Racing: Horses get sick, don’t they? – Part 2

Monday 27 August – Day 19


In Japan, with their outbreak escalating, Delta Blues and Pop Rock’s trainer, Katsuhiko Sumii, withdrew the horses from the Melbourne Cup. They were locked down in stables, unable to enter quarantine. Sumii didn’t want them getting sick. ‘We spend a lot of money to send horses overseas,’ he said. ‘The situation is too risky for us now.’


Racing Victoria’s operations manager Leigh Jordan was disappointed but unsurprised. ‘They’ve had issues trying to organise quarantine for the horses,’ he said. ‘They just said the way things are going, we’d rather make a decision now and say that we are not coming.’


The outbreak, in two corners of the globe, was going to hurt interest in the Melbourne Cup. But Jordan said Racing Victoria was preparing each day for the famous race. ‘There are plenty of other international horses coming over so we just press ahead.’


At Morgan Park in Warwick, horse flu spread quickly among the nags. Queensland’s DPI Minister, Tim Mulherin, said dozens were showing symptoms and struck terror into the hearts and wallets of everyone at the equestrian event. All horses were confined to Morgan Park until a month after the last reported case. It meant a wait of about two months.


As the afternoon rolled on, another three horses reported sick at Minden near Gatton, about 140km east of Morgan Park. The disease was spreading, prompting Queensland’s Premier, Peter Beattie, to cast doubts about weekend races and predicting the iconic Birdsville Cup would get punted. ‘It is better to cancel a few events and get the industry back on its feet than placate people and end up with the industry out for months,’ Beattie said.


It sounded like good advice. No one wanted the Magic Millions sales at the Gold Coast affected, nor the swag of races scheduled for the Spring Carnival in Sydney and Melbourne.



Tuesday 28 August – Day 20



Early in the morning, Beattie’s office sent out a media alert. The Premier was going to Morgan Park to talk to stranded horse owners, offer food for horses, accommodation for humans and work his smile on the crowd.


The stranded owners and their families nodded thanks, telling Queensland’s Premier how it felt to be locked up, eliciting Beattie’s grim-faced anger and an admission he could do nothing to prevent their frustration. ‘The thing that makes me cranky is how the heck this virus ever got into Australia in the first place,’ Beattie said.


His restraint was admirable, his determination evident. Like most people, Beattie had probably never heard of equine influenza until Japan’s outbreak, but he quickly understood it.


Heck, Beattie had said. How the heck. That’s political correctness gone mad. No one says heck anymore. How the hell would’ve sounded much tougher. Privately he would’ve felt the hell, and been slightly embarrassed. Heck sounds ridiculous.


As Beattie espoused frustration, a defiant Andrew Fraser said the Birdsville races might go ahead, providing certain conditions were met. Not many Ministers usurped Beattie. Fraser must’ve got a call from his boss. Shortly afterwards, an embarrassed Fraser called the ABC and said the Birdsville Cup was off. Suddenly the risk of spreading the disease was too great. It didn’t mean the party had to be cancelled.


‘We will be in contact with Birdsville to make sure we can do whatever we can to assist that event,’ Fraser said. ‘I know the spirit of those attending the Birdsville races will carry on. Hopefully the party will carry on.’ He was trying to touch hearts, do his best to talk up the event so the financial hammering wouldn’t be as bad.


The party at Birdsville might go on, but Sydney’s Randwick race course was locked down after a thoroughbred returned a positive flu result. Racing New South Wales CEO, Peter V’landys, confirmed the horror but remained patronisingly hopeful against the evidence. ‘The vets have decided to take further tests to ensure that the first result is accurate,’ V’landys said.


The vets didn’t need tests. The symptoms of equine influenza are a dead giveaway, runny nose, sneezing, high temperature, hacking cough and a sore throat. Muscles ache, bones ache. It doesn’t always kill but it can, just like human flu.


The New South Wales Primary Industries Minister, Ian McDonald, declared Sydney’s Spring Racing carnival was in trouble. McDonald hoped against hell more thoroughbreds wouldn’t get infected. ‘There wouldn’t be any possibility for racing for quite some time,’ McDonald said.


Not if Japan was any guide.


As samples were being analysed in New South Wales and Victoria, the local community at Warwick rallied behind those stranded at Morgan Park. It was just four days since the first horse sneezed and more than a hundred horses were already sick.


Warwick’s Mayor Ron Bellingham went to Morgan Park, letting lose an emergency management plan that involved prisoners from a nearby work camp preparing food, cleaning and helping with maintenance. More specifically, Bellingham had the prisoners shovel horse shit, clear the rubbish and wash dishes. Honest work.


Queensland Health offered free counselling for people struggling under weight of mental and financial stress.


