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World News

Equine flu ends Sydney's spring carnival

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Sydney’s multi-million dollar spring racing carnival was cancelled on Thursday after eight horses at the city’s premier track were diagnosed with equine flu, officials said.

A quarantined racehorse looks from its stable at Royal Randwick Racecourse in Sydney August 30, 2007. Sydney's multi-million dollar spring racing carnival was cancelled on Thursday after eight horses at the city's premier track were diagnosed with equine flu, officials said. REUTERS/Mick Tsikas

All thoroughbred horses in the worst affected state New South Wales (NSW) have been banned from Melbourne’s spring carnival, which includes the country’s most prestigious race the Melbourne Cup in November, reported local media.

“This is the darkest day for the industry in NSW,” said Racing NSW Chief Executive Peter V’Landys. “There are 50,000 people that can not earn a wage out of racing.”

A Racing NSW spokesman told Reuters that Sydney’s entire spring carnival, not just Randwick races, had been cancelled.

The eight infected horses at Randwick are the only thoroughbreds infected, but all 700 horses at the stables will be quarantined for at least two months, said NSW state Primary Industries Minister Ian Macdonald.

“We have to wait until the last one gets infected and then its 30 days quarantine. It could be 60, 90 or 120 days,” said V’Landys.

All racing in Australia was cancelled when equine flu was detected last week in an attempt to prevent it spreading.

NSW racing has been stopped indefinitely, but officials hope racing may resume at provincial tracks next week. Racing has been cancelled in Queensland until next week, although other states hope to resume racing at the weekend.

The racing shutdown is costing the industry tens of millions of dollars each day, with officials warning a week of no racing will cost the country’s biggest wagering firm Tabcorp an estimated A$100 million ($82 million).

Tabcorp shares fell more than 4 percent on Thursday.

“It could well bring the industry to its knees,” said trainer John O’Shea, who has 50 horses at Randwick.

The highly contagious disease is not infectious to humans but has the same debilitating effect on horses as influenza has on people -- causing high fevers, coughing, sneezing and lack of appetite. In rare cases, it can be fatal to horses.

More than 480 horses have been diagnosed with equine flu and another 1,600 suspected of being infected.

“I have 40 mares waiting to foal. I am just terrified if I get this bug, I’m going to probably end up with 40 dead foetuses spread over the paddocks,” said horse breeder Heath Ryan.

“I think if anyone gets this bug they have the right to be totally outraged. I will be screaming blue murder,” he said.

Australia has some of the toughest quarantine rules in the world and officials suspect equine flu might have come from Japan, which has just been hit by a large outbreak. Racing was cancelled in Japan for the first time in more than 35 years after almost 100 horses tested positive.

Horse trainers have warned of legal action if it is found that the flu escaped from Sydney’s quarantine centre.

JOB LOSSES

Australia’s first equine flu outbreak has forced a national ban on horse movements until Friday.

The outbreak has occurred on the eve of the country’s thoroughbred breeding season, when some of the world’s top stallions arrive from the northern hemisphere.

About 40 international stallions have been quarantined in Australia and the New Zealand government has closed its borders to horses from Australia, including dozens of top American, European and Asian stallions worth an estimated $500 million.

Scores of people involved in the racing industry, from track riders to transport workers, have been laid off.

“This is a major crisis,” said V’Landys. “People have woken up this morning and their jobs have gone. I know a single mother who does track work to supplement her income who can’t even pay her rent.”

Australia’s national government announced on Thursday a A$4 million fund to provide emergency funds to people suffering financial difficulty due to equine flu.

Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran said NSW would receive A$2.5 million and Queensland would receive A$1.5 million to distribute to individuals involved in the racing industry.

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