Despite the forced withdrawal of last year’s winner and runner up – because Japan also has equine flu – the Melbourne Cup weights released on Monday confirm that the field will be as strong as ever. Provided the Cup is run, that is.

The Victoria Racing Club, which stages the Melbourne Cup at Flemington, has taken a realistic view of the possible impact of equine flu on the Cup, and the rest of the Spring Racing Carnival.

The Spring Racing Carnival really gets under way this Saturday when Flemington re-opens after being closed since the last Melbourne Cup Carnival for a total remake of the track. But the uncertainty about the whole Carnival remains a worry to the VRC and the racing industry more generally.

If there is a serious outbreak of equine flu in Victoria, and more particularly in Melbourne, in the coming weeks, the Cup may be cancelled for the first time in its history. The VRC has made it clear that deferring the Cup is not possible.

The Victorian racing industry has been very lucky – so far. Yesterday, a suspected outbreak was reported in Tasmania. Tests confirmed it wasn’t equine flue. This morning, another scare was reported in Albury, just kilometres from the Victorian border, but Victoria’s chief vet confirmed the horses were not infected. The Adelaide Advertiser this morning reports:

There are now 1,019 horses infected with EI on 127 properties in NSW and around 3,570 are suspected to have it on a total of 402 suspect properties.

Meanwhile, equine flu has crippled racing. A meeting for horses only trained at Warwick Farm may be held this Saturday, but spectators will not be allowed on track.

If there is a flu outbreak in Melbourne in the coming weeks, can you imagine a Melbourne Cup without 120,000 spectators looking on? A Cox Plate watched only from inside TABs and on big screens in pubs?

That is why Victoria is taking a totally uncompromising approach not only to horses from NSW, but even jockeys and trainers from the State. NSW jockeys are banned from riding in Melbourne and trainers are banned from Melbourne stables and race meetings.

As leading trainer Lee Freedman said on Monday, the Victorian industry will need a deal of “luck” if the Spring Racing Carnival is to survive without disruption.

Given the focus now on the effectiveness of the Australian Government’s quarantine service following the entry of equine flu, no doubt the non-punting Prime Minister will be wishing the Victoria racing industry all the luck in the world.

The cancellation of the race that stops the nation, possible in the middle of an election campaign, would not just be a disaster for the racing industry, it might be a massive political problem for the government responsible for keeping viruses like equine flu out of Australia.

Peter Fray

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