By Kelsey Riley
With France on Tuesday placed under a mandatory 15-day lockdown, whereby all but 'essential' outings are prohibited, the likelihood of the Thoroughbred breeding season continuing during the COVID-19 pandemic has been called into question. Though government directives are changing day-to-day-and rumours are spreading as quickly as the coronavirus itself-as of Wednesday afternoon it was business almost as usual at major studs in the Normandy region.
“Things tend to change very quickly and there is a certain amount of [speculation] going around on Twitter and elsewhere suggesting the breeding season should stop and that the vets should not do repro work, but we haven't received any official notice of anything as such,” said Georges Rimaud, manager of the Aga Khan's studs in France. “If you read what is on the internet and Twitter, you'd think everything is going to close down, but we've had no indication of it officially, and I try to not listen to all the rumours and try to stick to the rules. We've had no indication that we should stop the breeding season at this stage.
“We're managing through it. Mares are being covered as we speak. We're a little bit tense because we're probably going to have some different rules tonight or maybe the next day–more specific rules regarding the breeding season and whether we'll be allowed to keep taking mares to the breeding shed. I don't know what will happen.”
Nicolas de Chambure, general manager of Haras d'Etreham, said he is hopeful the current protocol will last through the initial 15-day lockdown.
“I think those sorts of decisions [closing breeding sheds] might be made after the first 15 days when they'll have to decide how long [the lockdown] continues and if it has to go to a stricter level or not,” he said. “But this could also change from today to tomorrow.”
De Chambure said stud farms had consulted last week to come up with an agreed list of protocols for safely navigating the breeding season, including the completion of paperwork electronically and drivers and visiting personnel remaining in their vehicles. He admitted it has been “a little bit difficult” because of what he described as mixed messages from government.
“The government says we need to try to keep working and keep businesses running as much as we can, and some others are saying we need to close everything that isn't essential,” de Chambure said. “There are different messages going around and I think that's what scares people a bit, is not really knowing what is legal to do and what isn't. It's been 48 hours of questioning and trying to adapt. But as of this afternoon, it looks like we're still going to be able to take our mares to the shed and the vets will still be able to do their work.”
The lockdown has meant that horse van drivers are required to carry paper work explaining their movements.
“We're still able to move the horses to the breeding sheds and back under special regulations; you need to fill out forms and be ready to show them to the police if you're stopped,” Rimaud said. “Some people have been stopped and when they show the forms there is no problem at all. That's the case for the moment, but this could change tonight. This is all as of today.
“We're taking a lot of drastic measures here when they arrive on the farm. The drivers are not allowed to get out of the truck. We take care of the mare, and we ask people not to bring the foals with the mares so we can avoid having too many staff working around them. We've limited the number of staff because we have some staff that can't come to work; because of the lockdown they have to keep their children at home and for many reasons can't come to work. So we have about two-thirds of the normal staff on the farm.”
The Order National des Veterinaires on Tuesday issued a notice advising veterinarians to suspend any non-emergency reproductive procedures on equines-a recommendation that, if followed, would hugely impact routines of monitoring mares' cycles. Rimaud said, however, that has not been made a directive by the government or by the industry's governing bodies.
“I've spoken with our vets about this,” Rimaud said. “They have asked the different regulating agencies-the vets' associations, the breeders' associations. There is another body in France, what we used to call the national stud which is now called IFCE, and it's the body that controls the breeding season in terms of administrative terms. We tend to follow their guidelines and they're more or less the state body that's governed by the minister of agriculture. They will tell us whatever we need to do. At the moment we've had absolutely no restrictions or specifics given to us as to how we should operate.”
Rimaud was philosophical about such a challenge as dealing with an absence of vets for routine work.
“Whether the vets will stop repro work and come only for emergencies, we'll see,” he said. “If that's the case, that's the case. We'll deal with it. I've been at this job long enough to know how to operate without a vet. We might be able to still cover our own mares on the farm and we'll see how it works. But hopefully it won't get to that. We're in close contact with the vets-at least on the phone-to know exactly how we're going to operate the next day and so on and so forth.”
While the pandemic does threaten to close borders between countries and even stud farms themselves, the timing of it does mean that many mares are already where they need to be. Etreham stallions Wootton Bassett (GB) and Almanzor (Fr) will each cover mares based across Europe, and de Chambure said most of those are already securely in France.
“Most of the mares coming from England, Ireland and Germany are here at this stage, and those that are not here yet, at this stage they're still coming,” he said. “We have a couple coming next week from England. This could change by next week but at this stage we're still receiving those mares, and the transport companies have taken great measures as well; all the paperwork is done now electronically. Everybody is trying to adapt their routine to reduce contact as much as possible.”
The Aga Khan's Siyouni (Fr) will also cover an international book, and Rimaud concurred that has not yet been significantly impacted.
