Outside the quaint village of Great Badminton in the so-called Cotswold district of Gloucestershire in England is Badminton Park, the ancestral home of the Duke of Beaufort. The estate is so large that it encompasses the village of Little Badminton inside its boundaries. The comparison with television's fictional "Downton Abbey" abound.
While the whole horse world seems to know that "Badminton" is an event, few outside England know that it is also a place, and that life goes on there the other 51 weeks of the year. But the first week in May, when the eventing world invades, is the fulcrum on which the lovely village and estate balance.
Eventing aside, foxhunters know this to be home to the 300-year-old Duke of Beaufort's Hunt; hunting fox with hounds was practically invented here. And the history doesn't stop there: Britain's Queen Mary resided on this estate during the dangerous days of World War II. And yes, the sport of badminton was invented--but inside this house, not on any of the many lawns.
A series of kind Dukes of Beaufort has invited the public into the park (almost) each year since 1949 for the horse trials. The almost is testimonial to cancellations for foot and mouth disease in 2005 and for floods in 2012.
When the horse trials do go on, ?the public turns up in a big way: Badminton Horse Trials is the second-largest sporting event in the world, by paid attendance. If the weather is even half pleasant, more than 200,000 people will clog the narrow lanes of Gloucestershire to get a glimpse of the horses.
Will they get the glimpse they crave this year? There's no such thing as a sure thing, with equine herpes virus active in the neighborhood.
Just four days after entries for the 2013 Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials closed, so did the iconic stables of the Beaufort Hunt, located on the grounds of Badminton House. They closed not because hunt season is over, but because one of the hunt horses has been diagnosed with the highly contagious Equine herpes virus.
These are the stable blocks that are used to house the horses during the event.
"There is a confirmed case of Equine Herpes Virus in the Beaufort Hunt stables at Badminton," began the simple announcement on the events web site tonight. "We are consulting with our veterinary advisers including biosecurity experts from the Animal Health Trust so that we can ensure a secure environment for ?the international event horses, which are not due to come here for another 6 weeks. We will keep everyone informed of our plans."
Earlier tonight, the horse trials office came on Twitter and chirped, "Our website is currently getting a huge no. Of visitors, so you may experience problems just now. We are working to restore normal service."
Meanwhile, nearby Cotswolds veterinary center?Bourton Vale Equine Clinic in Lower Slaughter, Gloucestershire?issued a special statement about their closure after the discovery of another local horse with EHV, although apparently unrelated to the hunt stables case but related to other isolated cases of EHV in the Cotswolds area:
"At present we have a horse in our stables which has come from a yard which has subsequently (5 days later) had a horse diagnosed with Herpes. The horse in our stables has had no direct contact with the horse with herpes and has no clinical signs of herpes. We have tested all the horses in our yard and all the results are negative. To be doubly sure we are retesting the horses on Thursday 21st March.
"As a precaution we are not accepting horses for surgery for the week beginning 18th March. We expect to resume surgery the week beginning 25th March provided the repeat tests are negative."
The outbreak at the Hunt stables is especially relevant to the Horse Trials because the eventers traditionally move into the Hunt's stables the week before the event. There is a sprucing up period after the hunters move out, and before the eventers move in. The stable scene during Badminton is unlike any other, with the horses housed on hallowed ground in the same stalls as their greatest predecessors and some of the history's finest foxhunters.
A quarantine of the stables would conceivably be completed in time for the event to proceed.
Last Thursday, British Dressage (BD) warned of EHV in the same county, Gloucestershire, at a dressage facility. "Four horses on the yard have tested positive. The yard has been isolated and along with veterinary support the owners are taking all necessary precautions to limit the spread. Three horses from the yard have competed in BD competition in the last 2 weeks however those horses have tested negative for the virus at this stage."
EHV became a concern in the area in November of 2013 when a racing stable, also in Gloucestershire, reported a series of sick horses. The Animal Health Trust noted that two horses there showed clinical signs of pyrexia (fever) and four horses had neurological signs; three horses were euthanized.
At that outbreak, all of the affected horses had been vaccinated. Authorities lifted a quarantine on the stable in December
This winter has been tough on both sides of the Atlantic, and EHV is in the news weekly. You can see that the British outbreaks have included dressage, foxhunting and racing horses.
We need to believe that spring has come and the surest sign of spring is the start of the eventing season. There is no bigger event than Badminton. Surely the Brits and their international rider competitors will keep calm and gallop on--and we'll cheer them on as we always do.
But our fingers are crossed until it happens.