Originally created 02/28/01

Livestock disease forces racing, rugby suspensions



LONDON -- All horse racing in Britain and Ireland was suspended Tuesday and a major rugby match was called off because of the fast-spreading outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

A number of sports events have been threatened by the outbreak of at least 17 separate cases of the livestock ailment in England and Wales.

The Six Nations rugby union match on Saturday between Wales and Ireland in Cardiff was postponed, with 15,000 Irish fans planning to attend. The Irish government feared fans might bring the disease home.

The Jockey Club, which runs horse racing in England, said racing will be suspended at least until March 7.

"Currently, the risk of spreading the infection from racing is very small, but by taking these thorough measures we are confident we can reduce that to negligible," said Peter Webbon, chief veterinary adviser to the Jockey Club.

Foot-and-mouth disease almost never infects humans, but it is highly contagious among cloven-footed animals like sheep, cows and pigs. It is not usually fatal in itself, but causes blisters on the mouth and feet, fever and loss of appetite.

Vaccines exist but are quickly rendered ineffective by the development of new strains of the virus, so wholesale slaughter of livestock is used to contain the disease.

The fate of the Cheltenham Festival - the prestigious three-day jumping meet on March 13-15 - was still in doubt.

"We believe that, by having a short break, racing is giving itself the best chance of continuing in the long run and also of staging the Cheltenham Festival next month as scheduled," said Paul Greeves, director of the British Horseracing Board.

Organizers of the Rally of Wales postponed their two-day auto race, which was to start in Wrexham on March 10.

Six Nations organizers said the Wales-Ireland match would be played in late April or early May, weeks after the season ends. Saturday's other games - England-Scotland in London and Italy-France in Rome - will proceed.

But the status of the entire championship could be in doubt. Any games in which fans come in and out of England and Wales might now be in jeopardy.

No new date for the match was set, and the status of the entire championship could be in doubt. The tournament, which also involves France, Italy, England and Scotland, runs through April 8.

In 1967-68, horse racing in Britain was suspended for six weeks following the last major outbreak of the disease.

Members of the Irish government have warned they may ban fans and horses from traveling to Britain to prevent the disease from spreading across the Irish Sea.

Irish Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh suspended all horse and greyhound races in Ireland.

Walsh also urged the Irish public not to travel to the Cheltenham Festival, stressing that people should travel to Britain only if necessary.

The Cheltenham meeting traditionally features a large number of horses, jockeys and fans from Ireland.

Earlier Tuesday, officials called off Wednesday's horse race at Chepstow in eastern Wales because the course was located near a farm with a confirmed case of foot-and-mouth disease. Monday's meet at Newcastle was canceled for the same reason.

Champion jockey Tony McCoy and trainer Martin Pipe were among those who urged racing be suspended.

"We're all very disappointed," McCoy said. "It's going to be seven days off in one of the busiest periods of the year. ... But this is a terrible disease and we need to be seen to be doing our bit."

Trainer Nicky Henderson said it would be a "disaster" if the Cheltenham meeting were called off.

"Cheltenham is everything to us," he said. "It's 362 days work into three days. The financial cost will, of course, be huge. But we must try to get this thing over and solved as quickly as possible."

Simon Claisse, clerk of the Cheltenham course, said preparations for the festival will continue.

"We hope that by next Wednesday, when the situation will be reassessed, it will be a little bit more optimistic," he said.