ANNAPOLIS – The outbreak of the equine herpes virus at Pimlico Race Course – home of the Preakness Stakes – may now be spreading to other Maryland thoroughbred facilities, even as the scheduled lifting of the quarantine at Pimlico draws closer.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture placed a “Hold Order” on Barn One at the Bowie Training Center Wednesday after a horse showed symptoms of the virus. This came one day after a euthanized Laurel Park filly tested positive for equine herpes.
Experts are uncertain whether the horses contracted equine herpes through contact with other horses or had been carrying the virus genetically, in which case the timing of the onset of symptoms would have simply been a coincidence.
Despite these developments, Maryland racing officials are downplaying fears the virus is spreading and insist that the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown, the May 20 Preakness at Pimlico in Northwest Baltimore, will not be threatened.
“You always can speculate – doomsday scenarios and all – but the way it’s been handled . . . the response has been superb,” said John P. McDaniel, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission. “I’m of the opinion that this thing is going to pass on.”
J. Michael Hopkins, executive director of the racing commission, said these incidents have not changed plans for a February 8 lifting of the quarantine at Pimlico, where most of the equine herpes cases have occurred.
The quarantine was put into place January 21, as part of an effort to keep the virus from spreading to other racing facilities.
Removal of the quarantine would allow horses stabled at Pimlico to race at Laurel Park, which has been struggling to fill its racing cards as a result of the quarantine and restrictions on the transport of horses from state to state.
Two featured races of Laurel’s winter season have already been cancelled due to a lack of horses and will have to be rescheduled: the $300,000 Barbara Fritchie Breeder’s Cup Handicap and the $300,000 General George Breeder’s Cup Handicap.
The shortage has also forced Laurel to cancel racing on two Sundays, at an estimated loss of about $2 million in betting handle each day, according to Lou Raffetto, chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs both Laurel and Pimlico.
The Jockey Club is still considering whether to cancel racing on a third Sunday. If the horses stabled at Pimlico were to remain under quarantine, the chances of cancellation would be much greater.
“This thing is having a big effect on the racing community at large,” said Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association. “It’s one step short of devastating.”
The shortage of available horses has also cut into Laurel’s betting revenue on days when the track is operating.
Figures provided by Raffetto show that Laurel’s daily betting handle is down an average of over $650,000 compared to the handle on 2006 racing days immediately before the quarantine began. Nearly 13 fewer horses have been racing on a typical day since the quarantine began.
Still, even with the Pimlico quarantine, Laurel’s daily betting handle shows a slight improvement over last year, according to the figures.
Raffetto attributed the smaller handle to the shortage of available horses, saying fewer people were likely to bet if the live races were constrained by a lack of horses.
A total of five horses have now been euthanized as a result of the equine herpes outbreak.
Hopkins said officials do not yet know how equine herpes appeared at Bowie or Laurel.
Maryland racing officials have been trying to prevent the spread of equine herpes from horse to horse by isolating the infected animals, who can transfer the virus to other horses by nuzzling, contact with contaminated buckets or other items or through the air.
Hopkins said the Laurel Park case is likely the result of genetic equine herpes that had been lying dormant.
“As far as we can tell, it’s a latent case. We haven’t been able to establish any links [to infected horses],” Hopkins said.
But some in the horse racing industry believe the case of equine herpes in Laurel Park may have been transmitted from an infected horse.
“You’ve got a lot of smoke in the same community. Maybe there’s a fire,” Hoffberger said.
David G. Zipf, chief veterinarian for the Maryland Racing Commission, said the virus is particularly hard to track because it can lie dormant for so long.
“That’s the really insidious thing about this – [horses] can be carriers and never show symptoms,” Zipf said.
He estimates that 20 percent of horses are genetic carriers of the equine herpes type 1 virus that has wreaked havoc on Maryland’s racing industry.
In addition to complications stemming from the virus’ long latency periods, veterinarians are also hampered by frequent mutations in the strain and the fact that horses respond to the onset of the virus in different ways.
“You never know what form it’s going to take,” Zipf said.
Most often, the first symptom of equine herpes is fever. Horses may then experience respiratory problems.
Depending on a number of factors, the virus sometimes progresses to create neurological problems that cause the horse to wobble and flail, lose coordination and eventually become completely paralyzed.
However, Zipf said that some healthy horses can recover from equine herpes and even return to racing. “It’s an atypical virus and therefore we get atypical symptoms,” he said.