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Racing Uncertainty
The potential impact of foot-and-mouth disease on horseracing

Jim Johnson

Newcastle’s meeting on February 26th has become the first cancellation of a British horseracing fixture due to foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) for 33 years. Seven of the weekend’s eleven point-to-point races were also cancelled. This highly contagious virus was first detected in Essex early last week, and since then further outbreaks have started to appear elsewhere in the country. The racing industry is fearful of a repeat of the 1967 ‘Great cattle plague’ when not only agriculture was badly hit but horse racing was effectively cancelled for two months and in some areas longer.

The 1967 epidemic cost the country £150 million in control measures and lost income. This would be the equivalent of about £1.5 billion in today’s money. It began as an outbreak in a Shropshire farm and it took 5 months to control, in the process 442,000 animals were slaughtered and hundreds of jobs were lost.

The foot-and-mouth virus belongs to the Aphthovirus genus: it is an infectious viral disease that causes fever, followed by the development of blisters mainly in the mouth and on the feet of an infected animal. It is probably the most virulent livestock disease of all and is capable of very rapid transmission if uncontrolled. Virus is present in great quantity in the fluid from blisters, also occurring in saliva, exhaled air, milk and dung. Any of these can be a source of infection. At the height of the disease, virus is also present in the blood and all parts of the body. It only affects cloven hooved animals, which include cattle, sheep, pigs and goats. Horses are not susceptible to FMD.

In temperate climates like our own, airborne spread of the virus is possible, it can travel up to 60km overland and 300km by sea. Human activities, however, are one of the main causes of transmission once the disease has arrived in the country. People and their vehicles are potential vectors of the disease. It can easily be carried unknowingly on Wellington boots, cattle trucks and other vehicles, and also by domestic and wild animals. Roads - where material has been spilt from vehicles carrying contaminated animals - allow transmission to places far and wide as the virus can happily survive in the tread of car tyres.

Although the disease is only fatal in about 5% of cases, all infected animals and any that would have a reasonable chance of developing it have to be destroyed. Humans are not susceptible to FMD, even by consuming contaminated meat, but the disease is still capable of spreading to other animals from carcasses. Therefore meat from infected animals cannot be sold, which leads to important economic losses and means that FMD has to be snuffed out quickly before it takes hold.

Obviously agriculture is the main industry to suffer from FMD outbreaks, but its damaging effects are wide reaching and it has severe implications for horse racing. As happened in 1967, racing may have to be cancelled because horses and their transport vehicles provide an opportunity for the virus to be brought from contaminated land into an area where thousands of people come together. If a contaminated vehicle or horse arrives at a meeting, the ease in which FMD is transferred means that it can quickly spread to new vectors, ultimately being extensively dispersed when the crowds return home.

Nick Brown, the agricultural minister has imposed a nationwide ban on livestock movement in a bid to control the spread of the disease. This ban does not at the moment include the transport of racehorses. The Newcastle meeting was cancelled because it fell within a 10-mile exclusion zone which was imposed following the discovery of an outbreak on a nearby farm. A major worry for the industry is that the Cheltenham festival will be affected. The festival starts in less than three weeks time. It is the high point of the jumping calendar with sell out crowds over the full three days, and a betting turnover of £50 million per day.

There have been unconfirmed FMD outbreaks at farms only 27 miles from the course. If in the next few days a slightly nearer outbreak was identified, the resulting exclusion zone could end the chances of the festival taking place this year. There are also suspected outbreaks being reported in Ireland, which would bring with it the prospect of a ban on the movements of horses into Britain. This would have serious repercussions on the Cheltenham festival, as plenty of highly fancied Irish horses are due to race.

By February 25th, seven outbreaks of FMD had been confirmed, in areas as far a field as Essex, Devon and Northumberland. Scientists suspect that the disease reached Britain through food discarded from a docking container ship and was fed to pigs 2-3 weeks ago. The farmer at the ‘ground zero’ farm failed to identify the symptoms immediately, which is unusual. Blisters on the feet severely hamper the animal’s ability to walk, which to a trained person should be fairly easy to spot. This farm in East Heddon, near Newcastle sends all its animals to a slaughterhouse in Essex. On Monday 19th February workers here noticed that some animals were suffering from FMD and this became the first reported outbreak. The disease was then traced back to its original source near Newcastle. The implications of this delay in the detection of the disease are immense. Prior to FMD being diagnosed last Monday the infected animals would have incubated the disease for up to 14 days and then developed the symptoms over several days after that. All this time with no disease controlling restrictions in place FMD was free to spread unchecked. The extent to which this has occurred, and therefore the scale of this epidemic and its impact on agriculture, racing and other industries will become apparent in the next few days as and when new outbreaks are reported.

There was a brief outbreak of the disease on the Isle of Wight in 1981, but it was quickly controlled through a rigorous quarantine programme and the slaughter of all animals on suspected farms. The current outbreak is being dealt with in a similar brutal way, but there has been an unfortunate delay in the application of such measures. The National Farmers Union supports the Government in dealing with the disease in such a fashion, so long as farmers get the compensation they are entitled too. It will be devastating for the farms involved but the implications for the whole UK economy of an epidemic would be vast. In 1967, the suspension of all horseracing cost the government in excess of £1 million per day. Time will tell how damaging the delay in the detection of the disease will prove, but in the meantime preventative measures are vital. At Kempton races last Friday a disinfected pad of straw was put down to clean the tyres of lorries as they drove into the racecourse. If measures such as these are continued and future races are cancelled if they fall within exclusion zones then a repeat of the 1967 situation can hopefully be avoided.

All those involved in the racing industry must do everything possible to ensure that the sport does not become part of the mechanism by which this contagious disease takes hold. Not only for the sake of racing but for the UK economy as a whole. Agriculture has been hit hard in recent years, suffering one disaster after another. We must hope that it is not too late to prevent the return of this disease becoming another nail in its coffin.

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