EHV-1 Scare, Shipping Bans Decimate Fields At Louisiana Racetracks

by | 01.09.2017 | 5:15pm
Both Fair Grounds and Delta Downs had two-horse races earlier this month, due to quarantine-related scratches

As Christmas Day approached, things were looking very positive at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans. The track was showing significant increases year over year in handle and field sizes averaged around nine per race, up a horse per race from a year earlier.

Then, the call came in that a horse in Barn 14 tested positive for the equine herpesvirus. The strain of the disease, EHV-1, is highly contagious and can prove fatal. Louisiana's Department of Agriculture installed a quarantine on Barn 14, and since then, six other horses have tested positive for EHV-1, some of them to a different strain that doesn't target the nervous system, and three more barns have been quarantined. The track also imposed a ban on shipping in or out.

“We were feeling good about ourselves, and then all of the sudden, this bombshell hits us, and you just get back to reality and face it and deal with it,” said Jason Boulet, Fair Grounds' senior director of racing.

Boulet hasn't crunched the numbers in the new year, but the anectodal evidence suggests the shipping ban is having a serious impact on field sizes and most likely handle. Primarily stewards' scratches, presumably the result of horses not shipping in, led to a three-horse field on Saturday and a two-horse race on Sunday.

“We average about 15 to 20 ship-ins per day for our racing program, so we depend on those horses to make our field sizes what they are,” said Boulet. “When you shut that down, it pretty much brings down the starters per race by one or two horses.”

Soggy turf course conditions over the weekend didn't help matters. Off-the-turf races led to even more scratches.

The racing product is struggling across the state at Delta Downs, too. Despite not having any EHV-1 positives, Delta Downs also imposed a ban on shipping. For Saturday's nine-race card, 42 of 92 entries were scratched by stewards. The third race saw a maiden special weight field whittled from 10 down to two. The numbers make sense. About half of any given card at Delta Downs might be comprised of shippers, according to Louisiana Racing Commission Executive Director Charlie Gardiner. It appears the rumor mill is churning, and the backside is buzzing with concern about EHV-1.

“Our racing is suffering right now and except for Fair Grounds, which is an unusual situation, I don't think the same restrictions are warranted at Delta,” said Gardiner. “Sometimes, the worst part of the virus is the paranoia and fear that it strikes in others. A lot of times the fear is greater than the actual facts.”

At the same time, Gardiner said, “we want the tracks to have the autonomy to do what they think is in their best interests.”

Delta announced Monday that it would extend its quarantine on shipping until Jan. 16 and issued the following statement: “We still have not any reports of EHV-1 at Delta Downs, but are extending the quarantine out of an abundance of caution, in order to avoid the further spread of EHV-1 at our state's racetracks.  We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause to owners and trainers, and appreciate their understanding and support.”

“I can't blame them; they're trying to do the right thing,” said Boulet, “but they have hurt a lot of the horsemen in the in-between spots, the training centers and farms (by not allowing ship-ins).”

Boulet said Fair Grounds is doing everything it can to get the situation resolved sooner than later. Track owner Churchill Downs Inc. has invited equine infectious disease expert Dr. Nathan Slovis from Kentucky's Hagyard Equine Medical Institute to visit Fair Grounds Tuesday and meet with state officials. There will also be a question and answer session with horsemen.

Friday will mark the end of the 14-day quarantine period for Barn 14, where the first positive test occurred. The quarantine won't be lifted automatically; the state still must officially approve an exit plan, but both Boulet and Gardiner are confident the track is turning the corner.

“When we get past this week, and we start to release some of these quarantines that are happening at Fair Grounds, and I'm confident that's going to happen soon, we'll get back to normal,” said Gardiner.

“If we can through this one process and the state lets us out,” echoed Boulet, “then we can try to get out of this thing as quickly as possible.”

  • Handy Graph

    Thanks, Scott. Didn’t see this anywhere else and thought it was just the lousy weather that was to blame.

    FG has been making great progress in recent years. Here’s an idea: Why not suspend racing until the problem is fixed? Then, like school children on bad weather days, extend the season accordingly. Politics, of course, but why do politicians have anything to do with horse racing anyway?

    • Bryan Langlois

      I like the idea…but not sure if it is feasible with the horse population being there in enough numbers. A lot might ship out at the end of the racing season there. I honestly don’t know. Would there be a race date conflict created among the tracks that way as well? Again…have no idea. Do like the idea though. I believe Sunland eventually did this last year when their EHV got to the point of constantly pushing back quarantine dates.

    • CobraVenom

      That would screw with the meet and the designated dates given to the track. Plus trainers schedule their lives around the race meets, when NOLA is done they’ll go up to Arlington for example. If there was major overlap that would be a problem.

    • bydabayou

      The horses need to leave the fairgrounds so it can get ready for the Jazz Festival. There are usually a small number of horses still on site when n the Jazz Fest crews begin to work but the Racing is done.

  • Will Styles

    This stuff is nasty. This is the last thing we need in our sport with the decline in horses all together.

  • Koney

    Horses under the age of 5 should be vaccinated every 6 months to help control this disease, all ship ins and horses on the grounds of all race tracks should be required to provide vet certificate of vaccination within 6 months. I believe this would go a long way in preventing these types of catastrophic outbreaks from occurring

    • Memories of Puchi

      along with basic protocols such as steam cleaning the shipping vans and trailers between each shipment (portable pressure washers are easy to purchase) / steam cleaning and disinfecting stalls at the race track, grooms and hot walkers and exercise riders should change their clothes immediately before getting in cars and leaving the track, horse identifiers should wear rubber gloves, etc. would go a long way to helping control this devastating disease. All vehicles in the backstretch should go thru a disinfectant basin, especially veterinarians, but just like human diseases, there is so much movement and travel of the horses that complete eradication is probably not realistic.

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