'Chasemore Farm is effectively operating in a biosecure bubble'
Industry figures tell us how they are managing in self-isolation
Patrick Sells, resident vet at Chasemore Farm in Surrey, tells us about how he is managing – both personally and professionally – with the Europe-wide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus
How is life ticking over at Chasemore Farm? Has its proximity to London and distance from major breeding centres presented any challenges?
Life for me has been remarkably similar to most foaling seasons: breeding work seven days a week with zero social life! That might sound like a bore to some people but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I count my blessings being able to come to a beautiful farm each morning and work with high-class thoroughbreds – not to mention a wonderful team of people. All that feels all the more precious when I consider the predicament of many friends and family stuck at home during these tricky times.
The Chasemore team have been very strict with their social distancing, so we are effectively operating in a bubble.
London is close, but with ancient woodland on three sides, you wouldn’t know it. I actually see our distance from the major breeding centres as an advantage from a biosecurity point of view, be it during an equine epidemic or a human pandemic; it feels like the geographical isolation makes us a safe haven.
Conversely we are well positioned to walk mares out to Newmarket (a two-hour drive), Tweenhills (three hours), Whitsbury Manor (two hours) and so on, and I'm enormously relieved that the breeding season has been allowed to continue, albeit under strict guidelines).
I sometimes wonder if our Health Secretary wasn’t a Newmarket MP and industry supporter, how much more difficult this period could have been for us.
On the whole, our season so far has gone very well. My job is to aim for zero per cent mortality and 100 per cent conception; unrealistic perhaps, but we’re actually not far away from achieving that this year thanks to the elite stud team at Chasemore.
What adjustments to work practices have you made to be able to service the stud and surrounding operations in line with government restrictions?
We're following all the government, TBA and BHA guidelines and I'm satisfied we're presenting minimal risk to the propagation of the virus. Our gates have been shut to visitors since well before the official lockdown; Jack [Conroy, manager] does a great job of keeping our clients in touch with their stock through video updates and virtual paddock walk-throughs.
Whenever the two-metre distancing cannot be adhered to, we wear face masks and gloves. In the crush for morning vet work we have a single person holding the mare and foal, or use the foal cage, with me holding the mare’s tail while scanning.
In terms of veterinary work, the RCVS (Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons) guidelines constitute a sensible decision tree, but the overarching message has been to use one’s judgement in assessing risk for each circumstance, balancing the welfare needs of the patient with the potential public health risk of contagion.
Obviously, the likes of foaling emergencies, colics and traumatic wounds demand immediate attention as before, except with appropriate PPE and two-metre distancing wherever possible.
Another example would be microchipping foals. Some practices have deemed this a non-essential task that can wait until lockdown measures are lifted. In the studs that I look after I've been using a new microchip technology that allows the foal’s temperature to be read on the microchip scanner when the chip is scanned.
It has revolutionised daily rounds for the stud teams, meaning that a single person can safely and swiftly check a young foal’s temperature without the need for two people in a box. For me, when balancing welfare with potential exposure, breaking the two-metre rule while wearing PPE for 30 seconds to insert a thermochip can therefore be justified. It's worth noting that Weatherbys now accept thermochips as official identification chips.
Walking mares out for cover presents minimal risk under the TBA guidelines. Our travelling lass doesn’t leave the cab of the box, and all fomites (materials that can potentially act as mechanical transmitters, for example headcollars) are sterilised with wipes.
Essential vet work on other studs does present a risk to our ‘biosecure bubble’ at Chasemore, so I'm extra vigilant with PPE and sterilisation before, during and after my call-outs and try to do them later in the day so I don’t have to return to the farm.
We still do our weekly team round-ups and educational talks (‘Pat’s Chats’), but we do them outside on the grass with two-metre spacing between us. At this time of year we have to be ahead of the curve with the foals’ limbs, so our trimming cycle with farrier Harry Priestley remains priority.
‘Classroom’ social distancing put into practice on the Main Yard today. Resident vet, Dr. Pat Sells, runs regular training sessions for the stud team. This session of #PatsChats focused on the mare’s reproductive cycle. Great input from all the team #everydayisaschoolday pic.twitter.com/mNAy24BCn6— Chasemore Farm (@chasemorefarm) April 23, 2020
How has the supply of medicines and equipment held up?
Getting hold of PPE, hand sanitiser, detergent and so on was tricky around a month ago, but fortunately we’ve not been short-handed at any stage.
The courier network has been surprisingly robust for delivering drugs, so I can still get emergency medicines within 24 hours.
I’m afraid to say I’ve had to abandon Royal Mail since a pre-breeding swab took seven days to arrive at the lab. Thankfully it didn’t interrupt plans for the mare!
