. The welfare of our horses is really paramount, above all economics.

“First and foremost, we have no sport without healthy horses.”

Three horses at Donald McCain's yard are so far the only ones to have tested positive
Three horses at Donald McCain’s yard are so far the only ones to have tested positive (Nick Potts/PA)

Asked what a worst-case scenario might still be, with the Cheltenham Festival less than five weeks away and a call set to be made on Monday over a possible resumption of racing dependent on the outcome of tests on racehorses round the country, Rust said:  “The worst fears are that we don’t contain it quickly.

“But by taking the action we have over the last couple of days – we’re effectively locking down the movement of racehorses, instructing trainers to take extra special precautions – we’re fairly confident we will manage to restrict it.

“But until we know the complete extent over the next few days of the distribution of the virus, we won’t know exactly where we are.

“We have a ‘war-room’ – we have 20 vets employed at the BHA, forensic investigation, a lab in Newmarket that is processing hundreds of tests now.

This year's Cheltenham Festival is less than five weeks away
This year’s Cheltenham Festival is less than five weeks away (David Davies/PA)

“Once we know whether there has been a spread (of infection) there or not, we will be in a much better position to know where racing is.”

Rust remains optimistic, however.

“We hope we’ve got a hold of it quickly and that by Monday we’ll be in a position to make another call.

“I don’t know if that will need a few more days or not. But I strongly believe this is a few weeks at most, because we’ve acted quickly.”

Concerns grew on Thursday when it became clear the three horses to test positive had also been vaccinated.

Gold Cup winner Native River had been due to run at Newbury this weekend
Gold Cup winner Native River had been due to run at Newbury this weekend (Clint Hughes/PA)

Rust added: “Vaccinations never work 100%. Racehorses are among the best looked-after animals in the country – they are super athletes.

“We’re on top of this quickly. The reason this has been picked up is because of that care and attention.

“So we’ve got a very good chance of managing this.

“We are not concerned that we are facing a (superbug) mutation issue here.”

Champion trainer Nicky Henderson confirmed the BHA's testing programme was under way on Friday morning
Champion trainer Nicky Henderson confirmed the BHA’s testing programme was under way on Friday morning (David Davies/PA)

A high-profile weekend of racing has already been lost, with Gold Cup winner Native River among those who had been due to warm up at Newbury for this year’s Cheltenham challenge.

But Rust confirmed potential Festival prep races will either be re-scheduled or other suitable ones added to the calendar, once the sport resumes.

He said: “We’re making preparations for alternative arrangements – so that when racing returns, if there were prep races for horses going to Cheltenham or Aintree, they’ll have alternative races in place.”

Champion trainer Nicky Henderson reported early on Friday morning that the BHA’s urgent action plan to test all horses is already under way.

Signs of things to come, at Huntingdon on Thursday?