French Horses May Miss Cheltenham Festival Due to Disease

France on Monday banned exports of animals at risk from foot-and-mouth disease after tests on nine herds showed traces of the highly contagious virus. In Belgium, tests showed no evidence of the disease in suspected pigs.

So far, there have been no confirmed cases of foot-and-mouth on continental Europe: The Agriculture Ministry said it was not yet clear whether the animals in France were carriers, only that tests showed that they had produced antibodies after being in contact with the virus.

But with fears growing that the disease will spread from Britain and Northern Ireland, where 70 separate outbreaks have been reported, France outlined strict new security measures that will freeze some sectors of its animal industry.

Over the weekend, Belgium shut down its two largest zoos and Denmark quarantined seven farms.

``We think we must react ... in a rapid and immediate way because it is better to act when there are antibodies present in the animal and when the disease has not yet been declared,'' French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said Monday during a trip to the central Cher region.

It is extremely difficult to contain an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which infects cloven-hoofed animals such sheep, cows and pigs but does not pose a health danger to humans. The virus can be carried for miles by the wind, people, clothes or cars, surviving for lengthy periods on boots and clothing. It can also be spread by contaminated hay, water and manure.

Tests in France showed that animals in nine different herds contained antibodies for the virus. The animals had already been slaughtered under a government decision to kill 20,000 sheep that had been imported into France and 30,000 French animals that were in contact with the British animals.

``These analyses show that these animals were in contact with the virus ... but we do not know ... whether they were carriers of the illness,'' Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany said.

France banned all exports of live animals deemed at risk, and prohibited the movement of such animals inside the country for 15 days except in cases where the animals are being taken to the slaughterhouse.

Authorities took more drastic precautions within a 1.8-mile-radius around each of the nine farms. Vehicles traveling in this area must be disinfected, and people leaving the area are required to step in a disinfectant solution. The measures will last for 30 days.

The affected French farms are in the Oise region, north of Paris, Vienne in central France and Mayenne in northwest. Two cows tested in the Cher region showed signs of having contacted the virus but more results on that case
are pending.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported French horses are set to pull out of the Cheltenham festival as a result of the country's restrictions on movement of animals.

Louis Romanet, head at France Galop, told the BBC it was now unlikely that any horses would be able to cross the Channel to take part in Britain's showpiece jumps meeting.

French horses were among the favorites for three of the races -- First Gold in the Tote Cheltenham Gold Cup, Jair du Cochet in the Elite Racing Club Triumph Hurdle, and Baracouda in the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle.

Romanet said: "Our Government is being even stricter than they are in Britain and it is unlikely that our horses will be able to travel to Cheltenham. "They have brought in a ban of transporting horses in vans for two weeks. It means we can only have racing where horses are stabled at the track. It's a great shame for our trainers but we are going to hold further talks with our agriculture ministry later Monday and on Tuesday to see if we can agree a code of practice to allow the movement of horses."

The BBC reported that a suspected case of foot-and-mouth outbreak at a farm at Woolstone, just five miles from Cheltenham, did not prove to be positive

On Monday, Edward Gillespie, managing director of Cheltenham Racecourse, said the meet is still scheduled for March 13-15, noting the British Horseracing Board and the Jockey Club confirmed that racing will resume in Britain this Wednesday (March 7).

"We are pleased to be progressing plans for what will still be a memorable National Hunt Festival," Gillespie said. "It is of course disappointing that horses could be prevented from travelling from France to take part at the Festival. I was only speaking to (trainer) Francois Doumen last night and I know he will be bitterly disappointed. It will be a severe blow to him, Guillaume Macaire and the other French trainers, and their owners. The British racing authorities are talking to their counterparts in France to see if it would be possible for the horses to travel next week. We will continue to monitor the foot and mouth situation very closely through the BHB and the Jockey Club."