Racing: Horses get sick, don’t they? – Part 1

Horses can get sick – artwork by Patsy Watson


When Japan suffered a new outbreak of equine influenza in August 2007, Australian racing authorities were preparing for the 2007 Spring Carnival. They could not have predicted the crisis about to befall their industry. Equine influenza has a strike rate of about 100 percent among unvaccinated horses. It can be deadly. It was being flown into Australia, and nobody knew.


The virus had never entered Australia. The Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) had never defended equine influenza. The racing industry had never dealt with it. Completely unprepared, Australia had no defence.


Horses evolved about 45 million years ago as a small dog-sized mammal. For millions of years, horses roamed free in central Asia, Europe and North America. Archaeological records suggest as humans evolved, they domesticated horses about 4000 BC and put them to work. It has been a long association.


Horses, like any mammal, are susceptible to disease. Equine influenza has been a caution across the world, with outbreaks occurring sporadically. The first reported case of equine influenza was described by Greek veterinarian Absyrtus in the year 330. Absyrtus had never seen the virus before and described infected horses as having the ‘general characters of influenza’.


In 1299, Laurentius Rusius recorded the next outbreak of equine influenza in Spain. Presiding over sick horses in Seville, he wrote: ‘The horse carried his head drooping, would eat nothing, ran from the eyes, and there was hurried beating of the flanks. The malady was epidemic, and in that year one thousand horses died.’


Outbreaks affected Europe in the 15th and 16th century, severely impacting French and German armies. By 1688, another outbreak spread over Europe, from east to west, reaching England and Ireland. In 1693, the virus again attacked Europe and the British Isles. This time, it transferred to people.


There were at least 20 outbreaks in the 18th century, with the virus infecting horses throughout Europe and making its way into China and Asia. In 1833, the virus ran rampant in Europe, again east to west, infecting horses, dogs, cats and people.


In 1872, America’s first outbreak of equine influenza was reported by a veterinarian in Toronto. Within three months, it had spread through dozens of states, shutting down farming, emergency services, the army and domestic life.


There was no cure. Every exposed horse was infected, with a month-long recovery and a two percent death rate.


By the 20th century, times were changing. Horses were substituted for cars, tractors, trams and trains. Previously essential, horses became a pleasure animal, for breeding, racing and leisure riding.


In 1971, an equine influenza outbreak in Japan extended into 1972. Eventually, a vaccine was developed using dead samples of the virus. In 1999, American scientists developed a live nasal vaccine. The virus could now be prevented. Outbreaks could be contained. Quarantine officials all over the world, drawing on centuries of experience, implemented procedures to lock down new outbreaks and prevent the spread. Given the virus could spread by human contact with horses, quarantine procedures were developed involving basic human hygiene, like washing hands.


Wednesday 8 August 2007 – Day 1


Overnight, 79 horses from various countries around the world were flown into Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport and Sydney Airport. Thirteen of those horses were from Japan. After being processed and unloaded, 52 horses, including four from Japan, were transported to Blacktown’s Eastern Creek Quarantine Station. The remaining 27 horses were trucked to the Spotswood Quarantine Station in Victoria. Nine of those were Japanese horses.


Monday 13 August – Day 5


Across the globe, thousands of miles away from Australia’s shores, Japan was rocked by a national crisis. For the first time in 35-years, equine influenza forced the Japan Racing Association to cancel races scheduled for the weekend. There’d been three fresh outbreaks of the highly contagious virus at the Kokura, Niigata and Sapporo racecourses.


Unfortunately, the outbreak was almost two weeks old. Japanese authorities were days away from declaring a national disaster that would cost their racing industry and the economy millions of dollars.


Friday 17 August – Day 9


Mid-morning, a vet at Eastern Creek Quarantine Station noticed an Irish stallion, Encosta De Lago, struggling with flu-like symptoms. Three days later, another Irish stallion in the next stall had similar symptoms. Concerned vets gathered around, agreeing to monitor the situation. Four days later, on 21 August, the vets walked back into the stables. Visual inspections revealed five sick horses. The illness was spreading. Amid a real fear of an outbreak, AQIS officials were contacted and met with the vets. In hushed voices, they mentioned equine influenza while examining a Japanese stallion, Snitzel. As they gazed at the horse, a vet cursed him. Snitzel exhibited all the signs of advanced equine influenza.


Nasal swabs and blood samples were taken from the sick horses. Other horses in the quarantine facility were also tested.


After checking Snitzel’s paperwork, the vets and AQIS officials tried doing the math. Thirteen horses had arrived from Japan on August 8. How many were already sick? And how many horses were about to get sick?


Thirteen days after Japanese horses arrived in Australia, officials at Eastern Creek and Spotswood ordered vets, trainers and all employees to comply with quarantine procedures. It was hoped a possible outbreak could be contained.


Later that night, quarantine officials hoped news of the possible outbreak could also be contained.


It was too late. The virus had already travelled about 175km from Sydney. That Friday, the Ranch Riding Club held an equestrian event involving 220 horses at Anambah in New South Wales, about 10 kilometres from Maitland. Competition continued on the 18th and 19th at two venues, the Rutherford polocrosse ground and Carroll’s Ranch. In the stables after competition had closed, a teenage rider patted her mare, wondering why she was sick.


