Catastrophe struck Australia’s entire horse population – and in particular, the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industries – with the blanket cancellation of all race meetings Aug. 25 after an outbreak of equine influenza. With Saturday the nation's pinnacle racing day each week, the ban was expected to quash more than $25 million in wagering throughout the country.
The move was taken to prevent further spread of EI, an aggressive virus that escaped from a quarantine facility, presumably on the clothing of someone who had attended to a horse there. The contagious flu was detected Aug. 24 in 11 pleasure horses stabled at the Centennial Park complex that adjoins the Royal Randwick racecourse in Sydney. Five other horses at another nearby facility reportedly exhibited symptoms of EI.
On Aug. 26, Australian officials called upon horse owners who took their animals to Carol’s Ranch Riding Club event at Maitland on the weekend of Aug. 18 to have their horses tested for EI. “It’s early days yet, but a number of horses that attended an event at the property on that weekend are showing clinical signs of equine influenza,” said Ian Macdonald, Minister for Primary Industries. He added that the chief state veterinarian “has advised me that we need to locate and examine every single horse that entered and left the property.”
The first case of EI was found in a shuttle stallion that arrived this month from overseas into the quarantine barns of Eastern Creek in New South Wales. That prevented the more than 50 shuttlers in quarantine from being transported to their farms.
John Zucal, chief steward of racing in Western Australia, the last Australian state to join the blanket ban on racing, said he feared the next measure may be to prohibit trainers from working their horses. “This is a very critical situation we all face, and we have that very issue on the table to be discussed on Monday," he said.
Australian Jockey Club chief steward Ray Murrihy said the cancellation of racing may be a bellwether of far more dire consequences.
“Other countries have had their racing industries crippled for up to two months, and we fear that is a possibility here as well,” he said. “We will know more by Monday, but things don't look positive at the moment.”
Australia has been doubly hit, with its breeding season set to open Sept. 1. If shuttlers cannot leave quarantine and mares are not allowed to travel, the breeding industry will be on the verge of collapse. Most of the quarantined horses are Thoroughbred stallions who were booked to service approximately 30,000 mares this season. Among the top sires quarantined are: Elusive Quality, Holy Roman Emperor, Encosto De Lago, Rock Of Gilbralter, Choisir, and Danehill Dancer.
Peter McGauran, Australia’s Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture, held a press conference Aug. 25 and confirmed that the federal government has imposed a blanket ban on the movement of all horses across Australia. This includes horses of any type, breed or discipline.
"We need to stop all movement so containment procedures are put in place,” said McGauran, adding that the ban will not be lifted before Aug. 28. “The government realizes this will result in millions and millions of dollars of revenue being lost, but we have a critical situation here. And this includes taking horses to race tracks. Everything is banned at present until further notice."
Australian Racing Board chairman Bob Pearson said, “As disturbing as the news of this action is, it is reassuring that Australia's quarantine protocols have detected the suspected presence of equine influenza. The important thing now is to support the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service in dealing with this situation in its customary thorough and science-based fashion.”
New Zealand officials have banned imports of Australian horses, and the Melbourne Cup, traditionally held on the first Tuesday in November, is in danger of being postponed.
Last weekend, Japan halted racing in that country because of equine influenza.