Racing: Horses get sick, don’t they? – Part 6

Friday 12 October – Day 75



The thoroughbreds were excited – when they weren’t sick – Patsy Watson


Queensland Racing’s Mal Tuttle seized on Tim Mulherin’s favourable forecast and said a better than expected vaccination program could see racing resume in the south east by December. A few weeks back Andrew Fraser said racing was banned until February. He had been proved wrong too many times throughout the campaign.


Tuttle was more believable, despite his obvious complaint about the racing void. He claimed meetings in central, north and north-western Queensland had been successful. Although Queensland Racing hasn’t yet selected a site for the resumption, the punters would be excited. ‘I guess there’s a lot of people down here in southeast Queensland that can’t wait to get back to the races,’ Tuttle said. ‘Hopefully from December 1 they’ll be able to do that.’


Hopefully Tuttle said. At least he was confident there would be enough healthy horses to stage a meet. In a few weeks the impact of the virus at Toowoomba would be known. The vaccination program would be close to over. ‘Certainly what we’re seeing is a fight back against the virus by those horses that have received their first vaccinations,’ Tuttle added.


No one asked Tuttle if the first jab gave horses a mild dose. It would’ve been a fair question, as later events would show. In a show of support, the DPI didn’t dispute the December date. The Queensland Government remained confident the virus was contained to the Red Zone in the south-east.


Confidence soared higher when tests confirmed two Rockhampton horses displaying mild symptoms didn’t have the virus. The DPI’s Ian Douglas said restricting the movement of horses in and out of the red zone was working. ‘We’re also building up a relatively horse free buffer to contain it from natural spread by wind,’ he said. ‘Our biggest concern is people can inadvertently move the virus on their hands or clothes or equipment.’


By wind. Douglas was the first official to publicly claim the virus could spread by wind. A lot of guilty people breathed a collective sigh of relief.



Tuesday 16 October – Day 79


Four days later Queensland Racing cancelled all but two regional race meetings scheduled to coincide with the Melbourne Cup. On the first Tuesday in November, races would take place in Mackay and Cairns, both more than a thousand kilometres north of Brisbane.


Although the horses in Rockhampton were virus free, the industry was still jittery. Melbourne Cup races had long been cancelled in the south-east. The ban spread in 700km arc covering south east Queensland.


The Bundaberg Race Club is about 400km from Brisbane. The 2006 Melbourne Cup event at Bundaberg Racecourse raised about $30,000. Club president Leanne Modolo said the cancellation was a huge blow. ‘It’s our biggest race day of the year.’


Miffed by the financial hit, Modolo was baffled by the cancellation. ‘It is a bit odd,’ she complained. ‘You know we are allowed to move horses in the green zone with waybills so it is a bit hard to swallow.’



Wednesday 17 October – Day 80


Four horses at the University of Queensland’s Pinjarra hills facility in Brisbane’s western suburbs were sick. The staff expected five more horses to develop flu symptoms within a day. Teaching and research had been quarantined until further notice.


There had been another breach, either by sloppy students, vets or lecturers. The University’s Gatton Campus was already under quarantine. Privately, Bligh seethed.



Friday 19 October – Day 82


The virus took a tangent when Griffith University’s Professor Mark von Itzstein warned of a worldwide pandemic and stretched the misery by suggesting humans could be infected.


The Professor and his team of researchers were studying new drugs to reduce the spread of highly infectious flu viruses from animals to humans. Professor von Itzstein had studied outbreaks of horse and bird flu, and their viral components.


His research had shown equine influenza and bird flu shared the same H3N8sub-type virus as the human flu. If equine influenza mutated, it may become zoonotic and transfer to humans. New drugs were needed, he said, to prevent it spreading into human populations.


The Professor was determined to design a new set of molecules that would stop the infection spreading from horses to horses, and horses to people. ‘What we’re doing is investigating new compounds,’ he said. ‘New classes of drugs that will be able to tackle the virus head on and control the spread of infection.’


It was good science, if not a little late. Nothing had stopped the virus spreading throughout south-east Queensland and New South Wales. Professor von Itzstein and the scientific community were learning from the disease, but his words were cautionary. He said it was pure luck that the virus hadn’t mutated.



Monday 22 October – Day 85


Track work resumed at Eagle Farm and Doomben racetracks in Brisbane after horse flu restrictions were eased. Queensland Turf Club CEO, Stephen Ferguson, said all the horses involved were inoculated against the flu or had caught it naturally, which meant they’d all been sick.


Ferguson said racing was still scheduled to resume on 1 December but it wouldn’t be at Eagle Farm. The track was undergoing maintenance and the relaying of turf. Training was affected because of the outbreak, with a lighter workout than usual. ‘We’d normally have 400 horses in work,’ he said. ‘This morning we only expect about 80 to 100.’


Brisbane’s race tracks, Eagle Farm and Doomben, are about 500m apart. Both clubs have extensive facilities. It is a unique situation to have two race tracks so close in proximity. For more than a hundred years, the closeness of the tracks worked financially and logistically. But there was always a divide, in members, events and by road. Nudgee Road, the Gaza Strip, bisects Eagle Farm and Doomben.


As horses prepared to run at Eagle Farm, track work was limited to horses stabled on the west side of Nudgee Road. Horses on the eastside of Nudgee Road would have to go to Doomben. ‘Even though they may be nominally Eagle Farm horses,’ Ferguson said.


