The pre-war Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb apparently had a pre-marriage agreement. It wasn’t like today’s Hollywood prenups, designed to protect the assets of high earners when lascivious eyes roll on elsewhere. They simply agreed that Sidney would make the big decisions and Beatrice the small ones. Beatrice, however, had it sorted: she was to pronounce which was a big decision and which a small one.
Lately the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has been getting a lot of small decisions wrong. First it issued a ruling that in future all racehorses should be shod on their hind feet as well as their forefeet. The motive was worthy — to minimise the chances of horses slipping up and harming both themselves and their riders — but many trainers objected, particularly those who fear that when a horse suffers an overreach, with the hind hooves hitting the front legs, the injury is likely to be far worse when hind shoes are fitted. They objected and the ruling was suspended. The BHA had overreached itself: the appropriate footwear for a horse should be decided by its trainer.
Then there was the nonsense at Uttoxeter when the jumper Burrenbridge Hotel ‘planted’ himself on the way to the start. To encourage his horse to join the others his trainer Henry Oliver approached the gelding and waved his hands at him vigorously. The local stewards fined Oliver £140 for ‘misconduct’ and the BHA compounded the idiocy by issuing a statement supporting the stewards and declaring: ‘We set a lot of store in our sport behind the fact that we do not force horses to race…’. Horses, like humans, have their moods: if we left it to them to decide whether or not to race they might opt out because they’ve had a bad hair day, haven’t fancied their feeding cubes that morning or felt stroppy because their favourite lass wasn’t leading them around the parade ring.
As champion jumps trainer Nicky Henderson snorted: ‘If they are talking about giving horses free will about starting, then what about at the stalls on the Flat when ten burly and brilliant men shove, heave and lift horses into the stalls when the horse says no?’
What, though, about the big decision the BHA made last week when the Animal Health Trust reported three cases of equine flu in samples from Donald McCain’s Cheshire yard? Swiftly the BHA ordered a lockdown of 120 racing stables that had sent runners to recent meetings where McCain’s horses had participated and banned all race meetings for a minimum six days while the threat was assessed.Soon another 54 yards were locked down for fear of cross-contamination after having had runners at meetings where a potential equine flu subject had run.
Racing resumed last Wednesday, but given the massive loss of revenue to racecourses whose fixtures were cancelled, and the daily income loss for jockeys, valets and temporary racecourse staff with mortgages to pay, it had been a huge decision to suspend it. So did the BHA call that one right? I believe that it did. Although it is rarely fatal, equine flu, which leads to coughing, high temperatures and nasal discharge, is highly contagious and can be airborne. Sending racehorses to meetings where they might mingle with carriers is like dumping your child in a primary school playground where a dozen have the sniffles.
The BHA acted speedily, decisively and thoroughly, prioritising the swab analyses from yards close to the likeliest sources of infection and keeping everybody in the loop. ‘We felt that clarity for the industry was the most important thing at this time,’ they said, in considerable contrast to those who look after the nation’s affairs in our Brexit-obsessed parliament. Remembering how the foot-and-mouth epidemic led to the cancellation of the imminent Cheltenham Festival and many others in 2001, and that racing in Australia was halted for three months in 2007 thanks to equine flu, I would not question its priorities.
Of course some have done: experienced trainers Nigel Twiston-Davies and Charlie Mann, and owner Dr Marwan Koukash, insist the BHA overreacted, as does at least one veterinary expert. They point out that trainers have to cope all the time with bugs and viruses. It is true that when Australia suffered so badly it was with an unvaccinated horse population. Since 1981 it has been compulsory for British racing yards to have all their animals vaccinated. With the BHA, I say better safe than sorry.
Either way we can all feel sorry for Donald McCain who was heartbroken to feel that he had been responsible for shutting down the whole racing industry. He wasn’t. In a yard that is cleaner than some hospitals, he simply ordered an extra series of tests on three ailing horses who seemed resistant to antibiotics and was honest about the outcome.