Equine Flu Outbreak Halts All Horse Racing in UK

Veterinarian inoculating a horse

30-second summary

  • Six horses test positive at one stable
  • All races canceled for the next week
  • All horse movements also banned
  • Worst incident since 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak
  • Cheltenham Festival could be canceled

An outbreak of equine flu has forced the cancellation of all horse races in the UK until at least Wednesday, February 13. Six horses tested positive at a stable in Cheshire in Northwest England, and the regulatory body is now doing wide-scale testing of horses.

Devastating outbreak

One of the infected horses was sent to race at two locations last Wednesday. Another raced at a third location. This resulted in horses from at least 170 other stables being exposed to the virus.  All six horses that tested positive for equine flu had been vaccinated.

At least 23 horse race meetings have been canceled already, and it is expected that the cost to the industry will be tens of millions of pounds. The British Horseracing Authority, which is the regulatory body for the sport in the UK, ordered the shutdown.

The high-profile Betfair Hurdle event, which was scheduled for tomorrow at Newbury, is among the canceled races. Also under threat is the prestigious Cheltenham Festival, scheduled to begin on March 12. It is one of the most important race meetings in the annual calendar. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the pinnacle of all steeplechase races, with a prize fund of £625,000 ($809,000) for this year’s event.

The BHA will be working quickly to get the virus under control and racing underway again. In an announcement today, it said: “We ask that everyone involved in the sport continues to be vigilant, restrict where possible all movements of horses and people and maintains the highest standards of biosecurity.”

Containing the virus

The BHA is awaiting test results from potentially infected stables, before making further decisions on how long to extend the suspension of races. It said it would announce that decision on Monday, once test results were in and pending “further scientific advice and discussions with participants.”

It said: “The BHA is working closely with the Animal Health Trust in order to manage the logistical challenge of providing sufficient swabs and handling the volume of tests being sent through the facility, considering that testing of a total of 174 yards is now taking place.

“It will not be possible to test every horse from every yard before the end of the weekend, but we will work with trainers to identify any priority or risk horses and ensure that they are tested. This will all form part of the picture that is built in order to assist the decisions that will be made on Monday.”

Industry pressure

The cancellation of race meetings is the biggest since an extended outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001. All movements of farm animals and racing animals were banned during that period.

The UK and Irish horse racing industry is fragile and runs on tight margins despite its popularity with bettors. In the financial year March 2017 to March 2018, horse betting revenues were £610m ($789m), and betting companies could face losses of many millions.

More than 50% of bets made in betting shops in the UK are on horse racing. The sport also accounts for 25% of bets made online. As soon as the BHA announced the lockdown on racing, major betting companies such as Betfair, William Hill, Paddy Power, and GVC saw their shares fall by as much as 4% on the stock markets.

But in a blackly humorous gesture, the companies are all betting on how long it will be before racing resumes. The odds for the shutdown being reversed by February 18 are currently 1/5.

The financial hit will also be felt by television broadcasters who show horse racing. Broadcasting deals are usually commercially confidential, but every canceled race or meeting costs. Broadcasters lose out from advertising revenues when they can’t show races. And the levy for the racecourses averages around £264,000 ($342,000) a day, or up to £100m ($129.4m) a year.

The facts about equine flu

The virus is highly contagious. It can be airborne as well as transmitted by close contact, including via people. Symptoms can take up to 72 hours to show up. Vaccination is mandatory for thoroughbreds and other competitive horses. Ill horses can take months to recover, although the disease is rarely fatal.

UK rules mean all racehorses must be vaccinated against equine flu, so this outbreak suggests a mutant strain has emerged. This will cause serious concerns in the industry. The BHA said this “presents a cause for significant concern over welfare and the potential spread of the disease.”

The outbreak is thought to have originated from mainland Europe, where there were recorded cases last December. The source of this British outbreak has yet to be confirmed.

Irish stables are affected in this outbreak because the open border between the Republic and the British province of Northern Ireland means that historically Irish racehorses have competed in the UK. Many Irish horses are shipped over for British races every week, leaving them exposed to the virus.

The Horseracing Regulatory Board in Ireland announced today that British horses would not be able to race on Irish Republic courses until the all clear. It is continuing to hold race meetings under strict biosecurity conditions.