It became known as the Maitland Event.


Sunday 20 August – Day 12


Just a week after Japanese authorities confirmed an outbreak of horse flu, it loomed as a savage blow to Australia’s most famous race, the Melbourne Cup.


Two Japanese horses, Delta Blues and Pop Rock, had finished first and second in the 2006 Melbourne Cup. Following the race, their owners unwittingly embarrassed Australia’s racing industry by dubbing their nags as B-grade racers.


With the 2007 Melbourne Cup drawing nearer, officials from AQIS were under pressure to allow Delta Blues and Pop Rock into the country. The Victorian Racing Board wanted Delta Blues to defend his win, as did his owners. There was too much money at stake, not to mention pride. Whoever defeated the Japanese horses would get a big pat on the back.


B-grade horses shouldn’t be winning major international races.


AQIS officials were worried. The horse flu outbreak in Japan was causing havoc. It had spread mercilessly, a strike rate of one-hundred percent, with the potential to kill old, young or pregnant horses. And there were sick horses at Eastern Creek and Spotswood. In Japan, the virus was spreading to horses from human contact.


AQIS officials fretted. Quarantine protocols had been ignored at Eastern Creek and Spotswood before the crackdown. If the virus escaped, they feared Australia couldn’t handle something it had never seen. Issuing a passport for two famous horses was proving tough. Meetings were held. Arguments about improbability and money were won and that afternoon, Delta Blues and Pop Rock had been declared free from equine influenza and allowed to travel.


It didn’t matter sick horses were quarantined in Japan and Australia.


The horse industry is built on the dollar. It is incestuous. Vets treat multiple horses each day. Trainers work multiple horses daily. Farriers can check dozens of hoofs in a day. A lot of people in the industry come into contact with a lot of horses.


Regardless of the obvious potential for the virus to spread, the Federal Minister for Agriculture, Peter McGauran, released a statement. Delta Blues and Pop Rock could compete in Australia if they hadn’t been near infected horses in Japan. That would be a neat trick, considering the nomadic nature of horses in and out of stables, racetracks and spelling farms.


Horses like hanging out with other horses. They run together, stand close, nuzzle and share feedlots and water troughs. Conceivably, any Japanese horse might’ve been in contact with hundreds of horses in the week leading up to their outbreak.


McGauran, in his statement, said an outbreak of the flu would shut down horse movements in Australia. Equine influenza was known to spread rapidly in the stables. People couldn’t catch it but they could pass it on to horses.


He assured the public it wouldn’t get here, because Australia had been EI free since settlement. ‘We will not take any risks with horses being imported from countries where EI is present,’ McGauran said.


Stern words on a dangerous subject. McGauran completed the confidence by announcing quarantine officials would block any suspect horses from getting into the country. ‘There needs to be at least a two-month gap between when a horse is presented for export and any possibility of it being exposed to the virus,’ he said.


Unfortunately for McGauran, the virus was already here. It is inconceivable that the Federal Government weren’t aware. It mattered little. McGauran was days late with his statement and it was short on facts. McGauran angered Victorian Racing officials by ordering Delta Blues and Pop Rock to undergo more tests to prove they were clean before being granted entry.


The Japanese outbreak was causing a collective sigh among Australian punters and sponsors, and worry among the owners. Not horse flu, not here. It could not happen.


As the outbreak at Eastern Creek silently spread, McGauran tried reassuring everyone. The situation in Japan was being monitored. AQIS officials weren’t silly. He supported the pigeon-chested bravado by offering finance as evidence, a neat and common government trick.


In the previous three years, the Federal Government had spent $616 million improving Australia’s quarantine system.


Wednesday 22 August – Day 14


About 200 horses filled the stables at Centennial Parklands Equestrian Centre in Sydney. Horses owned by Millie Beardmore, who had competed at the Maitland Event, were starting to feel sick. A Centennial Park vet, Dr Derek Wong, had examined most of the horses at the centre. During his rounds, he didn’t notice anything unusual.


Friday 24 August – Day 16


It all changed by Friday. Dr Wong could hear the coughing and snorting as he walked into the stables. After examining an obviously sick horse, Dr Wong contacted the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, telling quarantine officials there was a suspected outbreak of equine influenza at the centre.


Sixteen days after the virus entered Australia, Dr Wong was the first vet to confirm to Australian officials that the country was fighting an outbreak of equine influenza. Dr Wong said it was spreading at Centennial Park and forced the Federal Government to spread the news, by media.


As trainers and owners across the county prepared horses for carnivals and breeding, AQIS, in a statement, said a quarantined horse at Eastern Creek in Sydney’s west was showing clinical signs of horse flu. It was hastily decided all 52 stallions at the centre would remain in quarantine for a month. The statement didn’t mention Centennial Park.


At Victoria’s Spotswood facility, horses that spent time with the stallions also remained in quarantine. They were here to race and knock up mares. Now they were locked up. McGauran quickly declared the industry was under immediate threat, warning stud owners faced massive financial losses. He was both soothsayer and helpless, a grim faced realist. Spending $616 million on quarantine hadn’t been enough.


