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Racing: Horses get sick, don’t they – Part 7

Tuesday 6 November – Day 97

As Victorians celebrated the dawning of another Melbourne Cup, Queensland Racing’s Paul Brennan sympathised with punters in south east Queensland. There would be no horses running around at Eagle Farm. Tracks had been closed all across the south east for months. Brennan hoped camel racing would satisfy everyone. It wasn’t meant as a grand offering, as beautiful as camels are.


Though Brennan wanted fans to support their local clubs he expected diminished crowds. Racing clubs throughout the south-east were hopeful of putting on a good show but hope doesn’t always extend to reality. ‘We hope that everyone does go out there and supports them,’ Brennan said. ‘Obviously it is a fairly tough time for everyone in the racing industry at the moment.’




As Brennan begged for fans, Queensland’s Unitab expected the punters to invest more than $26 million on the Cup, about a million more than 2006. Unitab’s Brad Tamer said he expected the flu and three late scratchings from the Cup would impact on betting. It was hardly unexpected. ‘The scratching of Gallic, Maybe Better and just more recently The Fuzz coming out of the Cup has just taken the edge off momentum as we speak,’ he complained.


All the momentum was in Melbourne, not in south east Queensland. People were already disgruntled. Thousands would stay away from the tracks. The scratchings would cause further angst though Tamer remained optimistic. ‘We’re hopeful that people who backed those horses might look to reinvest before the Cup at 2pm this afternoon.’


Everyone in the industry had been hopeful for so long. Tamer wanted to continue the hope and release the white doves. Unitab was ready to count the money. ‘We’re hopeful of doing better than last year but those scratchings don’t help,’ he said.


More than 7000 people were expected to flock to Mackay’s racetrack, Harrup Park, in north Queensland. Mackay, along with Cairns were the only two venues in Queensland holding local races.


More than 90 horses, including those from Cairns and Longreach were due to run in Mackay at the seven race card, which was considered grand enough to be broadcast across Australia.


The Mackay Turf Club’s Ian Joblin was thrilled to host an event being broadcast live to millions but conceded it was unlikely to happen again. ‘Whilst it would be great to say that we’re going to be given opportunities like this in the future, common sense really does prevail,’ he admitted. ‘This is probably a first and last opportunity.’


Joblin promised a great show and a fight for similar events in the future. ‘But I think I’ll be asking a question I already know the answer to,’ he said. Put simply, Mackay wasn’t big enough to be broadcast for the Melbourne Cup, if the rest of Queensland didn’t have the flu.


It wasn’t scratchings that caused the drop in crowds at Eagle Farm. In 2006, about 26,000 people filled the track for the Cup. Amidst the flu epidemic, about 6000 people went to the track to watch the Melbourne Cup on televisions. The stands were empty, the sponsors tents vacant. People milled about, gazing at an empty track. It was a beautiful day. People still dressed up.


At 3pm, the 147th Melbourne Cup was off and racing. At Eagle Farm, the sparse crowd found televisions to watch. Efficient, a four-year-old New Zealand gelding was paying $16-1. Ridden by Michael Rodd, Efficient pulled away in the dying stages of the race, finishing half a length ahead of Purple Moon with Mahler in third. Efficient paid $22 for the win, making a bunch of punters happy.


The Queensland Turf Club lost about $1 million on Cup Day because it couldn’t race horses at Eagle Farm. The proposed camel races didn’t happen either. The Club said concerns with the track forced the cancellation.


That wasn’t exactly true. The camels were never a chance to run. A few weeks earlier, the Club said Eagle Farm wouldn’t be ready to race until December 15 because of track work, including the replacement of turf.


Proposed camel races were more than a gimmick. They became a lure to give the fans some respite from the misery. The Club’s Chief Executive Stephen Ferguson blamed the hardness of the track and said the races were cancelled because camels are more suited to running in sand. ‘They’ll slip on the track,’ Ferguson said.


One lonely camel padded along the artificial turf beside the track. The crowd could to pat the animal or have their photo taken with it. A man in a clown suit rode the camel, an apt example of how the punters felt, and how AQIS and the Federal Government felt.


Ferguson said there was little corporate support but the punters were doing the best they could to enjoy things. ‘They all seemed happy to be here which is terrific. I think though people are missing the horses.’


Ferguson didn’t need to think about it. The punters were disgruntled.


Kelly and her friends sat in the stand after the Cup had been run and won. Kelly watched the the vacant track and the camel mingling with clowns. She remained pragmatic about the lack of horses. ‘It would’ve been a lot better if there was horses, but I don’t know,’ she said with a shrug of her bare shoulders. ‘Not much you can do.’


Unitab couldn’t do much about the drop in revenue. Punters across the state waged more than $23 million on the Cup, $3 million short on expectations. Brendan Tamer said the nine percent hit wasn’t too bad. ‘A pretty good result under the circumstances,’ he said.


