Monday Musings: UK Racing Reels from Point Blank Jab

Every autumn, while the days are still long and temperatures warm, the messages start, writes Tony Stafford. Either as SMS’s or calls from the surgery’s land line. “Don’t forget your ‘flu jab. It’s free!”

Boots the chemist also makes regular calls to one and all to take advantage of the offer for much of the pre-winter period. From my surgery the urgency increases with time. Obviously they have so many units of the stuff they simply do not want to be left with any. After all, who’s going to bother taking precautions once you get past Christmas?

A few years ago I succumbed to the onslaught, much as regular (possibly annual, although seemingly constant) demands to have one’s type 2 diabetes, blood pressure, eyesight, weight, feet and God knows what checked punctuate life for over 65’s in the Britain of the 21st Century.

So I have the flu jab each year and, while it does not guarantee immunity, I have never had what goes for “proper” flu when you are stuck in bed for a week and end up with agony in the bones and joints. Then again I’d never had more than a cold in any of the previous six-and-a-bit decades before Mr Flu Jab entered my senior life.

Every racehorse in Great Britain has to be fully inoculated against Equine Influenza before it ever races and each year has to have a booster injection. Just as my insurance against the worst potential effects of flu is no guarantee of escape from infection, so horses’ immunity is also not inevitable.

When Wednesday’s news of Donald McCain’s stable’s having three confirmed cases of EI was revealed it shocked and stopped racing in its tracks. These were revealed by the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket after swabs on the three horses were taken by vet Alasdair Topp on McCain’s instigation as those three horses had been exhibiting “worrying signs”.

All McCain’s runners since the previous Monday were monitored. Immediately the BHA ordered that every stable that might have had a horse possibly coming into contact with one of the McCain animals at those racecourses should go into “lockdown”. The race was on to test every horse in what amounted to 174 stables, and equally to get the swabs to carry out the tests. Soon after, three more McCain horses, including one of three from the stable to have raced in the days immediately before the revelation, were discovered to have the virus.

Those veterinary practices that were quick off the mark apparently bought up all available swab supplies, leaving some stables to have to wait in limbo for days before being tested. The vets have been to the forefront in this procedure as racing underwent an initial week-long hiatus, one that could well be prolonged further after Sunday night’s news that four Simon Crisford stable inmates have tested positive.

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So, most worryingly, especially for the sport’s top practitioners, Newmarket is not clear. Crisford, while at the moment concentrating more with his runners at Meydan, did have a beaten odds-on shot (Sajanjl) at Newcastle last Tuesday but not on a day that McCain had a runner there. Crisford is in an interesting, nay privileged, position, hardly surprising in view of his long previous career as Sheikh Mohammed’s racing manager at Godolphin.

Overseas trainers are allowed runners only on the days of the Carnival in Dubai, but alone, apart from Charlie Appleby and Saeed Bin Suroor, Godolphin’s main trainers in the UK, Crisford can also run horses at non-Carnival fixtures there. He is operating a satellite yard in the Emirate, so counts as a local trainer.

It did not take long for opinion to question the need for such stringent action. Nigel Twiston-Davies vociferously echoed the thoughts of many stablemen who believe that as all these horses have been immunised, the fact that a few cases have been revealed is little different from the run of the mill situation in all stables where runny noses and temperatures are a daily fact of life.

One trainer, not affected by the lockdown, said that for weeks around the country marts talk has been of rampant flu in non-racing animals in the UK and Ireland while he had heard that one of France’s leading trotting yards has voluntarily closed itself down.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, and clearly the BHA had to be seen to be acting to contain such a contagious disease, the costs for owners will as ever be considerable. Apart from missed opportunities at the track – who says the Betfair Hurdle prizemoney will ever be collected? – the blood tests must be paid for by somebody. My contact reckons the vets are the only winners in this costly exercise.

It was timely that Luck on Sunday chose this week for his principal guest to be Michael Dickinson, 36 years after his unique and much-celebrated Famous Five Gold Cup when Bregawn led home Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House that March day in Cheltenham.

Dickinson seems hardly changed in his appearance since those days, but more than 30 years on from his departure to train in the US after his sacking as Robert Sangster’s trainer at Manton, he is uniquely placed to assess such problems as the present veterinary crisis.

Luck asked how equine flu is dealt with in the US, to which Dickinson said that the system of training at racetracks makes it easier to handle any problems. With each stable and trainer having his own barn, any infected horse and therefore trainer’s barn can be quickly closed down and put effectively into isolation.

Just as when international runners go over for events such as the Breeders’ Cup, they have to go onto the track for training after the main body of domestic horses are exercised, so any barns with horses showing signs of infection have to exercise at separate times.

Newmarket stables identified as being in lockdown are similarly being required to exercise their horses in the afternoons, until clear returns for all those horses are established. As anybody that’s ever spoken to a trainer will tell you, horses have to be exercised every day once they have been brought to racing fitness, for their own and stable staff’s welfare. Monday morning traditionally, after a quiet Sunday, was always the day when lads expected a fiery first few minutes before the weekend “fizz” was extinguished.

Much of the 40 minutes of Luck and Dickinson devolved into a thrust and counter-thrust of the Mad Genius berating the Boy Wonder on his love of dirt racing. Dickinson, contrarily, while conceding the Triple Crown is safe, reckons dirt racing’s time may be coming almost to a conclusion.

As the developer of the Tapeta racing surface, as he revealed the result of 53 different elements – “we had them all in boxes” – his championing of turf and synthetic over dirt is hardly unexpected. But he backed his point of view with compelling statistics of the level of fatalities in dirt racing.

He said that the biggest complaints about racing in the United States were ”medication, facilities and dirt”, while agreeing that when Da Hoss won his two Breeders’ Cup Mile races two years apart, he did race with both Lasix and Bute.

Luck called that hypocritical, but Dickinson would not be shamed saying, “Lasix moves a horse up four lengths. If we’d not allowed him to use it, we wouldn’t have won and you wouldn’t be interviewing me now”. The “four lengths” theory explains why Frank Stronach, boss of Gulfstream Park in Florida wrote a condition in the two multi-million dollar Pegasus races recently allowing 7lb for horses not using any medication. Aidan O’Brien took the option and was rewarded with a highly-lucrative second place from Magic Wand in the Turf race.

Dickinson armed himself with a number of quotes. In one a New York racing secretary said that if he writes a maiden race on dirt, he’ll get two entries. The same conditions for a maiden on turf would attract 18. The writing it seems is on that particular wall, but then the fact that turf tracks are susceptible to wear and tear is a constant downside for US racecourses that may race every day for weeks on end.

Dickinson also offered a quote from Aidan O’Brien, perhaps understandable after the shocking experience of Mendelssohn in last year’s Kentucky Derby: “Dirt racing has an aggression approaching the level of savagery.” Point taken! As for racing here, let’s hope enough of the swabs come back clean so that it can resume before too much more damage is done.

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