Horse industry races to keep ahead of disease

Even now, almost five years later, horse trainer Bob Holthus shakes his head about the ordeal.

The threat of a quarantine is sometimes just one stall or one mosquito bite away. Of all the dangers on the track, nothing quite compares to the panic a possible outbreak can cause.

“Especially at this time of year,” said Holthus, the trainer for Lawyer Ron, one of the favourites leading to the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. “An outbreak is something you’re always going to worry about.”

Holthus has spent 53 years around a horse barn.
He lost a promising colt to the West Nile virus in 2001 after two-year-old Rocket Express contracted the virus while stabled at Churchill Downs.

Even tracks on opposite sides of the United States pay attention to an outbreak of equine herpes virus type one (EHV-1) or strangles, two of the most common communicable diseases that can shut down barns and send tracks scrambling to fill cards.

Equine herpes causes upper respiratory infection and in extreme cases, neurological symptoms that may affect a horse’s ability to walk and run. Strangles is a bacterial infection that affects a horse’s lymph nodes, making it difficult for the horse to breathe.

Both illnesses can be spread through the air or by direct contact, and can move swiftly from horse to horse if left undetected.

“Any health thing that threatens horses I pay attention to, even if it’s in another country,” said Georgeanne Hale, director of racing at Pimlico, home of the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the US Triple Crown.

It’s a lesson Hale learned after equine herpes paralysed Pimlico and Laurel Park during their winter meets. More than 1 500 horses were affected in one way or another after the virus killed three horses at Pimlico.

“It’s the only outbreak I’ve been through in 21 years here and it’s probably the worst nightmare I’ve been through,” Hale said.

“It was a wake-up call for everybody: The trainers, the owners, management, us. I didn’t know how contagious it was and how quickly it could go through a barn area.”

Quarantines can range from separating horses in a barn where an outbreak has occurred from the rest of the stable population to preventing horses at a track from leaving. Quarantined horses are allowed to work out if they’re not sick, but must do it hours after the track has been cleared. They’re also not allowed to race until the quarantine has been lifted.

Maryland officials worked quickly to update health standards, adopting several rules instituted by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority after a herpes outbreak at Churchill Downs last spring and a separate outbreak at Turfway Park in Florence in December.

Each of the 20 horses in this Derby was required to have a certificate of veterinary inspection signed and dated no more than 72 hours before arrival at the track. Previously, the form could have been filled out up to 10 days before the horse arrived.

Kentucky tracks now require incoming horses to be vaccinated no less than 14 and no more than 90 days before coming into the state.

For trainers with large stables, keeping track of which horses have been checked can be difficult.

Then again, said Mike Trombetta, trainer for Derby contender Sweetnorthernsaint, it beats the alternative. Based at Laurel Park, Trombetta faced the uncertainty and frustration of the track’s quarantine. He spent six weeks seeing his horses tested and retested.

He didn’t lose any horses, but the quarantine prevented some of his horses from travelling to other tracks to race.

Dan Fick, an executive director of the Jockey Club, says track officials one day may be able to run a scanner over a small microchip in a horse’s ear and then access the horse’s entire history—from its medical records to its career winnings to its lineage.

Similar programmes already are in place in Europe, and California is working on a project where thousands of animals would be chipped.

“It would be a great way to manage horses,” Fick said. - Sapa-AP

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