No amount of money can prevent stupidity or buy intelligence. No  amount of money can stop people being slack. It’s a siple reality: people don’t always wash their hands.


Again, McGauran sprouted about money, not his Government’s wasted millions but how much stallions could earn in a day. He was hoping to divert serious questions with a quick rag about rutting. ‘Most of them would serve about five mares,’ McGauran said. ‘A number of these stallions are between $100,000 and $200,000 per serve.’


Journalists at the press conference smirked at their colleagues. Not bad for a horse. Later that night, a journalist who had been at the press conference offered her lover a serve. ‘It’ll cost you $200,000,’ she said.


McGauran’s math was easy. Shut down the studs and the industry would lose millions. It was easier to have sympathy for the stallions. They never see a cent of their earnings, but serving five mares a day seems enough pay.


As the day stretched into the evening, 27 horses were officially quarantined at Spotswood.  In the space of four days every stable in Sydney and Victoria was in danger. No horse was safe.


Pressured by stress and threat, Queensland Racing was quick to rule out any impact on the state from the suspected cases of horse flu. Chief Operations Manager, Malcolm Tuttle, quickly activated the organisation’s emergency disease response team, a good idea considering how much the flu was costing in Japan.


Fretting from fear of the unknown, Tuttle did his best to sooth the situation. He had received information from the Australian Racing Board and AQIS that the virus would be contained. Things weren’t too bad. His confidence was agreeable and he sounded plausible. ‘At this point in time it’s been quarantined and contained within the Eastern Creek facility,’ Tuttle said.


It couldn’t get to Queensland, not after the Federal Government spent $616 million improving quarantine.


Saturday 25 August – Day 17


Five days after AQIS officials declared Delta Blues and Rock Pop free from equine influenza, the disease forced the cancellation of all horse racing in Queensland and New South Wales. Tests had revealed 12 horses at Sydney’s Centennial Park had the disease. It wasn’t a scare anymore, not a possibility. The virus was spreading from facility to facility. Confirmation was devastating.


Queensland’s Racing Minister, Andrew Fraser, spoke with grit about making tough decisions then displayed a remarkable lack of foresight by limiting the ban to the weekend. The situation, he claimed, was being assessed by the hour. ‘We are making a decision to cancel racing for this weekend as a precaution until information can be confirmed about horse movements and actual disease outbreaks,’ Fraser said.


It sounded like he knew nothing about where horses traveled. At that point, there were three outbreaks, two in Sydney and one in Melbourne. Horses are moved all the time, to shows, events and orgies. Have horse will travel.  Equine influenza was getting around the same way.


Sunday 26 August – Day 18


About 8am, the Queensland Government’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Ron Glanville, made an urgent phone call to Brisbane’s ABC newsroom. Glanville’s phone call had clout. He worked for Biosecurity Queensland, which was nestled within the Department of Primary Industries (DPI).


Without any hint of cover-up or desperation, Glanville confirmed three New South Wales horses at an international equestrian event at Morgan Park near Warwick had tested positive to horse flu. Glanville’s measured voice didn’t waver. About 300 horses were on site. Some of them competed at the Maitland event. Competition had been suspended.


Less than 24 hours after twelve cases of equine flu were confirmed at Sydney’s Centennial Park, the disease had drifted across the border into Queensland, bypassing every cent McGauran spent on quarantine.


More horses at Morgan Park were exhibiting the same symptoms as those in Sydney. A team of vets rushed to Warwick, about two hours west of Brisbane, in a futile attempt at containment. Biosecurity Queensland formed a partnership with the state’s vets to trace all horse movements between New South Wales and Queensland.


Glanville said those in the industry must be vigilant. ‘To be aware and be on the lookout for any suspicious symptoms of equine influenza and report that to a vet,’ he said.


Vigilance wouldn’t matter.


Read Part 2 HERE

Read Part 3 HERE


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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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. John Butler says

    Matt, I have only occasional interest in horse racing, and zero recollection of this outbreak, but already I’m intrigued.

    Feels like a lot of what lies ahead with this tale will speak to how we still go about things in general.


  2. “Ride Like a Girl” sequel planned. “Train Like a Torturer”.

  3. John,
    I only have an occasional interest in horse racing too.
    What amazed me was how quickly the outbreak took hold – and the damage it did.

    Peter – funny because it’s true!

  4. Fine piece of research and writing. Horse racing is a schizophrenic beast. Some owners and trainers genuinely love their animals and want to test their abilities while protecting them. Many trainers and some owners are driven by the dollar. The horse is a means to an end. The rush. The thrill. The “we showed ’em”. For trainers its a fee or a punt or a prize cheque. Hard to be emotional about so many, unless they really pay their way. Frank Hardy called it the Four Legged Lottery.
    The big stud owners are robber barons just like the corporate bookies and they would steal pennies from the eyes of dead men. I’m sure when fate came calling in the form of equine influenza they quickly asked government for a bailout. Not that it was “welfare” you understand.
    Look forward to further chapters.

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