Outback race to beat horse flu

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The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, yesterday bowed to pressure for an inquiry into the source of an equine flu outbreak that is spreading across two states and has forced the widespread cancellation of horse racing.

The independent inquiry will be chaired by a former High Court judge, Ian Callinan, who will determine whether Australia's strict quarantine procedures were breached when the virus entered the country.

Equine flu was identified at several new locations in Queensland over the weekend, and has now been confirmed at 17 separate properties in the state. In neighbouring New South Wales, hundreds of horses are believed to have contracted the disease.

The virus was first detected 10 days ago, prompting the government to introduce a national ban on horse movements and racing. Racing resumed on Saturday in three states, Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia, but under strict conditions. At Victoria's Caulfield track, fences and flower boxes were erected to prevent the public from coming into contact with the horses. The measures were not to protect people, who cannot catch equine flu, but the horses, which can be infected through contact with clothes or saddles. Some of Australia's top jockeys and trainers, based in New South Wales, have been banned from interstate tracks, in an effort to stop the flu's spread.

In New South Wales, the worst-affected state, hundreds of horses are quarantined, including at the state's premier racecourse, and racing has been banned indefinitely, with the Spring Racing Carnival – a popular event on the social calendar – cancelled.

In Queensland, officials are hoping that racing may resume next week. This weekend's Birdsville Races, staged on a dusty Outback track for the past 126 years, had to be cancelled. However, punters who had travelled for days to reach Birdsville, an isolated town in western Queensland, betted on stuffed hobby horse races. Bookmakers, meanwhile, took real bets on interstate races.

The inquiry is expected to focus on Eastern Creek, a government-run quarantine facility in the western outskirts of Sydney. Stallions from Japan, which has suffered a recent outbreak of equine flu, may hold the key. But Minister for Agriculture Peter McGauran said yesterday a link had yet to be established with Eastern Creek, since no horses had left the facility.

Mr Howard said Mr Callinan would be given as much time as he required, and would have sweeping powers to investigate "every aspect" of the crisis. He would also be able to hold public hearings if he thought they were necessary.

"We are determined to find out what happened, how this disease was introduced, whether there has been a breach of quarantine procedures and protocols," the Prime Minister said.

The country's first outbreak is causing hardship to thousands of workers in the racing industry. The government last week announced a $4m (£1.6m) hardship fund, and further help, including wage subsidies, was being considered, Mr Howard said.

The racing shutdown is estimated to be costing the betting industry tens of millions of dollars a day.