The situation sounded confusing, as it had since the virus escaped. It didn’t bother about separation by road. The announcement, though, was a gift for a grizzled industry. People were desperate to work their horses, which hadn’t had much more than a walk or a small trot for weeks. Horses, like any animal, couldn’t stand being cooped up too long. ‘This is just the first stage of getting back to racing,’ Ferguson said. ‘Hopefully that looks like being some time in December.’


While the industry in Queensland won a minor battle, the New South Wales Government was losing theirs. The Primary Industries Minister Ian Macdonald proposed phantom races and a limited breeding program to help the industry recover. He hoped for approval to hold a meet on Saturday at Warwick Farm. It would be closed to the public, but they could watch races in pubs, clubs and Unitab outlets.


Macdonald also wanted the National Consultative Committee on Emergency Animal Diseases to approve a strictly controlled pilot breeding program. ‘We believe that a limited amount of horses that do not have the disease could interact, in order to help the industry,’ he said.


Macdonald must’ve been desperate. Race meets in Queensland had already been approved for Wednesday and Thursday on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts. Local horses were due to resume racing in Toowoomba on Friday and at Eagle Farm on Saturday.


‘We’ve been assessing the low risk nature of some of this.’ Macdonald said. ‘If there’s no infection in that area and no linkage then it is possible, under strict quarantine conditions to be able to conduct these activities.’


Strict quarantine or not, the program would involve people and horses mingling. And that was proving to be disastrous.



Wednesday 24 October – Day 87


Peter Toft, still reeling from the death of his mare and her unborn foal, held a meeting with the Premier Anna Bligh and emerged pleased. Bligh had agreed to support a bid by the Performance and Pleasure Horse Industry for more help with the equine influenza crisis.


Toft wanted 60,000 doses of horse flu vaccine for his industry. Bligh offered to write to the Prime Minister, John Howard, about the industry’s struggles in getting the vaccine. ‘The Premier acknowledges this is a major disaster for Queenslanders,’ Toft said. ‘Not just the horse industry and certainly just not the racing industry.’


The Performance and Pleasure Horse Industry had been largely ignored by State and Federal Governments since the vaccines arrived in Australia. Toft asked for 60,000 vials but the industry needed more. Their inability to generate millions of dollars in gambling revenue meant they had been relegated. Financially, no one could argue.


And the Queensland outbreak started at an International Equestrian event. The industry was narrow-minded, greedy and holding a grudge.



Friday 26 October – Day 89


More than 5000 horses were scheduled to receive a second round of flu vaccine as part of ongoing preparations for the return of racing in south east Queensland.


Mal Tuttle again confirmed racing would resume on 1 December at Doomben in Brisbane, on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts and in Toowoomba. It had been almost two months since a horse had raced in the south east.


Tuttle said more than $250,000 in prize money would be shared among the winners, a much-needed boost for the industry. It was light, he said, at the end of the tunnel. ‘There’ve been a lot of horses that have required feeding and some limited exercise,’ he said.


All horses require feeding and exercise. Tuttle was caught in the moment, with a lure of $250,000 for the industry. It had been too long, since August 25, when trainers had been able to exercise their horses for extended runs. ‘What it means now is that we can start to get back to some degree of normality,’ Tuttle said.



Tuesday 30 October – Day 90


In the early morning, another calculation was made. The number of infected premises, including properties, spelling farms, stables and race tracks in Queensland and New South Wales had more than doubled, to 7058. The Federal Government hoped the virus had peaked. After three months, it wasn’t finished yet.


In Queensland, despite the virus still spreading, it was a good day for the equestrian industry that had been begging for vaccines for weeks. The first of 26,000 vials would be made available on 5 November for horses still banned from moving within south-east Queensland’s red zone.


Queensland Pleasure and Performance Horse Industry spokesman, Kent Wells, said owners had to apply for vaccines through their vets. Alternatively they could register on the DPI’s website. Wells proved he understood the worth of cliché, as Tuttle did. ‘At least there’s light at the end of the tunnel,’ he said. ‘Previous to that we had no light. We were just stuck in limbo.’


Wells, as Toft did, claimed the Pleasure and Performance Horse Industry had been ignored by Governments, denied vaccines and were unable to move their horses. ‘At least now we have the opportunity to get some horses vaccinated and the potential to move horses by Christmas,’ he grumbled.


Christmas was still two months away. Thoroughbreds had already been given the green light to move, albeit with strict restrictions. The Red Zone, the Green Zone and the Buffer Zone were still in effect.



Monday 5 November – Day 96


On the eve of the Melbourne Cup, authorities declared the battle against the flu was being won. The snivelling noses would stop dripping. Queensland’s chief vet Ron Glanville said the DPI could start downgrading some areas of the state’s Red Zone in December. ‘We’re certainly seeing with the rollout of the vaccination program we’ll have it under control by Christmas,’ he said.


Glanville responded to criticism by vets who claimed they weren’t being paid for their work during the vaccination rollout. They would be paid as soon as possible but the process was being held up because some vets were submitting invoices to the DPI.


Invoices for any horses vaccinated for the Queensland Harness Racing Board had to be sent to the Board, not the DPI. Glanville said things were getting confusing. ‘Some of the invoices we currently have, the horses that the vet has put on the invoice are a mixture of ones they’ve done for the Harness Racing board or even for Queensland Racing and for other purposes.’ Glanville said. ‘So we need to separate those.’


When it comes to money, nothing is ever easy. There’s always a separation. The money was available, but the red tape had to be cut.



Read parts 1 – 5 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…

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