When the starter sends the Melbourne Cup field on its 3200 metre journey this afternoon about six million punters will be watching more in hope than anything else – and one non punter, John Winston Howard, will be breathing an audible of relief.

Less than two months ago the running of the Melbourne Cup was far from certain, as equine flu cut a swathe through the NSW and Queensland racing industries. A combination of good luck, and good management by Victorian authorities have delivered the Victorian racing industry the miracle it surely prayed for.

Equine flu broke out all along the NSW side of the border with Victoria – but with no reported outbreaks in Victoria, the Spring Racing carnival events at Caulfield, Moonee Valley and Flemington have gone ahead… with Sydney and Brisbane horses.

Flemington last Saturday drew another massive crowd, as it will today, and on Oaks Day this Thursday. But the success of the Melbourne spring racing carnival masks an industry in crisis, and apolitical nightmare that might yet visit on the Howard-Vaile Government before election day.

Melbourne Cup Day is not just a big event in Melbourne – Cup Day race meetings are normally among the most successful, and profitable, for upwards of 50 race clubs right around the nation… especially in regional centres. In Sydney and Brisbane the crowds are usually the second biggest of the whole year.

But equine flu has forced the cancellation of the Sydney and Brisbane meetings – Brisbane will have camel racing instead – and probably around 30 meetings in provincial and country centres. Some will have “phantom” meetings but crowds will be down and the clubs will take a serious financial hit.

The carnival really ends this Saturday, and we can expect the focus to turn to the economic harm equine flu is causing the racing industry. Even Victoria is not exempt from the impact with TAB turnover in Victoria on the Caulfield Cup down a worrying 14 per cent – and an even more worrying 18 per cent in NSW.

Inevitably the racing industry will suffer from reduced TAB turnover as the industry is reliant on its share of the turnover of the TAB to fund prize money. Tabcorp might suffer a pre-tax profit drop of around $30 million because of the impact of the closure of the Sydney and Brisbane racing since August, and a massive scaling down of regional racing as well. Unitab will take a bit hit as well.

The government assistance packages cannot compensate owners, and breeders, who have missed out on millions of prize money. The industry’s biggest yearling sales – Gold Coast and Sydney – have had to be deferred, and hundreds of small business operators who supply the industry are doing it tough.

When the euphoria settles after the race that stops the nation, the “politics” of the equine flu will surely re-emerge.

Conveniently, the inquiry into the flu outbreak headed by Ian Callinan has been in recess why he had a European holiday. But that might not prevent serious questions about how equine flu was able to breach our supposed impenetrable quarantine controls becoming a political issue in the run up to the federal elections.

The fourth or fifth largest employer in Australia – the racing industry – is in dire straits. And politicians may yet pay a price for it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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