Today I will discuss the equine influenza outbreak which has gripped the Australian racing industry. In August this year, Australia experienced its first outbreak of equine influenza, a highly-contagious viral disease which has crippled the Australian racing industry. At present there are confirmed cases of the virus only in New South Wales and Queensland. As of yesterday, 3 500 horses on more than 330 New South Wales properties tested positive for the flu, with another 4 800 suspect horses on almost 600 properties. There are currently 80 confirmed infected properties in Queensland. Equine influenza is thought to have arrived in Australia amongst a consignment of thoroughbred stallions from Japan on 8 August. It was first detected on 17 August at the Eastern Creek quarantine facility in New South Wales.
The impact of the horse flu crisis is being felt right across the industry from casual ground catering staff at racetracks, who are getting no work, to jockeys who get paid to ride only, trainers and owners who will not get any prize money and bookmakers and the TAB who are losing millions of dollars in lost betting revenue. The cost to the industry is staggering and, while we will not be able to calculate the final cost for some time yet, we know that it will run into hundreds of millions of dollars.
Numerous race meetings across the country have been cancelled, including the abandonment of the lucrative Sydney Spring Racing Carnival. Racing in New South Wales remains halted indefinitely. The long-term effects of the outbreak will be especially felt in the billion-dollar breeding industry because major studs, especially those based in the Hunter Valley, have had their breeding seasons ruined.
To highlight the impact on the breeding industry take, for example, the stallion Encosta De Lago. He is one of seven stallions confirmed with the horse flu. He is also the second-most expensive stallion in the country. He comes at a cost of $263 000 to cover a mare and was expected to serve 200 to 250 mares during the Australian breeding season. He will now serve none, which means that some 250 high pedigree foals will not go into the racing industry. It will also mean the loss of thousands of dollars in stud fees.
South Australia has been extremely fortunate in that there have been no reported cases of equine influenza. Despite this, the state’s racing industry has been severely affected. Training venues such as Morphettville, Strathalbyn, Murray Bridge and Gawler were closed, with horses, in some cases, limited to walking machines or being led around stables. State border road blocks were patrolled by police and Primary Industries officers under the countrywide stock standstill. Thankfully, in South Australia, the stock standstill was lifted on Monday 3 September. However, this only applies to the movement of horses within the state.
The movement of all horses from interstate remains totally prohibited. While the lifting of the ban has been a great relief to the South Australian racing industry, there are still stringent restrictions on horse gatherings and events. Permits must be obtained from PIRSA for any event with more than 10 horses, and even then gatherings of horses for any reason is not recommended unless absolutely necessary. Numerous horse events and race meetings, including those at the Royal Adelaide show, have been cancelled and Adelaide’s premium equestrian event, the Australian International Horse Trials, has been put on hold.
I applaud the federal government and the minister for their $110 million relief package for the crippled racing and breeding industry. This fund, which is designed to help workers in the industry, includes: $20 million for workers such as farriers and horse transport operators who have lost their jobs or income as a result of the horse flu; $45 million to be put towards businesses which derive the majority of their income from the commercial horse industry; and a further $200 000 for non-government, not-for-profit equestrian organisations. This $110 million assistance package comes on top of the $4 million the federal government has already provided to assist those in need of emergency financial support.
I would also like to praise the racing industry for its prompt response and willingness to work with authorities to limit the spread of the outbreak. The full impact of the equine influenza will not be known for some time yet, and I urge the state government to help ensure that the state’s racing community fully recovers from this setback. If there is one positive thing to come out of this whole episode, it is to highlight the importance of the racing industry to Australia. Over many years, many people have questioned and doubted the overall financial contribution this industry makes to South Australia and Australia. This catastrophic event has, in fact, brought that importance to the surface.