Racing's rulers refuse to spread panic over foot-and-mouth

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The Independent Online

The return of foot-and-mouth disease to Britain has sent a shiver down the spine of all racing professionals. This time round, however, even an escalation of the emergency should not expose the racing authorities to the same irrational pressures that exacerbated disruption of the sport in 2001.

Lessons will have been learned in every walk of rural life stricken by the disease that year. To their great credit, however, those who ran British racing proved to be teachers, rather than pupils. Despite a myopic, emotional clamour to suspend the calendar altogether, they recognised the huge damage latent in such a vague, masochistic gesture of solidarity. After an initial, seven-day shutdown, they had the courage of their convictions and authorised the resumption of racing outside infected areas. They heard many bitter, strident voices but listened only to logical, judicious ones. They explored the science thoroughly and explained its conclusions patiently. In short, they played a blinder.

They did make compromises, enforcing stricter restrictions than those set by Government. As a result the Cheltenham Festival was among 121 meetings lost between February and April. The grazing of sheep there during February initially required the Festival's postponement until mid-April, but it was finally abandoned on 1 April after an outbreak of the disease 6km from the track. During the crisis, the Government prohibited race meetings within 3km of infected premises, but racing's authorities extended that zone.

It was the first time the Festival had been abandoned since the World War II, and the course made an insurance claim of £8m.

True to form, the industry's first response to the discovery of the disease on a farm near Guildford on Friday was to discourage panic. On Saturday the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) instructed any licensed trainer within 10km of infected premises not to take horses to racecourses. Once again, this precaution exceeds the Government prohibition of animal movements within a 3km radius. The BHA veterinary officer, Lynn Hillier, envisaged that "racing will continue with few, if any repercussions". To date, therefore, the only trainer affected is Pru Townsley, who trains a dozen animals near Godalming.

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