It’s getting a little coverage in the trade publications in the US, but the outbreak of equine influenza in Australia is already having a major effect on the sport Down Under. Perhaps uniquely, it is affecting both racing and breeding:
Racing officials announced early today that horses from the Centennial Park stables had returned positive tests to the highly contagious disease. This came within days of 52 horses being locked down at the Eastern Creek quarantine centre.
Most of those impounded at Eastern Creek are thoroughbred stallions worth about $500 million. They were due to begin serving some of the 30,000 mares registered in Australia when the breeding season starts on September 1.
The problems began when an ‘unnamed shuttle stallion’ tested positive for the disease earlier in the week:
THE multimillion-dollar Australian thoroughbred breeding industry was last night thrown into chaos with confirmation that a shuttle stallion has become the first horse in this country to test positive to the highly contagious virus equine influenza.
The unnamed stallion is one of 52 horses quarantined at Eastern Creek, west of Sydney.
Coolmore Australia’s general manager, Michael Kirwan, said last night that he had not been notified which stallion had contracted the virus. But, he said, Encosta De Lago had been vaccinated for equine influenza.
“None of our nine stallions at Eastern Creek are under medication,” he said. “I know from my last report that all our horses are healthy and have normal temperatures.”
Encosta De Lago is scheduled to have a meeting with Makybe Diva in the near future, so his quarantine is a major story to the casual fan as well as the confirmed railbird — so perhaps it is not unusual that his name is the one that seems to pop up in each news story:
The federal Agricultural Minister, Peter McGauran, said the suspected diagnosis of equine flu in a quarantined stallion was the biggest risk ever faced by the thoroughbred industry.
“A number of these stallions are between $100,000 and $200,000 per serve, so you can quickly do the arithmetic and see that millions of dollars are being lost. [But] it would be infinitesimal compared to the long-term effects if [the flu] was to escape into the wider horse population.”
The stallion at the centre of the scare is believed to be Encosta De Lago, which is quarantined at Eastern Creek.
And also from the Sydney Morning Herald:
Asked for a value on the stallions in lockdown, Bester replied: “How long is a piece of string? You can pluck a figure out of the air,” while also unwilling to reveal if Encosta De Lago was one of the three horses that became sick. “There is a lot of speculation, and I don’t want to repeat the rumours,” he said.
Not that anyone needed help on the rumor end of things:
In a statement issued by the office of Peter McGauran, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, testing of one horse at Eastern Creek showed “clinical signs consistent with EI and blood tests indicate a strong suspicion of a recently acquired infection”.
On Sydney radio station 2KY yesterday, McGauran indicated the suspect stallion had been infected by another stallion that had been shipped in from Japan.
“I’m afraid one of Australia’s best-known stallions has all the clinical signs of EI and the vets think it is almost certain it is EI so we’ve locked the door and shut the gate,” McGauran said.
“He (the stallion) serves five mares a day at around a fee of $200,000. He will be out of service for several weeks and it’s a heavy loss.
“But it’s not that stallion’s fault. It’s another stallion that’s been to Japan and although that horse is not showing the same coughing and high temperature, it’s probably the transmitter.”
It seems Coolmore and Darley have been equally hard-hit:
McGauran said up to 25 shuttle stallions were in quarantine facilities. Among those affected are nine of Coolmore Stud’s stallion roster including Encosta De Lago, as well as Rock Of Gibraltar, Choisir, Danehill Dancer and newcomer Holy Roman Emperor.
Sheik Mohammed’s Darley Stud has been hard hit with 17 of its team quarantined, including Elusive Quality and Exceed And Excel.
On the racing end, it seems likely that some individual racing days may be canceled over the next few days or weeks, but that the Melbourne Cup will not be affected — yet. However, the worst case scenario could look something like this:
“In most cases, it is not life-threatening,” he said. “[But] the illness is such it would stop a horse racing for a month or so.”
But there is a much greater fear. Suann recalled an outbreak in South Africa a couple of years ago. “It, like Australia, had never had an outbreak but when it arrived it spread through the population and basically shut down racing for a prolonged period,” he said.
Given the international angle to this story, US racing fans should be concerned not just about the breeding end of things (although I’m not sure who, beyond the accountants for Coolmore and Darley, is convinced that stallions need to serve so many mares in both hemispheres — I see this as bad from an immediate health perspective as well as an object lesson in how to create a genetic bottleneck), but in terms of the upcoming Breeders’ Cup as well; just one chance infection from a horse flying in from abroad could jeopardize the event. Yes, that’s why we have quarantines, but obviously, as in this instance, that’s not always enough.
Edit: A few more quarantined stallions are named here: Encosta de Lago, Rock of Gibraltar, Elusive Quality, Exceed and Excel, Danehill Dancer, Choisir, Holy Roman Emperor, Aussie Rules, Bernadini, Librettist, Country Reel, Snitzel and Black Hawk.