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Fans of the gee-gees were distraught 50 years ago today when all horse racing in Britain was cancelled indefinitely.

The reason was an outbreak of the highly contagious foot and mouth disease, which had begun with a single case diagnosed in a pig on a Shropshire farm in October 1967. By late November the outbreak was spreading fast, with 52 new cases reported on the 28th, taking the total number to more than 1,200.

The main method of halting the spread of the disease was to slaughter all infected animals and those which had been in contact with them. Another method was to prevent the movement from place to place of any animal that could spread the viral infection, and that included horses.

Since racehorses were routinely transported to race tracks around the country, the movement ban inevitably meant the cancellation of all horse racing, at least until the epidemic had been brought under control. The decision to do so was taken by the National Hunt Committee, acting on advice from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Among the bigger races to be hit by the ban were the Massey-Ferguson Gold Cup scheduled for December 9th at Cheltenham, and the King George VI Cup at Kempton Park on Boxing Day. But those were just two among a host of other smaller regional race meetings cancelled under the ban.

For racehorse trainers and those employed at their stables, it meant a time of uncertainty. Although the racehorses still needed looking after, scores of stable lads feared for their jobs as Christmas approached and professional jockeys wondered what the ban would mean for them. Leading jockey Stan Mellor said he would be £200 to £300 per week out of pocket due to lost earnings, but lesser-known jockeys could be out of work altogether.

Bookmakers also faced a significant loss of income, although it was predicted that many habitual gamblers would switch to other sports, such as football. A spokesman for betting giant William Hill said it stood to lose tens of thousands of pounds per week without revenue from horse racing.

For many, the biggest problem was not knowing how long the ban might last and when horse racing might resume. Trainers regulated their training programmes according to which races their horses were entered in, but were left in confusion by not knowing when racing might resume or how much notice they would get.

“I would be happier if we knew how long this would last,” said Lambourn-based trainer Fulke Walwyn, but he accepted it was a necessary measure to help prevent the spread of foot and mouth. By that point more than 200,000 farm animals, mostly cattle and sheep, had already been slaughtered and new cases were being identified every day.

The Minister for Agriculture, Fred Peart, told fellow MPs in the Commons that the slaughter policy was the most effective means of combating the disease, but added that his department was also preparing a vaccination programme for unaffected herds in a bid to contain it.

In the end it would be two months before the ban on horseracing was partially lifted, although it remained in force in areas closer to foot and mouth hotspots. One of the biggest losers was the Government itself, which missed out on around £1m. per day in lost taxes during the ban.

November proved to be the peak of the 1967 foot and mouth disease outbreak, although it was the following June before the disease was brought fully under control. By then more than 442,000 animals had been slaughtered and the outbreak had cost the UK an estimated £370m. The source was believed to be infected lamb from Argentina and Chile which was found in processed pig food.

The UK remained largely free of foot and mouth until the disease struck again in 2001, and this time on a scale which dwarfed the 1967 outbreak. It led to the slaughter of around four million animals and horse racing was cancelled again. This time though, the ban was enforced on a more regional basis, lasting longest in those areas directly affected by the disease.

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