Greyhound racing at this year’s Cheltenham Festival has been cancelled after the deaths of several greyhounds were linked to a bacteria normally found in horses.

In the past two months a small number of greyhounds have died from a “severe” pneumonia-like illness, and scientists have found that all the animals carried a strain of bacterium called streptococcus zooepidemicus.

As a result, greyhound owners and trainers are being advised to avoid contact with horses and not to feed horsemeat — and the racing at Cheltenham was cancelled as a precaution.

Some 101 greyhounds were entered for this year’s Cheltenham Festival (Tuesday 11 March – Friday 14 March). Races on a 210m track take place on Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday and draw crowds of up to 30,000 people.

Cheltenham chief executive Edward Gillespie told H&H: “It’s a unique race — comparable to a grade two horse race — that we’ve been running for seven years, and it’s sad it won’t be here this year.

“I’ve been aware of the issue within greyhound racing of this infection, but we began to discuss that cancelling at Cheltenham two days ago and made the tough decision yesterday.”

Mr Gillespie added: “It had to be the right decision because if there was any the negative fallout, it would have been highly damaging. To date the relationship between the two sports has been very positive.”

NGRC senior steward Hazel Bentall said: “NGRC has worked hard with experts in this field, and although many people will be disappointed, we and the AHT take the view that the welfare of the greyhounds would have raced at Cheltenham is of paramount importance and, therefore, the event should be cancelled this year.”

Ms Bentall added: “But the AHT has not advised that any other greyhound racing needs to be cancelled.”

In America, equine flu has been reported to cause a similar syndrome in greyhounds, and in the UK there have been two cases of equine flu infecting packs of foxhounds.

For more on this story, read Horse & Hound on 13 March.

Stay in touch with all the news from Cheltenham as it happens with daily online reports and blogs from H&H’s racing editor Catherine Austen throughout the Festival, plus online tips on the ones to watch from H&H’s racing contributors.

Don’t miss the first part of Horse & Hound’s Cheltenham preview, including form guide, in this Thursday’s magazine (6 March, ’08).