Friday, August 31, 2007

A horse sneezes and an industry catches the flu

Strange goings-on in Australia this week. An outbreak of horse flu (more properly known as equine influenza) has shut down the horse racing industry. This may not sound like a big deal but horse racing (or more specifically, the attendant betting) is a big deal in Australia.

Aussie are mad for gambling. The old saying is that if there was nothing else, Australians would bet on two flies crawling up a wall. Horseracing in Australia involves billions of dollars a year so when it grinds to a halt a few people start squeaking.

It's also happened at the worst possible time. The biggest part of the racing calendar in Australia is the Spring Racing Carnival which was due to start in the coming months. As I understand it, Sydney's Spring carnival has been cancelled because of the horse flu being found at their major racecourse. It isn't this bad in Melbourne (yet) which is lucky because the major horse race of the year is in Melbourne on the first Tuesday in November.

It's hard to describe how big the Melbourne Cup is in Australia. I guess horse racing is big almost everywhere but the Melbourne Cup is different. I understand the Kentucky Derby is regarded as somewhat of a big deal by locals. On Melbourne Cup day, we have a public holiday. For a horse race.

I think it is a uniquely Australian trait to get so obsessed about a horse race which is a really inconsequential thing when you get down to it. I imagine a lot of people in the racing industry are on serious doses of tranquilisers right now. To try and control the spread of the disease there is a complete freeze on the movement of horses across Australia.

There's no confirmed cases of horse flu in Melbourne yet and because of the impact it would have on the Melbourne Cup, a lot of people are holding their breath at the moment. I believe the racing industry have set up machine guns along the Victorian border and are shooting at anything vaguely horse-shaped they see.

Tori Spelling is advised not to show her face in Australia anytime soon.

The big problem is that horse flu was unknown in Australia prior to this outbreak. Because it didn't exist here, none of our horses have any resistance to it. If one horse gets it, ever horse it comes into contact with will get it. It isn't killing horses yet, apparently it's like human flu in that regard - it's most dangerous to the very old, the very young and those already sick.

Oh, and unlike avian flu, there is apparently no danger of transmission to humans so we're not about to be wiped out by a killer plague. Phew. But a few people will be out of pocket. I did hear some announcers on the radio this morning joking "Won't someone think of the milliners?" It's a big tradition for the ladies to wear outlandish hats to the Spring Racing Carnival. It looks like that won't be happening this year.

Jokes aside, a few hat makers will be freaking out right now. I'm pretty sure they depend on Spring Racing the same way florists depend on Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. Without this annual boost to their revenue, a lot of them are going to be utterly screwed.

At the big end of town, the NSW betting authority (a government licensed company called TAB is the only outlet allowed to take legal bets) says the cancellation of racing in Sydney means a loss of about $50 million a week in wagers. There are estimates that the cancellation of the Victorian Spring Racing Carnival would mean $50 million a day!

I have a bit of trouble getting too worked up about this figure. It isn't the same as factories being shut down or mines being closed or primary industry being crippled by drought. That $50 million isn't literally being lost. Quite the opposite really - it's staying in punters' pockets. That's rent being paid and kids being fed. Maybe even a few less lives being ruined. It isn't all bad.

I wonder if we still get a holiday if the Melbourne Cup is cancelled?

No comments: