The Cheltenham Festival has been cancelled just six days before it was due to start. In a dramatic, late night announcement, BHB and the Cheltenham management team explained that a last-minute change in government guidelines to prevent the spread ofthe foot-and-mouth disease left them no other option but to call the festival off.

This has been a major blow to the racing industry which has already suffered a string of winter abandonements.

Under guidelines imposed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to contain the foot-and-mouth outbreak, livestock had to be removed from a course within fourteen days of a meeting.

However, MAFF subsequently changed its instructions, extending the exclusion period to 28 days beforea meeting. Sheep were removed from Cheltenham only twenty-six days before the race was due to take place, so organisers were forced to re-arrange the festival.

Cheltenham managing director Edward Gillespie said: “This is a most unexpected and dreadful blow for everyone who has been preparing their horses and planning their visit to Cheltenham next week. I know this will be an enormous disappointment to the entire racing community.

“But it was of paramount importance that the meeting would only go ahead with the full compliance of the instructions. We had no option but to abide with this ruling.”

Although the Irish had already pulled out of the Festival (and with them champion hurdler Istabraq), France’s late decision to attend after all, meant that trainer Francois Doumen had already set off with his four horses, including Gold Cup favourite First Gold, before the postponement became official.

The Cheltenham Festival is now likely to take place in April. BHB are expected to announce the new dates soon.