The equine influenza crisis took a dark turn in Australia the morning of Aug. 26. All track work halted at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney after three Thoroughbreds showed symptoms of equine influenza. It was the first time EI appeared to have crept into Australian racing circles.
The three racehorses from the stables of Bart Cummings and Gai Waterhouse had higher than normal temperatures. Veterinary officials took blood samples and sent them to a laboratory for testing.
"Two of the horses have only got slightly elevated temperatures, but in the current circumstances, we're not prepared to take any risks whatsoever," Racing New South Wales spokesman Peter V'Landys told ABC News.
Before the latest cases at Randwick, 47 horses in New South Wales were confirmed infected with EI. Some 6,000 horses are quarantined in stables throughout Queensland because of the national ban on moving horses. Those who violate the ban face a potential jail term of one year and fines up to $44,000.
At least 20 horses at the Morgan Park site in Warwick, in southern Queensland, have reportedly shown signs of the virus, but a flu diagnosis there has not been confirmed. Results of blood tests are expected later this week.
Queensland Racing chairman Bob Bentley has called for an inquiry into the outbreak, which has brought the racing industry to its knees.
Melbourne Cup threatened
The Japanese reacted Aug. 26 to the EI problem, with last year's first two across the line in the Melbourne Cup (Aust-I) officially withdrawing from this year’s race.
Delta Blues and Pop Rock "have been ruled out of this year’s Melbourne Cup following the equine influenza outbreak in Japan,” said owner Katsumi Yoshida, adding the decision had been based on “the Japanese problem, not the problem in Australia.” Neither horse is infected with the virus, but both were withdrawn, he said, “because suitable quarantine arrangements were not available in order to begin their travel due to the outbreak in their homeland.”
The EI outbreak in Australia has put in question whether the fabled Melbourne Cup – Australia’s most prestigious race – will be run on its traditional date, the first Tuesday in November. Racing Victoria, host of the Melbourne, was reportedly considering postponing the race two weeks.
Peter McGauran, Federal Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture, confirmed the Melbourne Cup may be moved if racing doesn't commence in Victoria before September.
"It is better to have a deferred Cup than no Cup at all," McGauran said.
Dick McIlwain, chief executive of Unitab Queensland, downplayed that suggestion. "The Melbourne Cup is over two months away. It is absolutely ludicrous for people to panic and suggest that the Melbourne Cup is going to be affected here," he told ABC News.
"To even think at this stage that we couldn't find 24 clean horses in Australia to go around in a race two months from now is just absolutely ridiculous. I think people ought to just settle down, and quite clearly it is a significant issue, it's an issue that is being managed ... and stupid hysteria won't resolve anything."
The Melbourne isn’t the only upcoming race shadowed by EI.
New Zealand government officials announced Aug. 27 that all importation of horses to that country from Australia had been halted over the weekend because of the EI outbreak. That means no Australian horses will be able to contest the NZ $2-million Kelt Stakes (Aust-I) set for late September. Ten Australian horses have been nominated to the Kelt Stakes, an important leadup race to the AUS $3.5-million WS Cox Plate in October. U.S. multiple grade II winner Silver Tree had reportedly been gearing for the Cox Plate this year.
Factoring in the 75 mares booked to visit New Zealand-based stallions this year, the EI problem mushrooms. Sept. 1 is the official start of breeding for Thoroughbreds in the Southern Hemisphere, and the hub of breeding is Australia’s New South Wales. The blanket ban on movement of horses to and from New South Wales will remain in force until at least next weekend. If it continues more than a month, the lockdown could devastate Australia's breeding and racing industries.
Mares at farms where stallions are located will be allowed to be covered, but Redoute's Choice, the premier stallion in Australia at a fee of $330,000, is based at Arrowfield Stud in New South Wales. Also affected are stallions that shuttled from the Northern Hemisphere and had not yet been released from quarantine.
For matings that do occur, there may be serious ramifications down the road, as respiratory problems can be fatal to foals that contract EI. If the outbreak is not contained soon, this entire crop of foals could be seriously impaired, according to veterinary health officials.
Hendra virus in vet
A Thoroughbred vet infected by the killer Hendra virus was admitted to a hospital in Queensland Aug. 26. The vet contracted the virus after performing an autopsy on a Thoroughbred in his clinic last week. There are reportedly two known current cases of Hendra in the Thoroughbred population in Queensland.
While believed unrelated to the EI currently sweeping Australia, an outbreak of Hendra has even greater personal ramifications for humans. Whereas EI cannot kill humans, Hendra can and has. Trainer Vic Rail was killed by Hendra in 1991.