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Strangles ... the full story

Sport | Published:

CHRISTA GILBERT’S birthday falls on 22 May and is normally a day for celebration – but not this year.

Purley Queen, pictured before her retirement. Picture: ROB CURRIE (21648607)

It was on this day that the reigning champion local racehorse trainer learned that one of her horses, Purley Queen, an eight-year-old mare, had contracted the equine disease Strangles.

Strangles is a serious respiratory infection which, in extreme cases, can be fatal. It is not particularly rare, there are about 300 cases a year in the UK, but it is very rare in Jersey where, until this year there had not been a case for 25 years. It is highly contagious and is transmitted by contact between infected horses or by some other agent, perhaps a human, a piece of equipment or another animal, even a bird. However, it only affects horses and can’t be caught by other animals or people.

Ironically, Purley Queen had already finished her racing days. She is now recovered and will soon be found a good home in which to enjoy her retirement. But how did she become infected?

That is a mystery that is still to be unravelled and perhaps it will never be solved. What is known is that in February the first case of Strangles was diagnosed in a miniature horse, a foal, in St Ouen, but it is clear there was absolutely no connection between this incident and Christa Gilbert’s St Helier racing stable.

One or two of the Gilbert horses had been a bit under the weather with a cough, one of those unidentifiable viruses to which horses are susceptible, not unlike the sniffles that humans get from time to time. It was during a routine vet’s visit that something more serious was identified. Purley Queen had developed an abscess in the respiratory tract and samples were sent to the Animal Health Trust for analysis. The first sample was negative, but a second returned positive for Strangles.

The States’ vet, Theo Knight-Jones was informed as a matter of course. ‘Strangles is not on the list of notifiable equine diseases,’ he said, ‘But having been informed I was satisfied with the measures being taken; the equine community is very responsible and the veterinarians involved took proper, sensible steps.’

Nevertheless rumors were spreading and, as ever, they were painting a much worse picture than was actually the case. ‘It was a challenging period,’ said Gilbert, ‘Not just for us, but for the whole equine community; it’s a small community and we should be working together. I was pleased to receive supportive messages not only from our owners but also other members of that community’.

The senior vet involved is John Hamilton, assisted by Roisin Wood, both from the New Era practice which looks after most of the thoroughbred community. John stressed, as Strangles is not notifiable, there are no statutory powers available to assist in the control of the disease.

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He is also advisor to the Channel Islands Racing and Hunt Club, the racing regulator, and on its behalf undertook the testing of every racehorse in every local stable. One horse in another stable showed that it had developed antibodies for Strangles bacteria which tends to indicate that at some time it had been in contact with the disease, but John Hamilton made it clear that it had not contracted the disease and no other horse has tested positive for Strangles.

The sensible steps to which the States’ vet referred included the cancellation of the Les Landes race meeting on 28 May and the postponement of other horse-related events. Strangles has a two-week incubation period and, as no new case has emerged, the regulator is satisfied that racing can go ahead on Sunday, but it has said as an extra precaution it will not accept runners from those stables where horses have tested positive for antibodies for Strangles.

From Christa Gilbert’s point of view this takes some of the pressure off. It had been suggested that she should not run her horses even though there’s nothing wrong with them, but now that decision has been taken out of her hands. ‘I feel we’ve been the guinea pigs in this case,’ she said, ‘Let’s hope as a community we all learn from it’.

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