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Racing: Horses get sick, don’t they? – Part 4

Assyrian, named after an empire, did not get sick – Patsy Watson



Tuesday 25 September – Day 48


Queensland’s equine influenza crisis had been hacking its way through equestrian nags and pleasure horses with alarming speed. On Tuesday, Biosecurity Queensland said six horses stabled at Hendra and two horses at Doomben were showing signs of the flu. Both tracks were locked down because of the possibility of more suspected cases.


The illness had previously been confined to thoroughbreds in New South Wales and Victorian. Eight suspected cases of influenza among Queensland thoroughbreds were hours away from being confirmed. Chief Vet Ron Glanville said the lockdown was necessary, because restrictions on horse movements away from the south-east had stymied the spread. ‘It’s still a difficult disease to control in those areas where we do have it,’ he said. ‘It is still spreading locally.’


The disease was spreading duplicitously, horse on horse, person on horse. The Commonwealth was spending millions trying to stop it. The States were in lockdown. Owners, trainers, jockeys and apprentices had been advised on how to prevent it spreading.


Nothing worked.


QR’s Mal Tuttle said the disease would spread quickly among 500 thoroughbreds stabled at Doomben and Eagle Farm. Tuttle had spoken beautifully, never dodging a question since the outbreak. ‘It’s likely that all of those horses will contract the virus,’ he warned.


Queensland Racing Minister Andrew Fraser said Brisbane’s racing industry was likely to be shut down for five months, at least until February.


Fresh from a meeting with officials from Queensland Racing, Harness Racing and the DPI, Fraser said compensation wasn’t an immediate priority. People were focused on managing the suspected outbreak, something politicians had been saying for weeks.


A month after the virus was first discovered in Queensland, racing and training in Brisbane was cancelled indefinitely. DPI Minister Tim Mulherin said a scheduled vaccination program of unexposed horses would still go ahead. ‘There’s a heap of other racing horses that could be inoculated,’ he said.


New Queensland Premier Anna Bligh backed Fraser, and said the government wasn’t considering a rescue package for the industry. The focus remained on containing the outbreak. It was too early to discuss compensation, she said, and hinted it would be some time before a decision on financial assistance was made. ‘When we have a better understanding of what it’s meant for people, and when we see the outcome of the Federal inquiry,’ Bligh said.


The State was already spending billions on infrastructure, water, roads and health, the biggest expenditure in its history. Bligh wanted Justice Callinan’s inquiry to provide guidance, but there wasn’t much more to understand. Each sniffle was costing the state millions.


Wednesday 26 September – Day 49


Overnight, the advice and scientific analysis Bligh received indicated disaster, shutdown, months of recovery and millions of dollars spent and lost. Bligh refused to give Callinan’s inquiry a chance at guidance. In the morning, she declared the outbreak a state disaster and asked the Federal Government for financial help. A full month since the outbreak, Bligh said the State Disaster Management group had been activated. The government would offer urgent, short term compensation for those in the industry.


‘Everybody from strappers to people who clean out stables are going to find their employment threatened,’ Bligh warned. ‘We need to act urgently where we can to provide income support for those people.’ Bligh’s promise included money for groceries and bills. ‘These are the sorts of arrangements that you would see if a natural disaster hit. We are treating it accordingly.’


It was a grand moment of politics, her first as Premier. Simply diverting attention with a well-needed funding announcement. But money for milk didn’t quell the anger at how the virus dodged the Federal Government’s $616 million quarantine spend, or why it took the Queensland Government a month to activate its disaster management plan.


And Fraser’s warning rang out loud and clear. Racing in Brisbane was cancelled until February.


As the industry in south-east Queensland howled blue murder, Mal Tuttle met with Tim Mulherin to hammer out an unconditional deal. The vaccines were due on Friday. After the meeting Tuttle, with sweet clarity, further twisted Mulherin’s ear. ‘I’ve got no doubt that the entire 500 that are exercised at both Doomben and Eagle Farm and trained in the Hendra precinct will all contract EI,’ he said.


The disease didn’t discriminate. Australian horses had no resistance. Every horse exposed to the virus got it. The industry had no resistance. Infection was blanket coverage. Governments were doing the best they could to scrape horseshit from the blanket.


However, races scheduled for Rockhampton in central Queensland and Atherton in the far north, would go ahead.


Thursday 27 September – Day 50


The disease continued its gallop through south-east Queensland, with two new cases confirmed on the Darling Downs. Chief Vet Ron Glanville said there was another suspected case at Beerwah on the Sunshine Coast, along with positive blood tests from Pilton and Ma Ma Creek near Toowoomba. ‘That’s further disappointing news,’ Glanville said.


