Racing: Horses get sick, don’t they? – Part 5


Horses spread the virus by nuzzling – Patsy Watson



Tuesday 2 October – Day 55


The crisis of equine influenza worsened to a crisis of life. An Arabian horse sick with the disease died on a property at Marburg, west of Brisbane. The heavily pregnant mare had to be put down. She became Queensland’s first reported case of death associated with horse flu.

Peter Toft was distraught. An endurance breeder, rider and exporter, he had never seen anything like it in more than 20 years. The death wasn’t singular. The mare was days from delivery and frantic vets weren’t able to save the foal. ‘This horse was so down from being so sick for so long and also being so pregnant that she could not get through it,’ Toft said.

Understandably emotional, Toft criticised the government and lamented the financial loss. It had been two weeks, he said, since he told the DPI the mare had the flu. An inspector still hadn’t paid him a visit and he was ropeable.  ‘It’s a victim of equine influenza,’ he said.

As Toft let fly at the State Government, horse owners in Ipswich were organising a rally for the coming weekend, giving people affected by the flu a voice by protesting at the Government’s inability to manage the outbreak.

The State Opposition Leader, Jeff Seeney said the DPI was struggling to cope with the crisis because of funding cuts. ‘They are clearly overwhelmed by the horse flu outbreak,’ Seeney said. ‘That’s a direct result of the fact that the department has been gutted over the years.’

Queensland Racing added to the misery. It had received about 5000 vaccination vials in Friday’s initial roll out and they were expecting to run out by the afternoon. Mal Tuttle said 27,000 vials were needed to vaccinate all the thoroughbreds in the south-east.

The vaccines had been distributed by Federal authorities. Queensland received less than a fifth of what was required, and less than they were promised.

With about 150,000 more vials due to arrive in Australia any day, Tuttle had requested more but admitted there wouldn’t be enough to go round. ‘I think there’d be a number of horse groups in each of the three states that certainly would’ve liked to have received more vaccine,’ he said. ‘But we can only deal with what we are allocated.’

But Tuttle had some good news to light the gloom. Racing in provincial cities, Toowoomba and the Gold and Sunshine Coasts could return by December, and the regional vaccination program was progressing well. ‘We’ve been having a look at the program of vaccination, the opportunity for horses to resume track work and ultimately move between stables and spelling farms,’ he said.

It was a plea to the industry to do what the government said, and don’t break quarantine. The industry just didn’t get it.


Wednesday 3 October – Day 56


Officials and lawyers, witnesses and victims of equine influenza gathered in Sydney for the start of Retired High Court Judge Justice Callinan’s Inquiry into the outbreak. Predictably, the hearing was told infected horses, or human contact with horses could be to blame.

The hearing heard a consignment of horses from Japan was unloaded at Sydney’s airport early in August. The horses were taken to Sydney’s Eastern Creek quarantine centre, a venue that had been heavily criticised for its biosecurity measures since the outbreak began. It appeared, from the evidence, that vets, grooms and other staff members could enter Eastern Creek without protective clothing or adequate security checks. They could leave the same way, without decontamination.

At the time, no one knew the flu was a threat. Besides, there were $616 million reasons why it shouldn’t have entered Australia. But someone, at some stage, must’ve noticed a horse with a runny nose or a nasal neigh. Experienced trainers and vets had access to Eastern Creek and no one reported a sick horse until it was too late.

It is simplistic to blame slack quarantine to the lack of a previous outbreak. A person with the flu is noticeable. To a vet, a horse with the flu appears exactly the same. As the hearing wound its way to an inevitable outcome, people would quit their jobs instead of getting sacked.

The Special Commission of Inquiry was scheduled to reconvene in November. Justice Ian Callinan was armed with the powers of a Royal Commission. He would examine the circumstances surrounding the outbreak and determine whether quarantine processes for imported horses needed strengthening.

It was hardly worth paying Callinan the money. The Special Commission of Inquiry was a no-brainer. Already, everyone knew the answers.

As Callinan pondered the obvious, The Brisbane Turf Club, in the midst of a turbulent proposed merger with the Queensland Turf Club, said the members would decide if it went ahead.

The two clubs, separated by Nudgee Road, known colloquially as the Gaza Strip, competed for funding, members and events. A vote, planned for August, had been stymied by legal reasons. Another was scheduled for November. The merger needed a 75 percent majority to pass. The BTC’s chairman, Mary Collier, didn’t believe the vote would be affected by the crisis. ‘I do see the ability to handle the equine influenza crisis as very distinct from a vote on a merger for our club,’ she said.

Given the two clubs’ ability at handling the virus – they were both in lockdown – there were fears the merger would be calamitous, that it wouldn’t happen even though it made financial sense.

Queensland Racing, aggrieved the two clubs were a short ride apart, was reducing its funding. The current arrangement saw the BTC and the QTC receive a million dollars a year. QR was planning to slash that by half.

The outbreak was already costing both clubs millions. Some in the industry mused about the virtue of the merger while others dug a trench and gathered arms.


Thursday 4 October – Day 57


The merger gained a high profile giddy-up on Thursday when retired Supreme Court justice, Bill Carter QC, backed the deal. Carter, a member of both turf clubs, said metropolitan racing in Brisbane needed unifying. The merger would boost the racing industry after the outbreak was over. ‘The racing industry is on its knees now,’ Carter said.

On the Gold Coast, the outbreak forced the Magic Millions Carnival to be rescheduled. For the first time in 22 years it would be held in March. Managing Director David Chester said Easter was a good time of year. The carnival would coincide with a $4 million dollar race day on Easter Monday. ‘Our only option was to look at Easter,’ Chester said. ‘It’s similar to our original January dates. People will be on holidays.’

Chester didn’t say it, but the event had been timed to coincide with predictions that the outbreak would be finished by April.

