It's safe to visit, club tells the world

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2007, 12:00am

Virus poses 'no threat' to overseas horses targeting international meeting at Sha Tin

The Jockey Club has sought to assure leading stables around the world their horses face 'no health risk' from an equine virus sweeping the Sha Tin stables, if they accept invitations for the Audemars Piguet international programme on April 29.

The Queen Elizabeth II Cup card, which now has a second Group One feature in the Champions Mile, has been moulded as the club's second-biggest day of racing, behind the Cathay Pacific International Races.

But news that a contagious virus, assumed to be a strain of equine herpes, is moving through the thoroughbred population at Sha Tin has the potential to damage the big event, as overseas owners will think twice about accepting their invitations.

The club was jolted to address public concern after the virus claimed its latest and most high-profile victim yesterday - the world's leading turf sprinter Absolute Champion.

'The international horses will not be at risk because they will all be subject to external quarantine measures,' insisted Brian Stewart, the Jockey Club's head of veterinary regulation and international liaison.

Stewart said the quarantine stables at Sha Tin were a kilometre from the main stable blocks for the resident horse population. The visitors work separately and the first time they mix with the Hong Kong horses is in the parade yard before the race where, of course, they are exposed only to healthy, fully vetted horses.

When Absolute Champion contracted the illness, along with stablemates Silver Mark and Hurray Hurray who were also withdrawn from yesterday's programme, the number of affected horses rose to 132 - 11 per cent of the racehorse population.

Stewart stressed containment measures appeared to be working and there was no obvious threat of the outbreak worsening, and certainly no suggestion the racing industry might have to shut down.

'The horses are showing elevated temperatures but they seem to have recovered after a couple of days of rest. Overall, the symptoms are very mild,' he said.

The virus outbreak had its beginnings several weeks ago, but was thought at the time to have been limited to a couple of horses in the John Moore yard and a number of Jockey Club lead ponies.

But in recent weeks, without the club acknowledging it publicly, the number of horses running high temperatures has continued to grow.

Stewart said the spread of the virus appeared to have been through a slow horse-equipment-horse process, rather than being airborne.

'In my view, the vaccination programme has really done its job because the onset of a virus like this has the potential to be a lot worse than this has been,' Stewart said.

All horses have their temperatures taken twice a day and those with elevated temperatures are isolated.

'Once they show some symptoms through the temperature rising, we then conduct blood tests and normally would expect to see an elevated white cell count,' Stewart said.