Cheltenham battles to save the Festival

Cheltenham racecourse was fighting to save its showpiece Festival meeting last night, as Ireland's trainers confirmed that their entries for the opening day next Tuesday will be officially scratched from their races today. The confirmation of cases of foot and mouth disease within 15 miles of two of National Hunt's main training centres also led to growing speculation that the course will today announce the cancellation of the Festival until 17 April.

Cheltenham racecourse was fighting to save its showpiece Festival meeting last night, as Ireland's trainers confirmed that their entries for the opening day next Tuesday will be officially scratched from their races today. The confirmation of cases of foot and mouth disease within 15 miles of two of National Hunt's main training centres also led to growing speculation that the course will today announce the cancellation of the Festival until 17 April.

After a day of meetings at the track involving all its senior executives, Edward Gillespie, the course's managing director, was last night unwilling to confirm or deny that the meeting is about to be postponed. However, Blue Square, a leading internet bookmaker, stopped taking bets that next week's meeting will not take place, and a suspected case of foot and mouth just three miles from Lambourn, jumping's most important training centre, remains under investigation.

For much of yesterday, the prospects that the Festival would take place as planned seemed increasingly good. Racing resumed at Lingfield yesterday afternoon after a self-imposed seven-day suspension, while the French government announced that it would allow horses including First Gold, the Gold Cup favourite, to travel to the meeting. Stringent measures are in place to ensure that neither horses, nor their attendants or boxes, can spread the disease.

There were even claims yesterday evening that Ireland's Department of Agriculture had agreed to allow Irish horses to travel to the meeting, but these were swiftly denied by Willie Mullins, the chairman of the Irish Racehorse Trainers' Association. "We spoke to the department today about the possibility of going," Mullins said, "but they said that their stance about horses going to Cheltenham hasn't changed, and we have taken the view that we are not changing our stance either. We are asking our members not to even confirm their horses at the five-day stage in the morning. That's it, we've finished whatever chance we had of going."

The precautions against the spread of foot and mouth now that racing has resumed are so strict that John Maxse, the Jockey Club's spokesman, suggested yesterday that horses could even be transported to the races from within a Ministry of Agriculture exclusion zone around a case of foot and mouth. Whether trainers in agricultural areas would be willing to do so is another matter, however, and the discovery of foot and mouth at Wantage at Stype, near Hungerford, and Hawes in North Yorkshire, both just 15 miles from Lambourn and Middleham respectively, may force Cheltenham's hand.

A second suspected case of foot and mouth at Baydon, less than five miles from Lambourn, remained unconfirmed yesterday. Tests will continue for the next few days, and should the case be confirmed, Nick Henderson's yard would be the only major stable in Lambourn which did not fall within the exclusion zone.

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