Disappointing wasn’t the right word for people who owned sick horses. Glanville said the vaccine would first go to unexposed race horses on the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Toowoomba and Ipswich. ‘Locations where there are high value horses,’ he said.


The thoroughbred’s preferential treatment had been extended beyond racing and rutting madly during season. Stallions, remember, could go five times a day, proving horses aren’t that dumb after all.


As Glanville tried to protect the thoroughbreds, the equestrian industry rued its bad luck. The vaccine was also being sent to thoroughbreds on spelling farms. Those who prance about and jump puddles and painted barrels were getting nothing except the flu.


Friday 28 September – Day 51


Early on Friday morning. Queensland’s Premier Anna Bligh announced the $20 million rescue package for the horse industry. More than a month after the outbreak, the government’s assistance package was operational.


As part of the package, a mobile one-stop-shop was dispatched to Hamilton in Brisbane’s racing precinct. Essentially a trailer on the back of a truck, the one-stop-shop was manned by DPI officials who would help people apply for funding. Services were also available at Warwick, Goondiwindi, Mt Tamborine, Rosewood and Brookfield.


Individuals struggling amidst the crisis could apply for $155. Families in the industry could be eligible for $750. Businesses struggling with interest payments on loans could apply for $5000. And $5 million would go to help the horse industry retain skilled employees.


‘The people doing it tough are not confined to the racing industry,’ Bligh said. ‘The horse industry is much broader than most people think and we want to help anyone who has been affected.’


The Queensland Government’s crisis funding was announced 20 days after the Federal Government $110 million recovery package. Those in the industry now had access to $130 million in milk money. ‘We anticipate that our rescue package could run to $20 million in the short term and are working with the industry to keep on top of the situation as it evolves,’ Bligh said.


Attempts to contain the outbreak, and buying vaccines had already cost the Queensland Government $1.5 million. With rising costs in mind, Bligh ordered a top-level Equine Influenza Taskforce to monitor the outbreak. The taskforce reported directly to Bligh. She was monitoring the taskforce, and waiting, like everyone in the industry, for the first of 100,000 vaccines to arrive.


Later that morning, the Sunshine Coast’s racing industry received a boost as tests cleared horses at Beerwah of infection. Lockdown was lifted at the Sunshine Coast Turf Club as the negative results ensured Corbould Park could host a race meet in November.


Mid-afternoon, the Federal Government confirmed a supply of 20,000 vials of vaccine had arrived from France. Queensland was allocated 9240 shots and along with the lockdown at Eagle Farm and Doomben, large buffer zones were established around the south east’s Red Zone.


Chief Vet Ron Glanville said the buffer zones were necessary, because new outbreaks were being confirmed almost daily. Movement was restricted in the buffer zones, and horse owners in those areas were unlikely to receive vaccines. ‘Vaccination will be targeted in very specific areas,’ Glanville said. ‘We are not planning a general vaccination of horses in the Red Zone in the short term.’


Glanville was aware that all horse owners were impatient, but with limited supplies, the vaccine distribution was being carefully managed. ‘The first priority will be those large groups of horses that make a significant contribution to the economy and people’s livelihoods,’ he said. ‘This means racing precincts, spelling farms and other locations where high-performance horses are kept.’


The equestrian industry seethed as Glanville added further regulations. Only vets trained by the DPI could deliver the vaccinations. And Glanville provided two warnings to the industry. ‘Immunisation does not provide immediate protection,’ he said. ‘Horse owners are reminded that strict movement controls are still in place in the Red Zone.’


Horses, sick or healthy, were not permitted to move out of the Red Zone. Anyone wanting to move a horse inside the Red Zone had to apply for a permit. ‘If everyone plays their part, we still stand a good chance of beating this disease,’ Glanville said.


Glanville’s warning had merit. Two men, a 34-year-old from Tara, west of Toowoomba, and a 21-year-old stockman from Bowenville, west of Brisbane, had been charged with allegedly moving horses without permits.


The charges left industry officials upset and angry. At the same time, industry figures wanting to remain anonymous claimed that horses were being moved illegally each day, in furniture removal trucks and refrigerated trucks, rather than floats.


Have horse, will travel. Damn the restrictions.


Peter Toft, a well-known endurance rider who had competed overseas, complained the crisis could last until next March. Toft wanted every horse in the equestrian industry vaccinated quickly. ‘Our view is that managed one way, this crisis can be over in three months,’ he said. ‘But with the process we are following at the moment, it will take a minimum of seven months.’