Late afternoon, the Queensland Government timed a media release to make it into that night’s news bulletins. The release, issued by DPI Minister Tim Mulherin, reminded horse owners that they could not move horses in the Red Zone without a permit. Mulherin was disappointed by reports about horse owners ignoring the lockdown. ‘It seems that some people see the vaccination program as a signal that everything is now okay and they can move their horses,’ he said. ‘That is wrong. We are at a critical point in the horse flu response program and it’s vital that, as much as possible, horses stay where they are.’

Complacency would extend the crisis, Mulherin said; and he reminded people that riding a horse off its property or relocating a horse via truck or float was still banned in the Red Zone, unless a permit was obtained. And permits were only being issued for essential horse movements, including life threatening illness.

Police, Queensland Transport and DPI&F officers were out and about, ready to intercept anyone moving horses in or out of the Red Zone without a permit.


Friday 5 October – Day 58


Despite equine influenza ravaging the south east, Biosecurity Queensland was confident the virus was contained within the red zone. More help was on the way, with another 5000 doses of the vaccine due later that day. Another shipment was expected to arrive on Monday.

Chief Vet Ron Glanville, despite the perceived victory, said vaccination wasn’t a panacea. ‘You can still get the disease although it does reduce the impact of it,’ he said.

Care was needed. The flu, it seemed, was capable of trickery. Limited vaccine supplies added to the illusion. ‘We have the risk of actually masking infection and the disease going on longer than necessary.’ Glanville warned.


Saturday 6 October – Day 59


The industry woke in the chill to more bad news. Five horses from Sydney’s Rosehill Racecourse, which had previously been free of the virus, had tested positive. The five horses had been vaccinated but immunity after vaccination usually took two weeks to build.

Peter V’Landys shook his sad head. It was another major blow to the industry, especially when he thought the outbreak had been contained.

He must’ve wondered, as everyone else did, how the virus could keep spreading, despite the quarantine, the warnings, and the impassioned pleas. Perhaps, V’Landys thought, it was spreading through the air. ‘Firstly it was Randwick, then Warwick Farm and now Rosehill,’ he said. ‘There are around 300 horses at Rosehill and the track will now most likely be locked down.’

It was.


Sunday 7 October – Day 70


Australia had bought every available vial of vaccine stored throughout the world. More than 6000 doses, held up by transportation problems, would be administered across South East Queensland later that week.

Ron Glanville said the buffer zone would be given priority. ‘The only other thing at this stage is mopping up of horses in racing precincts who didn’t get done last week,’ he said.


Monday 8 October – Day 71


The buffer zone didn’t stand a chance. Regional centres were on notice after five thoroughbreds in Toowoomba tested positive for the flu.

QR’s Mal Tuttle said the horses at stables adjoining Clifford Park received their first inoculation against the flu on September the 29th, but still got sick. The stables would be locked down. The vaccine program was postponed, awaiting further advice from the DPI. ‘Despite all of the efforts so far to combat the virus, this afternoon’s results show the spread of equine flu continues to be a concern,’ Tuttle said.

It sure was proving to be a concern. No one had mentioned the possibility that the horses were getting the disease from the shots.


Tuesday 9 October – Day 72


To add further weight to the conspiracy of deliberate infection, Chief Vet Ron Glanville said he wasn’t surprised by the outbreak at Toowoomba. He blamed a blasé attitude at quarantine and was angry at the complacency. ‘We have been dealing with this for a while,’ he grumbled.

Needlessly he reminded people the disease was incredibly infectious. ‘You need to be extremely careful, especially when people are moving between properties that have horses.’

Basic stuff, yet the disease continued to spread. The experts continued to say it couldn’t spread by air.


Wednesday 10 October – Day 73


The flu epidemic worsened as a second Queensland horse died from complications with the flu. Overnight, vets were forced to euthanize a 19-year-old purebred Arabian Mare at a stud near Ipswich.

The death shocked the industry.

Michael Semchiso, a breeding expert, said the mare would cost more than $50,000 to replace. The death was a huge blow, a loss of life and money. The horse had been a premier broodmare. ‘She carried blood lines and a pedigree that cannot be replaced,’ Semchiso said. ‘Our senior stallion also has the flu virus and a cough right now.’ In response, the breeding season at the stud farm was shut down.

Like thousands of others, Semchiso was grappling with the full extent of the crisis, finding it difficult to understand or justify. The death had duplicitous heartache, quarantine and the bottom line.

Ipswich was previously free of the virus. Not anymore.

As the industry lurched beyond crisis, a property in the Mackay suburb of Paget in north Queensland was placed under quarantine because of a suspected case of horse flu. The DPI said quarantine measures were cautionary and it was unlikely the horse had equine influenza.

Later that day, the total area infected with horse flu in New South Wales and Queensland was estimated at 278,000 square kilometres, with more than 4500 infected properties.


Thursday 11 October – Day 74


Queensland’s DPI Minister Tim Mulherin had handled the crisis reasonably well. From the beginning nothing he had done offended Beattie or Bligh. With statuesque delivery Mulherin hadn’t bullshitted anyone either and wasn’t likely to start.

He said all thoroughbreds were due to have their second vial of vaccine by December. If it all went well horses could be moving freely around south-east Queensland by Christmas. It was a pleasant long range forecast and a warning to the industry to keep the virus contained to the south-east. ‘There would be strict controls between Red and Green zones,’ Mulherin said. ‘Horses would not be allowed to move out of the Red Zone into the Green Zone.’

Continued lockdown, vaccine or not.


Read Parts 1 -4 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.


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…


  1. Story and artwork is absolutely stunning
    I remember the horse curfew but did not know the whole story

  2. Really enjoying this series, Matt.
    There is great detail to help us remember.

Leave a Comment