Racing: Horses get sick, don’t they? – Part 3

A sick thoroughbred, stabled and unable to race – Patsy Watson



Thursday 6 September – Day 29



Queensland Racing could’ve used Please help and support as their slogan, because by Thursday the situation was worse. The disease wasn’t spreading by stealth. In south-east Queensland, 31 properties were officially infected, including four that morning at Tamborine Mountain in the Gold Coast hinterland. They joined in the sickness with properties at Warwick, Minden, Rosewood and Goondiwindi, as well as other properties in Brisbane’s western suburbs.


Most of the horses knew a horse who knew a horse who competed at Morgan Park. The disease moved fast. Have cough, will travel.


Queensland Racing had quarantined Tamborine Mountain, but believed the outbreak wouldn’t stop Sunday’s planned race meeting on the Gold Coast. Chairman Bob Bentley said permission was needed from the DPI. ‘We have to put in a plan of how we are going to handle crowds, horses, people,’ he said.


Bentley hoped it would be the weather, not equine influenza that would force the cancellation of the meet. Something like a cyclone, because the bug clearly wasn’t enough.


While Bentley wished for a nice day, the ban on moving horses caused problems in western Queensland. Two trainers stranded by the outbreak wanted permission to take their nags home. When the ban on movements was announced, the trainers from Longreach and Barcaldine had been on their way to the Birdsville races before being locked down. For two weeks, they racked up bills at Bedourie, a small town in far-west Queensland, as dusty as the outback gets.


Toni Austin, a frustrated stable hand, said she needed a permit to get home because the chaff was about to run out. Bedourie, she bemoaned, was too far from anywhere. ‘We don’t get a truck out here for another fortnight,’ she said.


Austin couldn’t get feed for her horse in a town where horse feed isn’t a standard item. ‘That’s going to become a problem for us after the weekend,’ she said, becoming another voice asking for help with the crisis, financial, physical and intellectual.


How, why and what now? What?


No one knew yet.


Hundreds of kilometres away, horse owners at Morgan Park had been stranded for almost a fortnight. They were grumbling. Lockdown isn’t much fun, especially with sick horses to look after.


Besides, it was raining.


Property owners around Warwick reported 30 millimetres of rain had fallen in the past two days. Hardly a downpour but the unfortunate impounded were enduring cold, wet conditions. They needed a distraction and were sick of the flu.


The following morning, their mood wasn’t helped by news that the number of infected properties in the southeast had escalated to 40.


The determination they so proudly displayed days earlier was eroding, replaced by futile anger and depressive frustration. The president of the Warwick Horse Trials, Simon Goddard, described the conditions in the quarantine zone as poor. ‘The rain’s not too hard but streaky and a bit miserable,’ he said.


Rain can be like that. Goddard knew the horses would’ve felt worse. He also knew people faced with adversity often complain. Hoping the rain would go away, he was complaining loud and clear.  First the flu, then the lockdown, now rain. Surely something had to sway towards the positive and break up the crisis.


The rain would break up overnight. The virus wouldn’t.


In the morning, suspected equine influenza cases were reported in far north Queensland, about 2000km north of Brisbane. Predictably it halted plans for a multi-zone system for horse movements in the state.


The DPI confirmed a horse had tested positive at Julia Creek. Another was infected at Gordonvale.


As the number of infected properties in Queensland rose to 44, Ron Glanville said the horses may have had links to the Maitland Event. ‘We will be fully investigating those cases,’ he said.


Good idea. The virus had flown from Japan to Australia and gone from Sydney to Cairns in a horse float. ‘This does mean these are the first cases we’ve had outside the southeast corner which is obviously a significant development,’ Glanville said.


That afternoon, race meetings were held in Cairns and at Eagle Farm in Brisbane.



Sunday 9 September – Day 32



On Sunday, the Northern Territory’s chief veterinary officer re-tested 11 horses in quarantine in Darwin, Katherine and Tennant Creek. Dr Brian Radunz said the group of horses had to be quarantined after arriving in the Territory a few weeks ago. ‘They came into contact with horses that have since tested positive for equine flu in Queensland,’ he said.


