This August marks ten years since the darkest times in Australian Racing history - where the 2007 outbreak of the Equine Influenza virus bought the industry to a complete standstill, crippling hundreds of participants, at its most important time of the year.
*A horse at Rosehill Gardens preparing for EI vaccination. Image courtesy AP Photos.
With over 75,000 horses infected by the virus, the outbreak was declared a disaster for the Australian horse racing and breeding industry. For 3 months, no metropolitan race meetings were held in NSW and Queensland, creating a flow on effect for wagering turnover in all other states. A total of 193 NSW thoroughbred race meetings were lost, including the entire Sydney Spring Carnival. Harness Racing lost 331 meetings across both states. The racing industry alone estimated a total loss of $500 million - that's $4.2 million a day!
Equine Influenza (EI) is an acute, highly contagious, air-borne viral disease which can cause rapidly spreading outbreaks of respiratory disease in horses and other equine species. Humans do not get infected with EI however can carry the virus on their skin, hair and clothing therefore transferring the virus between horses. It is believed that this factor was a major contributor in the spread of the virus.
The lock downs and movement bans meant that businesses suddenly ground to a halt and people lost their income. Control centres were set up across the nation. Over 62,000 phone calls were made to the official EI hotline, 132,000 laboratory tests for the virus were carried out and over 63,000 horses were vaccinated. The costs to contain the outbreak totaled more than $130 million.
It wasn't just the racing industry that was affected by the quarantine measures - equestrian and polo competitors and venues, tour operators, pony clubs and petting zoos, suppliers, farmers, the mounted Police, caterers, fashion retailers and milliners all suffered.
Working at Sydney Turf Club's Rosehill Gardens office at the time, I was part of their EI Committee. We worked as the liaisons between the government control centre, trainers, staff and suppliers to manage the quarantine procedures during the lock down. Sign in forms, buckets and scrubbing brushes, antiseptics, sterilisers, face masks and disposable body suits quickly became part of the daily routine.
Never having experienced something of this magnitude before, there was an obvious heavy mood over the track. Trainer David Payne told of his experiences with the virus in South Africa. Kevin Berry sent his apprentice sons Tommy and Nathan to Perth to keep up their riding. While the Turf Club could derive some income from our non-raceday events, the trainers were not so lucky. Horses continued to be trained but end goals had now disappeared. With no light at the end of the tunnel, we all waited and we all worried.
Ten years on, the detection of EI in Australia is now regarded as an emergency and is a notifiable disease. Vaccination procedures remain in place for horses travelling overseas. We are only one of the very few countries in the world to fully eradicate the virus however strict biosecurity measures remain important for the ongoing prevention of all infectious diseases in horses. The EI outbreak was certainly an eye-opening and extremely testing time for all involved and one that hopefully we will never have to experience again.
THE EI OUTBREAK TIMELINE
8 August 2007 – A cargo plane of horses arrives at Tullamarine Airport, Victoria from Japan. Some are transported to Victoria’s Spotswood Quarantine Station, while others are taken to Eastern Creek Quarantine Station (ECQS) in Sydney’s west. This occurred shortly after an EI outbreak in Japan and it is believed at least one of the horses was shedding the virus on board the plane. The most likely means by which EI then entered the general horse population is via insufficient biosecurity controls at ECQS, allowing a contaminated person or equipment to leave the station.
21 August - Several horses at ECQS show symptoms of a viral infection and subsequently tested positive for EI. On the same day, several recreational horses at Centennial Parklands Equestrian Centre in Sydney also display symptoms. There was no direct contact between
horses at Eastern Creek and horses at Centennial Park.
24 August - The first case of EI in Australia is confirmed in a stallion at Eastern Creek resulting in the lock down of approximately 60 horses at both the Eastern Creek and Spotswood quarantine stations.
25 August –There are now over 80 suspected cases of EI. The National Committee for Exotic Animal Disease declare a national standstill on horse movements. Federal Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran orders a 72-hour nationwide ban on all horse and harness racing. Victoria is declared a Control Area and other states are on high alert.
