The implications of the extensive outbreak of foot and mouth disease can be widely seen in the marked reluctance of many British racecourses to stage fixtures. This is happening despite the enthusiasm of the racing authorities that the sport continues, albeit with the most stringent precautions to prevent spreading of the disease.
There was a slight slowing of new cases reported Wednesday, when 15 were reported; 22 were reported on Tuesday. The total number of cases is now 219, with over 130,000 sheep, pigs, and cattle having been slaughtered, and another 50,000 due to be. The government is now talking of slaughtering another 100,000 sheep who might have come in contact with sheep transported with the disease latent in them.
The sheep were transported throughout the country by two firms of livestock dealers before the recent outbreak was detected. Government scientists believe these movements -- which number around 1,000 -- were responsible for much of the spread of the outbreak that has left large parts of the countryside in quarantine. The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea have all banned some agricultural imports from Europe, following the first continental confirmation of an outbreak in a rural corner of Northwest France Tuesday.
Hundreds of horse events, from point-to-points to dressage and eventing, have been called off or postponed but racing has continued in Britain. The postponed Cheltenham Festival -- the greatest three days of jump racing in the world -- has been rescheduled for April 17-19 and the British Horseracing Board has stoutly defended the decision to continue racing.
Cheltenham's managing director Edward Gillespie said, "We at Cheltenham are only too conscious of the continuing foot and mouth crisis and the effect this is having on so many of our customers. However, there is a balance to be struck. We are convinced that we can safely conduct a successful race meeting and that, so long as racing continues and the racecourse remains outside an infected area, then we should make every effort to hold the meeting. We have therefore set dates so that the preparation of the horses and all the arrangements for the meeting can resume."
Meanwhile, British racing's ruling body, the BHB, hit back at critics in a noticeable stepping up of its public relations effort. The BHB has estimated that a shutdown would cost the racing and betting industries £60 million a month and threaten a huge number of jobs.
"There would be no winners from a sustained period without horseracing; only losers," BHB chairman Peter Savill said. "While Government advice remains unequivocal that staging racing within the MAFF-endorsed guidelines presents a negligible risk of spreading foot and mouth disease, it is essential for the 100,000 people who work in and derive a living from racing that a controlled programme of fixtures continues to be staged.
"The £60m a month loss represents an average cost of £600,000 for every fixture that the industry fails to stage, a figure of which all sections of the industry need to take careful account when determining their actions. There is no doubt that many jobs are at risk at present and it is up to us to be responsible in preserving them."
The BHB also stressed that the figure did not include those who indirectly rely on racing or training for living
Ludlow's next two fixtures, on March 21 and April 4, have been abandoned along with Folkestone (March 19), Exeter and Sedgefield (March 20) and Chepstow (March 21), while Kelso is set to give up its next meeting because of a reluctance to race while nearby farming communities are fearful of the disease spreading.
Even so Market Rasen, after agonizing long and hard, has decided to race on Saturday, no doubt bolstered by its parent company, Racecourse Holdings Trust which is owned by the British Jockey Club.
Chris Smith, the government's Culture minister, told the House Of Commons today, "The Government is not recommending the cancellation of any sports events. Any decisions will be for governing bodies of sport who should take a common sense approach which is above all proportionate to a realistic appraisal of the risk involved.
"Therefore sporting -- just like any other activity -- should not take place in infected areas. However, events elsewhere need not be affected."
Following a discussion with Tim Yeo, the Shadow Agriculture Minister, the BHB's secretary general Tristram Ricketts said, "Mr Yeo confirmed that the Conservative Party opposition are not calling for a ban on racing.
"Mr Yeo, while again drawing attention to different approaches to disease control by the Governments of other countries, again accepted that we are fully entitled to rely on MAFF advice in deciding whether to allow race meetings to be held."
Meanwhile, Australia's move to ban the import of horses comes way before the dual-hemisphere season is due to start on Sept. 1, giving four and a half months for the situation to be sorted out.