Still, there were no symptoms, and three thoroughbreds had tested negative twice. ‘So we know definitely that the three race horses are not infected,’ Radunz said, which meant the other eight horses probably weren’t infected. But, as a precautionary measure those eight horses were due to be tested on Monday.


The industry wasn’t prepared to take chances anymore.



Monday 10 September – Day 33



On Monday, as horses in the Territory were being re-tested, Peter Beattie announced his intention to resign as Queensland’s Premier. He would quit politics by the end of the week. It was a shock announcement, depending on who you talked to.


Beattie had been Premier for nine years. For the past three years he’d been widely criticised over the health system and transport infrastructure. More criticism followed his determination to execute a state-wide merge of Councils, reducing the number from 145 to 75.


Beattie was steadfast, facing the opposition and the media with his famous grin. Hinting at retirement after winning the last election, Beattie stayed on to make sure all his reforms were in place, or in progress. The horse flu, an altogether unexpected crisis, shattered the grim bulwark. ‘You get to a stage in your life when you’re over it,’ he said. ‘I’m over it.’


Beattie ruled out a move to federal politics. With the Labor Caucus due to meet on Wednesday to elect the new Premier, he told them to vote for his deputy Anna Bligh.


Queensland, he said, was ready for a female leader. ‘If you’d have asked me that question 20 years ago I would have said it was going to be tough,’ Beattie said. ‘But Queensland has changed.’


As Beattie was resigning, the President of Queensland Thoroughbred Breeders, Bob Frapell, offered sympathy to horse owners stranded at Warwick but said movement in and out of Morgan Park must be stopped.


The virus was spreading rapidly to nearby properties. Frapell described the quarantine zone as a revolving door and blamed the DPI. The latest infected property was more than nine kilometres from Morgan Park. ‘The virus isn’t being transmitted by air,’ he said.


DPI Minister Tim Mulherin ordered an independent review of quarantine procedures. The virus now had more reviews than a horror movie. The Federal Government, belatedly, ordered thousands of vials of Equine Influenza vaccine.



Wednesday 12 September – Day 35



The Ipswich Turf Club made an historic announcement on Wednesday. The Deagon racetrack on Brisbane’s north side would be hosting races for the first time in more than 60 years.


The track had been a training venue since 1941. The outbreak and restrictions on moving horses saw it reinvented, temporarily, as a venue for racing. More than 50 horses would run in the six race meet.



Saturday 15 September – Day 38



Saturday was a bad day for Ric McMahon, Brisbane’s leading apprentice jockey. The 19-year old took a skull cap and vest he had used in Sydney the previous weekend to Eagle Farm racecourse. A clear breach of quarantine. Despite the inquiries, the reviews, and millions of dollars, it was errors in quarantine that were spreading the misery.


McMahon was stood down and would face a hearing.


Queensland Racing’s Chief Steward Reid Sanders said officials would meet on Monday to determine McMahon’s future. The apprentice had defended himself and said he had new saddles but the stewards wouldn’t let him ride. ‘He hadn’t adhered to the biosecurity measures,’ Sanders said.


McMahon, because of the skull cap and vest used in Sydney, was suspended for a month and fined $5000. Mal Tuttle said the penalty was fair. ‘We’ve had very strict biosecurity measures in place to avoid any further spread,’ he said. ‘A further spread into the thoroughbred racing population is something we wouldn’t like to see.’


McMahon refused to comment after the hearing.



Monday 17 September – Day 40



Beattie cried as he officially resigned as Premier, hugging and kissing his staff before leaving the executive building to deliver his letter of resignation to Quentin Bryce, the State Governor.


Anna Bligh would be sworn in as the new Premier. As she determined to restructure cabinet, restrictions on moving horses were relaxed, allowing riders living outside the Red Zone to ride on in. But horse owners north of Kilkivan and Cooloola, west of Nanango, Wambo and Tara needed a waybill so movements could be tracked.



Wednesday 19 September – Day 42



Ron Glanville shattered the hopes of hundreds of horse owners in Queensland’s south east. New restrictions would apply to horses on properties close to infected areas. Glanville’s restrictions confirmed industry fears that the situation would worsen. ‘Movements generally won’t be allowed but if you’re in those shires around the margins then there’ll be similar conditions to what we’ve had for the rest of the state,’ he said.


