SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian authorities are considering extending the nationwide ban on horse movement after the country’s first outbreak of equine influenza outbreak began to spread out of control.
The government had initially ordered a three-day lockdown to try to contain the disease but were facing the prospect of a longer ban after hundreds of horses began to display symptoms.
Australia’s Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran said the virus had already spread from Sydney to five locations in rural New South Wales and across the state border into Queensland.
The shutdown has plunged Australia’s multibillion-dollar racing and breeding industry into turmoil but McGauran said there was unlikely to be any quick fix.
“If we’re racing next Saturday, then we should all breathe a sigh of relief,” McGauran told a news conference on Sunday.
“If there’s any racing in Australia before then, it will be a minor miracle.”
The horse flu outbreak could not have come at a worse time with the Australian breeding season due to start next weekend and the top horses all in training for the lucrative spring racing carnival.
There are concerns that if racing is halted for an extended period, Australia’s richest and most famous race, the Melbourne Cup, which is due to be held in November, could be postponed.
The Melbourne Cup attracts some of the best stayers from Britain, Europe and Asia but bookmakers have already frozen betting markets on the race amid speculation that the outbreak will frighten off most of the international contenders.
Hong Kong trainer John Moore announced on Sunday he was delaying the arrival of his hopefuls Viva Pataca and Viva Macau until the crisis was resolved.
Australian television also reported that the two Japanese horses that ran first and second in last year’s Melbourne Cup, Delta Blues and Pop Rock, were unlikely to come because of a similar horse flu epidemic in Japan.
“It is better to have a deferred Melbourne Cup than have no Melbourne Cup at all, the program will be a decision for the racing authorities,” McGauran said.
“But it does look increasingly likely that the start of the Spring Carnival campaigns by leading horses will be inevitably delayed and that may cause racing authorities to put back the feature races.”
The ban on horse movement also threatens to affect next month’s APEC summit meeting in Sydney, which will be attended by more than 20 international leaders including U.S. President George Bush.
Authorities were planning to bring in dozens of extra mounted police to deal with the major protests planned for the streets of Sydney but may have to review their plans for crowd control.