One of the liveliest Melbourne Cup events happened in Cairns, where 3000 people turned up at the meet at the Cannon Park Racecourse. Florence Dahl from the Tablelands celebrated hard when Sircay crossed the finish line in the first race. Dahl said her husband Alan continued to work hard as Sircay’s trainer despite the outbreak. ‘I’m just so excited,’ Dahl gushed. ‘My husband will be just thrilled to bits.’


Sunday 11 November – Day 102

Just days after the Cup, horse owners in Queensland were being warned they could face fines of up to $3000 if they didn’t register their animals. The Queensland Performance and Pleasure Horse Industry group said owners were now legally required to register the number and location of all their horses with the Department of Primary Industries.


The group’s chairman Peter Toft said registering horses was crucial. If owners refused, it could restrict future movement permits and hamper applications for vaccination against equine influenza.


Toft sounded like he was a politician. Previously he’d been critical of the government. Clearly he was chuffed the vaccination of 26,000 performance and pleasure horses in Queensland had begun.


Monday 12 November – Day 103

Queensland Racing’s Mal Tuttle said the results of about 800 blood tests on thoroughbreds in south east Queensland showed they were developing an immunity to equine influenza.


Tuttle said horses that contracted the virus naturally in Brisbane were tested to make sure it was safe to expose them to horses that had been vaccinated. ‘We’ve introduced a new rule of racing that requires horses to have a level of immunity when they are moved back into registered stables and are moved onto registered race courses,’ he said.


Horses who caught the virus naturally could mingle only with horses who had been vaccinated. It made sense that the industry was being over-regulated, but everyone knew the gate was shut far too late.


The Queensland Government’s response to the outbreak, quarantine, registration of all horses, the vaccination program, the Red and Green Zones, hadn’t failed. Certainly there were a number of infractions, but the government forced the racing industry to change its attitude to quarantine.


As a reward, the approved movement of thoroughbred horses in the south east was another easing of the restrictions stemming from the outbreak. Tuttle was thrilled vaccinated horses had the required level of immunity to interact with other horses.


The crisis was improving. ‘In relation to the horses that contracted the virus naturally, we’ve taken the precaution of taking blood samples and having those analysed,’ Tuttle crooned. ‘To ensure they do have the required level of immunity.’


The tests proved what everyone hoped for. Once a horses contracted the virus and survived, it built immunity.


Tuesday 13 November – Day 104

The Brisbane Turf club was hoping a big money race on 1 December would lure punters back to Doomben. The break from racing had allowed maintenance on tracks at Eagle Farm, the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast, which were all looking magnificent.


Queensland Racing’s Mal Tuttle reminded everyone how the punters were looking forward to the resumption in racing. The feature race with open sprinters was worth $100,000. ‘We’re hoping to attract two of the better sprinters going around in Australia at the moment, namely Takeover Target and Natural Destiny.’




The punters would know, Tuttle said. It was going to be a great day.


Sunday 18 November – Day 109

It had been a rough ride but racing was two weeks away from resuming. Hoping everything would go right, Queensland Racing was forced to reject suggestions there wouldn’t be enough horses to go around. Races were scheduled for Doomben, Toowoomba and the Gold and Sunshine Coast’s on December 1.


QR’s Mal Tuttle confirmed there wouldn’t be a shortage on race day and said too many horses turned up for recent barrier trials at the Gold Coast. A range of barrier trials were scheduled for Toowoomba, at the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast and at Ipswich. ‘We’ve seen a fantastic response to those barrier trials,’ he said. ‘There’s no doubt that there will be plenty of horses available for the resumption of racing.’


Monday 19 November – Day 110

Queensland Racing’s Chairman Bob Bentley was dejected. The death of the proposed merger between the Queensland Turf Club and the Brisbane Turf Club shocked the industry. It was likely both racing club’s annual funding, $1 million, would be slashed by half.


Angry the Brisbane Turf Club showed scant regard for the cash, Bentley complained they had run a misleading fear campaign against the merger. Its members, he said, believed in two misconceptions, that Doomben was going to be sold for housing and the Queensland Turf Club hadn’t planned adequately for future revenue.


Bentley thought metropolitan racing in Brisbane would be better served with one administrative body running both tracks. ‘The members wanted to see an integrated development plan which hasn’t been done yet because the merger hasn’t gone through,’ Bentley complained. ‘So all that’s been put forward to the meeting is incorrect and people were voting and listening on a misconception.’


Misconception had been the industry’s initial reaction to the equine influenza crisis. Though it finally learned and understood, it was no wonder the merger didn’t go ahead. There was too much uncertainty and so much pride at stake. To succeed, the merger needed 75 percent of members to vote yes. The vote was agonisingly short, with 72.5 percent of members voting yes. Queensland’s racing industry was testing itself with chest-beating bravado. Both clubs were trying to outdo each other, seeing who would make it through the crisis in the best shape.


Queensland Racing’s frustration extended to timing. Though the members knew the industry would recover from the flu, it didn’t help that the vote was taken during the crisis.


It was another distraction, another chance at levelling accusations at each other for alleged breaches of quarantine and allegations of a takeover instead of a merger. It was a definite fear campaign, and it spread, like a virus, among the members.


Galloping on was the only option.




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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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