It was still lockdown. Move a horse, break a law.



Saturday 22 September – Day 45



The crisis lurched. Two horses at Sydney’s Warwick Farm, a training venue, had tested positive. The first scheduled public race meeting at Rosehill since the outbreak was cancelled.


Peter V’Landys believed the disease wouldn’t escape. He must’ve been devastated, but showed considerable restraint. ‘We are going to try and contain the disease and hopefully try to vaccinate the remainder of the horses at Warwick Farm but at this stage the uncertainty continues,’ he said. ‘Somehow it has got into Warwick Farm.’


Loose quarantine, perhaps.



Sunday 23 September – Day 46



As Warwick Farm’s fallibility resounded throughout New South Wales, the availability of the vaccine became all-encompassing. The first batch of European vaccines was due in a few days. The infected states were arguing over first access.


V’Landys believed there’d be enough for New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.


Victorian racing officials, wanting to protect the Spring Carnival and the Melbourne Cup, demanded the first shot. In Queensland there had been no confirmed cases among thoroughbreds, but that didn’t mean the vaccine wasn’t required.


Steadfastly, V’Landys said 50,000 vaccines were enough for everyone initially, but warned more would be needed to quell the spread. ‘The Federal Government (must) order a second batch immediately, another 50,000 for booster shots.’


The vaccine was useless unless horses received a second dose within 14 days. V’Landys was desperate for the booster shots, as were officials in Victoria and Queensland and moaned that the Federal Government hadn’t yet given the vaccines formal authority to enter the country. ‘That should be forthcoming,’ he said.


The formal authority would take a national telephone hook-up of all State and Territory Primary Industries officials, followed by a chat with Federal Ministers in the afternoon.


They talked for hours before McGauran decided Victoria would get the vaccines first to protect the Spring Carnival. Not surprisingly, the announcement left interstate racing officials outraged.



Renowned trainer Lee Freedman said the vaccines should’ve been available since the outbreak began and hinted Peter McGauran, who made the announcement, hadn’t exactly been prominent throughout the crisis. ‘It’s gladdening to hear that Mr McGauran’s making noises.’


Noises wouldn’t be enough. Freedman wanted his horses inoculated within a week. ‘Get some immunity up and keep the carnival going,’ he said.


In Queensland, Tim Mulherin wanted first dibs on the vaccine because horse flu wasn’t yet affecting the State’s thoroughbred racing industry. He could want all he liked.



Monday 24 September – Day 47



The absolute calamity of the virus became apparent as it forced the postponement of the lucrative Magic Million Yearling Sales at the Gold Coast. Bob Frappell said organisers had no alternative. Horses were getting sick.


The event, scheduled for January, was scrapped because the virus hadn’t been contained, leaving the Gold Coast community shattered. Frappell admitted he didn’t know when the event would happen. ‘We have been assured that it is not on the 9th to the 16th of January as previously advertised.’


The equine influenza outbreak was now affecting every element of the industry, horses, income jobs and livelihoods. ‘This is an absolute national disaster,’ Frappell said.


Things would get worse. That same day Brisbane’s racing precinct was locked down because of the flu, the first time the virus spread to thoroughbreds in Queensland.


Six horses stabled at Hendra were showing symptoms. Two had returned positive results that still needed confirmation. One of the horses raced on Saturday. Another did track work earlier that morning.


The disease was getting all the help it needed to spread. Horses were racing each other to pass it on. Loose quarantine meant jockeys, trainers and officials worked just as hard to spread it.


As racing and training at Doomben and Eagle Farm was suspended, it was announced that 7000 vials of horse flu vaccine would be made available to Queensland Racing officials on Friday.


The officials frowned, chewed on wet bottom lips and swore. It was too late. The horse had already bolted.



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.


Do you really enjoy the Almanac concept?
And want to ensure it continues in its current form, and better? To help keep things ticking over please consider making your own contribution.

Become an Almanac (annual) member – CLICK HERE
One off financial contribution – CLICK HERE
Regular financial contribution (monthly EFT) – CLICK HERE


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…

Leave a Comment