*Image courtesy of NSW Department of Primary Industries
26 August - 161 of the 165 horses at Centennial Parklands and other horses around NSW are confirmed as being infected. Most of the infected horses at Centennial Park were found to have been together at a One Day Equestrian Event at Maitland the previous week.
27 August – Randwick Racecourse is locked down after confirmed cases. Federal Primary Industries Minister Senator Ian Macdonald extends the 72-hour ban on horse movement to 7 days. The NSW Government subsequently made the ban on horse movements and race meetings indefinite, postponing the Sydney Spring Carnival. Over 50 race meetings are lost during this first week. More than 400 horses on 50 properties in NSW have been quarantined by now and further cases of infection are found across NSW and Queensland.
28 August – Mounted Police patrols for APEC Australia Summit are cancelled after all NSW police horses are quarantined. Birdsville Cup races, The Parkes Show, a 3-day Olympic qualifying equestrian event and cattle mustering in Queensland are all cancelled.
29 August – Hamilton racecourse in Victoria is placed in lock down however flu tests are negative. Werribee Open Range Zoo cancels the rhinoceros tour, bans human contact with zebras and removes horses and donkeys off public display. Quarantine zones continue to be declared around NSW following further positive tests.
30 August – Confirmed infections are now 488 on 41 properties, plus another 1,646 suspected infections on 100 properties. Federal Government announces a $4 million emergency fund to help people suffering financial difficulty due to the EI outbreak. This fund ended up being a $263 million assistance package.
2 September – Australian Prime Minister John Howard orders a public inquiry into the EI outbreak in Australia, appointing former High Court judge Ian Callinan to conduct the inquiry.
12 September - Both Inglis and Magic Millions postpone their upcoming sale series indefinitely.
22 September – Racing is due to resume at Rosehill Gardens but is cancelled at the last minute after an outbreak at Warwick Farm racecourse.
1 October – Racing NSW completes its initial EI emergency vaccination program of 3,000 horses. Another 130,000 vials of vaccine are due in Australia from Paris in the coming days. Tabcorp reports a $150 million drop in wagering in the past month.
5 November – A new outbreak occurs near Walcha, NSW
6 November – Melbourne Cup Day proceeds without any NSW or QLD horses. Despite residing only 1km north of the Victorian border in Corowa NSW, Leica Falcon is unable to compete in this year’s Melbourne Cup.
8 December – The number of new cases has declined and it appears that the outbreak has been effectively contained.
22 December - A substantial part of the NSW Control One area is promoted to a provisionally EI free status and racing resumes.
23 January 2008 - The Keeper of the Australian Stud Book, Michael Ford, reports a 13% decrease on mare coverings, a decline that will affect the breeding industry for up to six years.
29 February 2008 - The NSW Government declares victory against EI, lifting most of the remaining movement restrictions on horses. Queensland was declared EI free a few weeks later.
12 June 2008 – The Callinan Report findings are publicly released in a scathing report, in which Australia's quarantine system was described as "inefficient, underfunded and lacking diligence.” The Federal Government appointed Professor Peter Shergold to oversee the implementation of the report's recommendations over 2009 - 2010 to ensure an outbreak of this kind never occurs again.
December 2008 - Australia regains its Equine Influenza Free status from The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
December 2012 - Maurice Blackburn Lawyers commence preparations for a class action suit against the Commonwealth over the biosecurity failure resulting in the EI outbreak. After failed mediation attempts, the suit was abandoned in June 2016, leaving the law firm $11 million out of pocket.
Today - Australia continues to be EI free.
The full Callinan Report can be viewed HERE.
*I kept this photo all these years... Sunrise over Rosehill Gardens. This scheduled meeting was cancelled not long after this photo went to print due to an outbreak at Warwick Farm. The Daily Telegraph 22/9/07 (Photo Brett Costello).
*Image courtesy of NSW Department of Primary Industries