Foot and mouth: Festival doomed

The Cheltenham Festival, which has been hanging on by its fingernails since the start of the foot and mouth crisis, will finally be called off today or tomorrow. The final nail was last night in the process of being driven into the coffin of jump racing's showcase meeting with confirmation that the Gloucestershire racecourse falls within the exclusion zone of a fresh outbreak yesterday of the disease.

The Cheltenham Festival, which has been hanging on by its fingernails since the start of the foot and mouth crisis, will finally be called off today or tomorrow. The final nail was last night in the process of being driven into the coffin of jump racing's showcase meeting with confirmation that the Gloucestershire racecourse falls within the exclusion zone of a fresh outbreak yesterday of the disease.

The Festival, comprising 21 races including 10 at Grade One championship level and offering nearly £2m in prize-money over three days, should have taken place two weeks ago and had been rescheduled to start on Tuesday fortnight, on the same days as the first significant fixture of the Flat Turf season, the Craven meeting at Newmarket.

The Prestbury Park track was already just over a mile from an existing exclusion zone. Yesterday's case of an infected sheep occurred in the village of Woolstone, almost four and a half miles away. The British Horseracing Board and MAFF were monitoring the situation yesterday but there is little doubt about the outcome once the exclusion map is redrawn. The Woolstone outbreak, 10 miles from any other, is the first in the northern area of Gloucestershire and brings the total in the beleaguered county to 39.

"I am very pessimistic," John Maxse, the Jockey Club public-relations spokesman, said at Ascot yesterday. "It would require a change of BHB policy to race within a zone. Technically, that is feasible, because racing has gone far beyond any MAFF requirements. But the Cheltenham Festival would be too much, too soon."

Contingency plans had already been drawn up to redistribute the most important Festival races elsewhere. The four senior championships ­ the Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase and Stayers' Hurdle ­ will be transferred to the two-day mixed Whitbread Gold Cup and Classic Trial meeting at Sandown later this month, on 27 and 28 April.

The novices' races at Aintree this week will be upgraded to Grade One status and increased in value to replace the lost Cheltenham events. Both course are in suburban environments and unlikely to be affected by foot and mouth. With the uncertainty about Cheltenham as good as over, the three-day Grand National meeting can only benefit and, despite the lack of any challengers from Ireland, it promises to be ultra-competitive.

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