4 March 2001

The Jockey Club’s veterinary advisor is strongly in favour of allowing the Festival to start on schedule in nine days’ time

There was a fresh set of ashes on the Cheltenham winning line yesterday morning. Another punter had been granted his final resting place. Nine days before the still-intended start of the National Hunt Festival, has the foot and mouth crisis plunged its future into the fire?

The truth is that Cheltenham needs those nine days. Needs them to dry out the patches near the third-last fence and on the run-in made bare and soggy by the wettest winter on record. But most of all, it needs them for the public mood to swing. For it to become possible for tens of thousands of racegoers, and millions of TV viewers and punters to feel comfortable about celebrating something called a festival when the mind is full of slaughtered cattle on funeral pyres. My bet this morning is that it will.

Clerk of the course (and former farmer) Simon Claisse, examining one of the black nets spread across the turf to keep the frost out and seed eating birds away, said: “No one here is in any doubt that our first responsibility is to prevent the spread of the disease. But if the precautions we are taking satisfy the strictest veterinary and ministry requirements, we have to ask what we achieve by calling the meeting off.”

The answer, although he is not saying it, is that a cancellation would go along with the public perception that the best way of supporting beleaguered farming communities is by calling the countryside to a halt.

It is a mood reflected in the Irish Government’s wish, and Irish trainers acceptance, that they should have no runners at the Festival. It is supported in our own racing community by leading trainers Ferdy Murphy and Mary Reveley, and a letter in yesterday’s Racing Post from International Handicapper Geoffrey Gibbs, himself a former sheep farmer, said: “It simply beggars belief that the Festival meeting should go ahead.”

A telephone poll on Channel 4’s Morning Line ran 66 per cent against Cheltenham despite a spirited defence by Claisse and Peter Webbon, the Jockey Club’s veterinary advisor, and the support of assorted pundits in the studio. On a link-up from Ireland, Grand National-winning trainer Ted Walsh said: “You are not doing enough over there.”

The Guinness sign was already draped across the extra grandstand at Cheltenham yesterday morning. A huge industrial digger was hammering posts into the edge of the car park, chief executive Edward Gillespie was showing chairman Lord Vestey the new crowd-control rails in the paddock. Snow-capped Cleeve Hill looked beautiful and timeless on the horizon. It would be easy to conjure up a picture of racing fiddling while those foot and mouth funeral pyres burn.

Easy but not correct. For it would not address Claisse’s original “What do we achieve by cancellation” question. It ignores the fact that the Ministry of Agriculture has said that racing is doing more than enough, and it cocks a deaf ear to the calm veterinary analysis that Webbon has been displaying all week and which he repeated so persuasively on The Morning Line that John Francome changed his view in mid-programme.

“Of course we get all emotional,” said Webbon, who in his other life, farms sheep close by a foot and mouth outbreak near Ross-on-Wye. “It is dreadful to see those burning carcases on the news every night. But we have to stand back from the emotion and examine the science. After BSE and everything, we now have an extremely well-documented rural economy.”

“Every single one of the 51 outbreaks is traceable to the original one. They have been transferred by the close proximity of beast to beast. Racing can only spread the disease if a whole series of transfers link a chain from one infected animal to another. We have to make sure our precautions break that chain.”

He then outlined the necessary scenario for a horse to be involved: of it stepping on a piece of dung from an infected sheep or pig. Of that horse keeping the dung on its hoof from stable to racecourse, where it would have to lose it, and another horse pick it up, keep it in its hoof – not just till it got to its stable but until it left the same adhesive piece of dung in a place where it could infect other animals.

“The chances of that happening,” added Webbon, “or of the same thing occurring with a car tyre or a human boot are inherently highly unlikely but we had to see if we could create an environment at a racecourse to make it virtually impossible.”

“The decision to suspend racing has given us the chance to see if we could set those environments in place. I am satisfied – and what’s more, so is the Ministry and all the veterinary associations we have consulted – that the measures announced on Friday have done just that.”

So it is that 1.5 million litres of disinfectant fluid will be used to soak foot-wipes, to spray car wheels, to wash every hoof of every horse. It will take time, the gates will be open early, but no sensible racegoer will complain.

Claisse said: “My view is that the rural economy has had enough kicks in the teeth already. Not holding Cheltenham would not hurt us because we are fully insured. But is it necessary to hurt all the thousands of others locally and nationally who are involved?”

Claisse joined Cheltenham 18 months ago and turned 40 last year. What he and Gillespie run is now a three-day sporting event to rival any in the calendar. They have a modern, open feel not always present in racing management, and as the chances of the nearby suspect case lifted yesterday, their optimism grew. They need the mood to swing, but if the controls bite and the cases drop, that optimism will look justified.

Racing is due to start again at Lingfield Park on Wednesday, but on leaving Cheltenham yesterday, I realised for a terrible moment that some of those funeral ashes were still on my shoes. In nine days time, it should not be ghosts but real winners that cross the line.

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