For Toft, the outbreak would quickly become much worse.


Saturday 29 September – Day 52


Brisbane’s first shipment of French vaccine arrived 52 days after the first infected horses were trucked into Eastern Creek Quarantine Station on 8 August. The shipment was a little short, leaving the industry miffed. About 5000 vials were immediately distributed to approved vets throughout the south-east. Thoroughbreds, as the Government said, were getting jabbed first.


Victoria, by virtue of the Spring Carnival and Melbourne Cup, was already vaccinating horses. Industry figures in Queensland complained bitterly about the favouritism.


As the vaccines were distributed in Queensland, there were concerns about the illegal trade. But at the end of the day, there were no reports of the vaccine turning up on internet trading sites. Police, despite being on notice, didn’t arrest anyone for trading the vaccine illegally. The horse industry had already squabbled over the vaccines like seagulls. Now it seemed they were willing to pat their horses as they sneezed instead of breaking the law for the cure.


About 2000 thoroughbreds were vaccinated in Toowoomba, Gold Coast, Ipswich and the Sunshine Coast. The New South Wales vaccination program was also underway.


Sunday 30 September – Day 53


Racing Victoria refused to buckle beneath the pressure, steadfastly refusing to allow horses from New South Wales and Queensland to run in the Spring Racing Carnival. The Victorian outbreak had been contained at Spotswood, and the state’s racing officials were denying those in the northern states access to the millions waged and won during the Spring Carnival. No nag was crossing the border.


Racing Victoria’s Chief Vet, Dr John McCaffrey, set up an unpleasant red light on the banks of the Murray River. Border security, he said, would be enforced. ‘It’s very much the same as bringing a horse out of an infected area overseas,’ McCaffrey said.


His statement left people slapping their thighs in laughter. About seven weeks earlier, the quarantine restrictions McCaffrey touted hadn’t worked. AQIS wasn’t vigilant enough to stop an infected horse from getting into the country.


McCaffrey wasn’t asked to explain his faith in the new restrictions on horse movements and hastily arranged quarantine rules. Still, he wouldn’t budge. There would be no Queensland horses, none from New South Wales and none from Japan racing in Melbourne through October and November.


Japan, in the midst of its own unnatural disaster, took no offence at the exclusion. They could hardly complain, given where the outbreak started. The racing boards of Queensland and New South Wales were different.


Quarantine officials did a count. There were 3193 infected premises in New South Wales and Queensland.


Monday 1 October – Day 54


Almost six weeks after Queensland’s outbreak at Morgan Park, about 120 horse owners and employees stranded in Warwick were given permission to leave. There’d be no more quarantine, prisoners or cook-outs.


Queensland’s DPI Minister Tim Mulherin told the National Committee on Emergency Animal Disease that all 255 horses at Morgan Park should be allowed to leave. It had been 30 days since the last horse at the facility had been sick. ‘I know the past five weeks have been very difficult for the owners,’ Mulherin said. ‘I want to thank them for their patience and cooperation with the ongoing program of containment and eradication of equine influenza.’


A comprehensive plan had been implemented, allowing horses and people without contamination free passage. ‘We have to be certain that every horse is fully recovered and that releasing them does not pose any further risk of infection of other horses,’ Mulherin said. ‘The committee of chief veterinary officers will meet today at 11am to consider the DPI plan. If all goes well these people should be able to leave on Tuesday.’


Event manager Simon Goddard said the green light was a relief, but it could be more than a week before all the owners could leave. The decontamination process wasn’t quick and involved horses, people, cars and floats all having chemical showers. ‘We’re looking at about forty horses and forty vehicles per day,’ he said.


Those stranded were hundreds of kilometres from home, tired, angry, frustrated, and in some cases, broke, but the wait to be decontaminated wasn’t causing any arguments. ‘It’s been an orderly group consensus as to who goes when,’ Goddard said.


It wasn’t. Number fifty isn’t number one. Three days isn’t three hours. The discussions, about the pecking order, settled on those who had to travel the greatest distance to get home. And their horses needed a permit to travel. They had to travel directly to their destination. Any stopping or spelling need approval. Horses moving within the Red Zone were still governed by strict restrictions. And once a horse returned to its home stable, it had to remain isolated for two weeks.


As people lined up their horses and vehicles for a virus-cleansing shower, quarantine officials watched on closely.



To read more from Matt Watson, click 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…

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