“I've only had one person who has a mare foaling late in England that has canceled, this morning actually, which I can understand fully,” he said. “But it's normal to lose one or two mares throughout the year because they have issues and can't be bred. We've already bred over 85 mares so we're well on the way. I actually had some mares leave for Ireland this morning and some mares yesterday morning that left for England, so there doesn't seem to be restrictions on shipping mares from France to England or Ireland at this stage, but that is as of today. That could change tomorrow.”
Some shifts in mare bookings is not unusual in the slightest during even the most routine breeding seasons, and Rimaud reminded that the current situation is not dissimilar to 2019, when Europe was affected by an outbreak of equine influenza.
“Even if they don't close the borders, some breeders [outside France] might change their plans and say, 'let's just forget about [shipping] this year,'” he said. “Last year when we had the equine flu around during the breeding season, we lost a few mares; breeders just didn't take a chance shipping them to France not knowing when they'd be able to get back. We've come across this regularly, but this could be more serious if there's a complete lockdown of movement between countries, although I don't think it will get to that extent.”
Rimaud admitted that while Irish and English breeders are more spoiled for choice of stallions, French breeders would be hard hit if mares were not allowed to leave the country.
“It would be traumatic for our breeding season,” he said. “In France we have a lot of mares go overseas for the breeding season. We do have some good stallions but we don't have everything we need, so we do have mares going back and forth. If that was to stop, that would be a problem, but we'll deal with it as it comes.”
All racing in France was cancelled on Monday through Apr. 15, and while such cancellations in France, England and Germany are not yet set to affect the Classics directly, that could still change. De Chambure said he hopes the major European racing nations will convene-from a safe social distance, of course-soon enough and be proactive in designing contingency plans in the event that the Classic season needs to be resurrected.
“We just hope that France, England, Ireland and Germany will get together as soon as possible to set up a plan for when racing resumes to try to adapt a bit, like what has been done with the Kentucky Derby-to see if we can redo our Classic season from June, July or August,” he said. “Hopefully [in the event that Classics are affected] there will be talk to adapt and to give the Classic generation a chance to have their season a bit later, but at least to not lose the season for a whole generation.
“For the 2-year-olds it'll be fine if they only start running during the summer-that's ok, we can manage that-and the older horses as well, but it's more for the 3-year-old crop. If we can stage those races a bit later in the year that would be a plus.”
While the situation is changing on a daily basis or more, Rimaud suggested the best thing to do is carry on how rules and regulations allow.
“We have to observe the rules that are set as we go along, because this is a serious problem,” he said. “Every day we feel it more and more in this country; it is serious and not something to be taken lightly. But we're trying to still live through it.”
Biosecurity and Balance
The Thoroughbred industry is nothing if not a tight-knit community, and a common consensus is that stud farms have come together to enact protocols in an effort to combat the spread of coronavirus during the covering season.
The most talked-about measures include completing paperwork electronically; allowing handlers from the covering shed to handle mares and requiring van drivers and visitors to remain in their vehicles, and in some cases leaving foals at home to reduce the number of personnel required in the shed.
Camille Vercken advises stud farms on biosecurity measures through her French-based company Equiways, and she suggests some additional measures we can all take to ensure the safety of those around us. Social distancing means conducting more business by phone or email, and she advises to remember to disinfect phones and keyboards, too.
She suggests sending just one person on a breeding shed run, and for the stallion farms to disinfect all handles on the horse box after loading the mare.
Running a farm requires constant visits by farriers, veterinarians and various suppliers, and Vercken suggests keeping deliveries only to what is necessary at this time.
“We're suggesting to reduce deliveries and suppliers to a minimum,” she said. “Farriers, vets, feed and medication delivery, and basically that's it. If you can avoid delivery of anything, avoid it, because each delivery is a risk for your staff.”
Vercken suggests making infographics with government-supplied information readily visible to workers.
“Misinformation can play such a bad role,” she said. “What I would advise is posting infographic information from the government on every barn entrance. That way employees can have good information about good practices. That's always a positive thing to do when you're a manager; tell your employees, from a government source, what they can do, what are the first signs and everything.”
While we are working against the unknown, especially not knowing how long the coronavirus can live on an animal, Verkcen cautions against being overcautious.
“We are applying the principle of precaution,” she said. “We don't want to make silly rules, like disinfecting your mare or something like that. We are trying to have a good balance between the amount of information we have, what we can do without completely freezing our activities and business and have a good balance between them. I'm pretty confident that the virus wouldn't be very resilient on a horse, but I don't have any scientific publication to rely on.
“For me, it's all about balance: how can you protect yourself efficiently without doing something completely unnecessary like fully disinfecting all your barns. Keep some disinfectant for when you have equine flu or something like that. There are people calling me saying, 'you should see, I've disinfected all my barns.' I say, 'don't do that, there's no point. When you get strangles you're going to need your disinfectant.'”
“It's common sense,” Vercken said. “Avoid any unnecessary circulation of suppliers. Tell your people to stay at home if they feel sick-don't be a warrior.”