The Warwick community, its motels, shops and petrol stations thrive on events like the Morgan Park Equestrian Show. The lockdown, the mismanagement of Australia’s quarantine, meant people were forced to stay in the district. No one deliberately flaunted good luck for financial gain, but the outbreak was worth a few annual events to the local economy.



Sunday 2 September – Day 25



On the Gold Coast, the Bundall Racecourse cancelled its planned meet and offered a masked comic book hero as the alternative. Gold Coast Turf Club CEO, Grant Sheather, said a phantom meeting would be held with bookies taking bets on races in other states.


Sheather didn’t talk about desperation or fiscal losses. Simply, he reminded every Gold Coast racing fan what it meant to be at the track on race day, describing the atmosphere and paying homage to the members. Then Sheather said all training areas were off-limits to the public.


Not only were the races banned, the punters couldn’t look at horses. Security guards would patrol quarantine zones, ready to move on anyone getting too close.


Sheather said it was a precautionary measure. He was wrong. Lockdown wasn’t precautionary, it was belatedly futile, a necessity. Helplessly and with bland predictability, Sheather attempted to deflect the misery, shifting blame for the precaution. ‘One put in place and recommended by Queensland Racing and the Department of Primary Industries,’ he said.


It was a neat comment, abdicating responsibility, apportioning blame and doing what he was told.



Monday 3 September – Day 26



The knives were shining in Canberra, where Peter McGauran was forced to deny his predecessor was guilty of ignoring warnings about quarantine from the racing industry. The Australian Racing Board (ARB), angry and vindictive, said former Minister Warren Truss was warned twice, in 2004 and 2005 about poor quarantine standards among international horses.


Central to the ARB’s complaint was private veterinary surgeons being left in charge of quarantine stations, not vets employed by the Government. McGauran said Truss had dealt with each warning. ‘And assured the industry that AQIS veterinary surgeons at all times control those quarantine facilities,’ McGauran said.


The fight, sparked by an indignant, if silly sounding Beattie, had started. It would be fought across three states as State and Federal governments, AQIS and those in the industry threw horseshit at each other.

The trick in a horseshit fight wasn’t how much you threw but how much you kept off your fingers. Horseshit was everything the outbreak had been.


Ten days since the first horse in Australia had officially showed equine influenza symptoms, an independent inquiry began examining how the virus entered Australia. Laughably, the Government wasn’t ruling out imported saddles and blankets or a person touching a Japanese horse and not washing their hands, taking a shower or changing their clothes before flying thirteen hours to Australia.


Justice Ian Callinan, a retired High Court judge was appointed to preside over the inquiry. One by one, Australia’s racing boards threw their support being the inquiry with a caveat. They would be guided by the findings before seeking compensation.


Races remained scheduled at the Gold Coast that weekend but QR’s Mal Tuttle, in over-cheerful tones, didn’t want to talk about racing.  Playing the blame game and demanding money lost on race meets, Tuttle said the inquiry had to be specific. ‘To understand exactly how the influenza has found its way to Australia,’ he said. ‘And whether or not we could have prevented it.’


Tuttle was asking why $616 million couldn’t stop it. The Federal Government and AQIS, by virtue of Callinan’s inquiry, were unwilling to provide the answer everyone knew.


A horse did it.



Tuesday 4 September – Day 27



On Tuesday the Queensland Turf Club warned punters that weekend races wouldn’t be good. CEO Steven Ferguson didn’t want to blindside anyone. The horses had missed a few workouts because of the lockdown and wouldn’t be 100 percent fit.


To compensate for mediocrity, punters would be allowed near the nags for the first time in 10 days. Ferguson praised the industry and Beattie’s Government for the way the outbreak was being handled.


His warning about fitness seemed off kilter. Missing a few training runs doesn’t cause a massive loss in fitness. Then Ferguson made things clear. Only local horses could compete. It would be a dud cast, a B-grade meet. ‘Normally here you’d see horses coming from the Gold Coast, Toowoomba and the Sunshine Coast,’ he said.


The talent pool was restricted to horses from Doomben and Eagle Farm. Any horse, old or young, could fill a card and race into the spreading breeze of infection, trying to beat it down and tear around the bend to keep the industry going.



Wednesday 5 September – Day 28



Queensland’s State Opposition chipped away at the calamity. The LNP’s Shadow Racing Minister, Mike Horan, blamed the state’s outbreak on gross incompetence and conspiracy. Horan claimed Peter Beattie and Tim Mulherin misled Queenslanders about the timing of the outbreak and used an email from the state’s Chief Vet, Ron Glanville as support.


Horan said Glanville’s email, warning of the possibility of a local outbreak, had been sent on Wednesday 22 August, before the national outbreak was confirmed. ‘The third point on this email is a clear red alert,’ Horan said, and accused Beattie and Mulherin of ignoring Glanville’s warning.


