ANNAPOLIS – The two-and-a-half-week quarantine of all horses stabled at Pimlico Race Course due to concerns over equine herpes was lifted Wednesday morning, freeing around 425 Pimlico horses to race at Laurel Park.
“I think the quarantine being lifted is equivalent to a clean bill of health,” said John P. McDaniel, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission.
McDaniel said the release of these horses from Pimlico will greatly benefit Laurel Park, which has been suffering from a lack of available horses.
“It’s critically important that they have these horses [at Laurel Park],” McDaniel said. Their release from Pimlico will allow Laurel to race on more days and with fuller cards, according to McDaniel.
The shortage has already forced the cancellation of two prominent races at Laurel, which will have to be rescheduled: the $300,000 Barbara Fritchie Breeder’s Cup Handicap and the $300,000 General George Breeder’s Cup Handicap.
Sunday racing was also canceled the previous two weeks due to a lack of available horses, and there will also be no racing on a third Sunday, February 12, according to Lou Raffetto, chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club.
Raffetto said February 12 will “hopefully” be the last Sunday that racing at Laurel has to be canceled.
While last week it seemed that the virus may have been spreading to new racing facilities, McDaniel said he thinks “the worst is behind us.”
The quarantine at Pimlico was lifted after a nearly three-week period during which no horses tested positive for equine herpes at the track. Fears that the virus may have spread to Bowie Trainning Center also abated February 3, when test results confirmed the suspected horse did not have equine herpes.
The lifting of Pimlico’s quarantine allays some concerns that the outbreak of equine herpes could threaten Maryland’s most famous race, the May 20 Preakness Stakes, though Raffetto said there was never need for such concern.
“We’ve said from day one that this would have no bearing on the Preakness,” Raffetto said, noting that equine herpes outbreaks typically last between three and six weeks.
After two barns at Pimlico were released from their state hold orders Monday night, only two more Pimlico barns currently have hold orders at the track: Barn 6 and Barn A.
Unless additional horses test positive for equine herpes, Barn 6 could have its hold order lifted by as soon as the end of this week and Barn A by the middle of next week.
A hold order at a barn in Laurel Park will remain in place for at least a few more weeks, while officials wait to test the horses again.
Dr. Guy Hohenhaus, state veterinarian for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said that Maryland racing officials reacted well to the outbreak and that he believed the virus is under control.
“I think it’s very well-contained. I think it’s been very well-contained all along,” he said.
Hohenhaus stressed the need for horse owners and handlers to take more “bio-security measures” to prevent future outbreaks of equine herpes and other diseases.
Among these measures, Hohenhaus listed proper vaccinations, isolation of new animals and minimizing shared equipment.
So far, six horses have died as a result of equine herpes, which can cause neurological problems and possibly paralysis, and there have been 19 confirmed cases cases at Pimlico, Laurel and a Kent County farm. The farm in Kent County also has one “probable” case of equine herpes, according to Hohenhaus.
Mary Elizabeth “Cricket” Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeder’s Association, said the lifting of Pimlico’s quarantine will help workers throughout the Maryland horse racing industry, but she still favors a cautious approach. “I think that generally things are looking up . . . [but] we’re still not out of the woods,” she said.