What do you think of online sales – if they had to happen in Europe – in terms of vetting horses?
There’s a certain amount of subliminal information you get from looking at a horse in the flesh, so I wouldn’t envy the agents entrusted with making high value calls without it.
If we were to work toward a model of viewings on stud during prep, there are lots of hurdles to consider, although having worked at a large New Zealand stud for several years I can see how it might look.
It's very much a cultural habit for antipodean trainers and agents – they like to see the horses at least once at their respective nurseries well before the sales, in order to assess their development.
Is this a culture we can adopt in the UK and Ireland? From our point of view, I would worry that the older established studs based around the main centres would benefit disproportionately over the newer and more remote studs in terms of viewing frequency and agent patronage. Having said that, anything is possible.
From a vetting point of view, we're already engaged in the digital age for radiographic sets and videoscope recordings, and these can already be accessed remotely by pre-purchase vets for the major sales houses.
It could be that certification for the physical examination by a respected vet, or panel of vets, is submitted along with the other digital information, and although some people would find that problematic, I think we're entering an age where we all have to prepare to compromise on what we previously treated as the acceptable norm.
Do you think there are any positives that will eventually come out of this crisis?
I think the world will shrink away from globalisation to a more localised way of life, with more focus on local produce. In terms of our agricultural economy, that can only be a good thing.
I suspect that many industries will realise the previous levels of commuting and business travel were unnecessary, and the resulting digital interactions will benefit the environment.
From a dispassionate point of view, the trajectory we were on as a species was in no way sustainable; pandemics are nature’s way of controlling populations, be they of mice or men.
I have limited faith that a vaccine will be our way out of this; I suspect doctors will soon find out what we as vets have known for some time: that coronavirus immunity post-infection (or post-vaccination) is notoriously short-lived.
Royal Ascot winner Arthur Kitt, whose by-now famous entry into the world you oversaw, was a promising second at Gulfstream Park on debut for new trainer Christophe Clement on Thursday; what were the reasons behind his move?
Arthur is a much-loved favourite here at Chasemore: he's a horse with great spirit; he fought the odds several times in his early life and to see him excel as a racehorse is deeply satisfying for all of us.
The day he won the Chesham was one of the best of my life, but he didn’t really train on as we’d hoped. He's almost exactly the same weight today as a four-year-old as he was when spelling after his 2018 Breeder’s Cup foray at two, so size may have been a factor in that.
For an older colt with a preference for firm ground we were unanimous that America presented far more opportunity, so when our bloodstock adviser Tom Goff recommended Christophe Clement at Belmont Park, it made good sense.
Arthur Kitt’s yard debut was highly encouraging this week and gives us welcome distraction. Christophe also trains Flighty Almighty, an Elusive Quality half-sister to Boomer from one of our best families, and if all goes to plan she may one day return to us carrying an American Pharaoh foetus.
That’s the kind of excitement that keeps me awake at night!
Any film, TV or book recommendations to share to get through home confinement?
A film I recently watched was Official Secrets, the true story of a GCHQ whistle blower during the Iraq War. It was a chilling reminder of how our government can bulldoze justice in the interest of self-protection.
On TV, Tiger King was a documentary series I found strangely compelling. There are more captive tigers in the US than live in the wild worldwide, and the characters involved in their demise are stranger than fiction.
As for a book, I'd recommend The Byerley Turk by Jeremy James. The wife makes fun of me because when I get to the end - every couple of years - I just start reading it again, so she’s convinced it’s the only book I’ve ever read.
It’s a fascinating story of one of the thoroughbred progenitor stallions, the modern-day success of whose sire-line pretty much rests on the shoulders of Pearl Secret.
What are you most looking forward to when racing returns?
Seeing the fruits of the last few years’ labour come to blossom on the track (albeit belatedly) is what I’m looking forward to most.
Like all nurseries, we put enormous effort into the mating plans and then the rearing of these young horses to the best possible standard, and it’s a game of slow returns.
The majority of our racehorses are up at Manor House Stables with Tom Dascombe. The communication from the team there is absolutely first-class, and to see their updates gets me very excited for the return to racing, hopefully in May.
Tom is a genius with precocious juveniles, and if not for the restrictions, several of them would have been out already. We've partnered with the Michael Owen Racing Club this year and have some exciting fillies under that banner; there is one Iffraaj filly among them that we’ve always earmarked as a potential speed machine, so the club members may well have an exciting year ahead of them.
We also have some slightly later-maturing juveniles with southern trainers who I can’t wait to see under the Chasemore silks: John Gosden (a Sea The Stars colt), William Knight (a Siyouni filly), Ed Walker (an Acclamation filly) and David Menuisier (a Le Havre filly) to name a few.
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