Mulherin countered by saying Queensland authorities didn’t receive advice from the Federal Government confirming the outbreak on 22 August and the third point in Glanville’s email didn’t ask state authorities to enforce a lockdown. ‘The outbreak was still technically contained at Eastern Creek,’ Mulherin said.


Technically contained was obviously wrong. Beattie knew it. With impatient flair and bravado, Beattie said Glanville’s email, warning of localised outbreaks, proved the Commonwealth was liable and should’ve acted earlier. Surely, he mused, they knew there was a threat. ‘Mr McGauran should resign today or be sacked,’ Beattie demanded.


It was the first time McGauran had been attacked by a politician in the media. Behind closed doors he must’ve taken a hammering, but showed resilience to keep answering the bell. He didn’t resign and wasn’t sacked, but the fight was now national and international.


Low blows didn’t matter anymore. This was a political fight. Beattie wanted McGauran to account for $616 million of taxpayer money.


Later that day, the Queensland Government established a Red Zone, requiring a permit to move horses. Given the crisis, permits were unlikely to be issued. The Red Zone snaked along the border between Queensland and New South Wales. At Inglewood, it went north to Kingaroy then east to Noosa. A vast portion of the south east was in lockdown, if you were a horse.


As the blame game shifted back and forth, racing was due to resume at the Gold Coast. The industry stood up and applauded then sat red faced when spectators were banned from the track.


Unitab, one of Queensland’s major betting agencies, cried poor. The absence of gambling was hammering their profits but the advice from Queensland Racing was clear. Uninfected horses could do what they wanted, race, root and prance. People couldn’t.


QR’s Mal Tuttle said the industry was taking one step at a time, but it was being forced backwards into exclusions zones, and an unsolvable simultaneousness, either no horses or people at the track.


It was also haemorrhaging money.


Offering sugar cubes and optimism, Tuttle said 45 training venues had been reopened on Friday, five days earlier than expected. ‘We’d have in the order of 4000 horses in work throughout the state. 3000 of those had access to training facilities by last Friday.’


It sounded impressive until he appealed for calm and tried a largely futile effort to create interest in betting, his smooth voice too positive. ‘At least we’re getting horses going to the post.’


There was something missing though. A race meet without horses is called a phantom. No one knew what a race meet without spectators should be called. The uniqueness of the event deserved a slogan – Get to the TAB, place your bets anyway.


As Unitab appealed for money, Griffith University’s Professor von Itzstein sat in his office and took a deep breath. An accomplished equestrian rider in his youth, he rejected an offer to ride in Europe and chose science over a career on horseback. It was a good choice. In 1983, Professor von Itzstein led a team in developing a drug called Relenza that could defeat influenza. In the mid-nineties, he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine for his role in creating the influenza vaccine.


As Director of the Institute for Glycomics, Professor von Itzstein researched the world’s most contagious, deadly diseases each day. Given his experience, the Professor believed the equine influenza outbreak would get worse without medical assistance. He believed the virus could remain in Australia, developing new strains when the current version died out.


Professor von Itzstein said vaccinations may be necessary to defeat the virus. ‘The disease is not endemic in Australia,’ he said. ‘That is why there has been no need for a vaccination strategy with horses in Australia.’


The professor was the first person to publicly mention a vaccination strategy. The Federal Government was listening.


Read Part 1 HERE



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About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. Yes the EI outbreak ended any prospect of the late Richard Freyer’s Leica Falcon winning the Caulfield or Melbourne Cup’s. After two unlucky runs in these two big races, an injury, then a lost campaign due to the EI outbreak cost the stable any chance of winning a big one.


  2. G’day Matt, happy 2021.

    Interesting looking back at the Equine Influenza outbreak in the context of Covid 19. With the current pandemic, so much of what is ‘normal’ in our lives has been thrown into turmoil. The entertainment industry with its myriad of categories and sub-categories hasn’t been exempt: Olympic games, live theatre, ‘Footy’, concerts, tennis are just some of the few seriously impacted. However the one constant that has survived has been the ‘punt’. Horse racing, the trots, the dish lickers, all have gone on. Yes there have been impediments, and substantial challenges but they’ve kept on.

    We saw the running of the ‘race that stops the nation’ coinciding with the end of Victoria’s hard lockdown. Crowds are now allowed back on track. Our only two trips outside of Victoria the last 9 months have been getting to Corowa races twice in December. Sure jockeys, and other connections, have restrictions imposed by the required Covid 19 safety plans but the races keep going. The horse so susceptible to the Equine Influenza has proven very resilient to the Covid 19 pandemic.


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