Melbourne hopes high despite flu outbreak

Officials at Racing Victoria have appealed to connections of prospective runners in the Melbourne Cup not to worry about the current outbreak of equine influenza in Australia.

Officials at Racing Victoria have appealed to connections of prospective runners in the Melbourne Cup not to worry about the current outbreak of equine influenza in Australia.

Racecourses have been shut down by the Australian department for agriculture for 72 hours, starting from today, after the highly contagious equine virus was discovered in 11 non-racehorses close to Sydney’s Royal Randwick racecourse.

Racing officials in Victoria, the state which houses the Melbourne Cup course of Flemington, are believed to have already been contacted by concerned connections of horses likely to be sent over for the country’s biggest race.

However, Leigh Jordon, the director of racing operations at Racing Victoria, said: “As far as Racing Victoria is concerned, there has been no suggestion that this will impact on the international challenge at the Spring Carnival, including the Melbourne Cup, this October and November.”

Jordon was also keen to point out that the outbreak, in neighbouring New South Wales, was some 650 miles from Melbourne but that they would await further direction from the government.

Racing authorities in New South Wales and Queensland made the decision to cancel all race meetings in both states, including the Warwick Stakes at Sydney’s Royal Randwick, following the positive tests which were undertaken on 11 horses at the Centennial Park stables in Sydney late yesterday.

Victorian, Western Australian and South Australian authorities followed suit soon after as a pre-cautionary measure. Darwin initially planned to continue racing, but federal agriculture minister Peter McGauran forced the Darwin Turf Club to abandon their meeting.

The major area of concern is in Sydney, and a five kilometre exclusion zone has been established around Centennial Park – which includes Randwick itself.

Several horses stabled at Centennial Park travelled to rural meetings in NSW before the quarantine was put in place, and there are fears the equine influenza may have been introduced into the general horse population.

Such a scenario could lead to blanket bans on racing and horse transporting across the country for at least 30 days – there is already no transporting in NSW – with this period possibly being extended, depending on whether more cases of the virus appear.

Such a ban on racing and transporting, if it is put in place, could potentially affect the preparation of several horses for the forthcoming spring carnival - while British, Irish and Japanese challengers at the spring races will be unlikely to make the trip down under if there is still a threat to the general population.

It is understood that the horses which tested positive at Centennial Park were equestrian breeding horses and that the form of virus they have initially tested positive for is a less virulent form of the Equine Influenza (E1) virus than the one detected in a northern-hemisphere horse at Sydney’s Eastern Creek quarantine facility on Thursday.

However, tests are still being conducted on the 11 samples to determine whether this form of the virus is the same as the one which has stopped racing in Japan several times over the last 20 years.

The results of these tests will not be available until at least Tuesday, but fears that the virus has entered the general horse population are already mounting – especially because such an outbreak will cost the State governments and the racing industry millions of dollars.

Equine influenza is not fatal to horses but affects their performance for a period of three months.

Complicating the matter is the fact that humans can carry and transfer the E1 virus to horses without getting physically sick from it themselves.

The equine influenza scare began in Japan last week, forcing a shutdown of racing there. The virus then appeared in breeding horses in quarantine at Eastern Creek in the west of Sydney. How the virus spread from Eastern Creek to Centennial Park is of greatest concern.

This is the first time equine influenza has appeared in Australia.

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