(This version of the Feb. 8 story corrects attendance figure in paragraph 3, date of Grand National in paragraph 10)
By Ellie Kelly
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s horse racing industry was on tenterhooks on Friday following an outbreak of equine flu with next month’s showpiece Cheltenham Festival the focus of attention.
All race meetings in Britain have been canceled until Wednesday and three more cases of equine flu were confirmed on Friday at the stables of trainer Donald McCain.
The four-day Cheltenham Festival, the fourth most attended sporting event in Britain which attracts over 260,000 visitors, is due to start on March 12.
“We are in contact with the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) on this matter, who are handling it on behalf of British Racing and providing regular updates,” a spokesman for the Cheltenham race course said.
“The Festival isn’t for five weeks and we hope that the BHA’s early actions will resolve this matter quickly.”
The British racing industry is worth 3.45 billion pounds ($4.5 billion) a year and horse racing is the second most attended sport in the country with about 5.7 million people going to meetings each year.
Cheltenham is also worth about 100 million pounds to the local Gloucestershire economy.
“When I first heard the news, like everyone else, my thoughts turned to the Cheltenham Festival, our sport’s FA Cup Final, and how awful it would be for so many people if it was put in jeopardy,” ITV racing presenter Ed Chamberlin told Reuters.
“I have every faith in the BHA who have led impressively from the front, and the Animal Health Trust, who lead the world in veterinary science. Let’s hope that this stays contained and next week, we can resume business as usual.”
The Grand National, the world’s greatest steeplechase, is due to take place in Liverpool on April 6 and could also be under threat if the disease is not brought under control.
An estimated 600 million people worldwide watch the race at Aintree which attracts 140,000 visitors.
Vaccination against equine influenza is mandatory for all racehorses and equines used competitively for other sports like showjumping.
The particular concern with the current outbreak is that the horses which tested positive were vaccinated against the disease.
This has raised fears that a new strain of flu is present but because it takes three days for symptoms to become visible, the BHA will not be able to draw definite conclusions until Sunday at the earliest.
Trainer Dan Skelton is preparing 20 horses for Cheltenham.
“The authorities are working hard to get it back as quickly as possible,” Skelton said.
“This goes wider than just competition and participation though. It is a health thing for horses so we have to put that first and foremost. It’s worrying that it is happening in horses that are vaccinated and it’s not doing the job. I feel that we are in competent hands and it is being handled really well.”
Editing by Ed Osmond