Virus checked, now for the PR work

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2007, 12:00am

The two Vs - vaccination and vigilance - seem to have collectively ensured the impact of the equine herpes virus (EHV) outbreak has been minimal.

Yesterday's news was taken as a big positive, with no new cases of horses showing symptoms or elevated temperatures being reported.

This strain of EHV is thought to vary slightly from the one the horses are actually immunised against, but the vaccination has still served to help reduce the symptoms suffered by horses to little more than a two or three-day cold.

Perhaps even more significantly, the horses' immune systems are then cleaning up the disease completely, leaving the hosts with no recognisable side effects and no apparent loss of racing performance.

Indeed, the Group One victory on Monday of one of the EHV outbreak's earliest victims, Joyful Winner, suggests owners need not fear the long-term repercussions of an infection being suffered by their equine pride and joy.

Infectious diseases are one of the potential problems for any large collection of racehorses in unnatural conditions. At its extreme, as Hong Kong discovered in 1992, it has the potential to shut down racing and put a lot of income streams in jeopardy.

And remembering that Jockey Club-sourced tax accounts for around 10 per cent of total government revenue each year, and that many charities absolutely depend on their share of the club's annual HK$1 billion charitable donation for their very existence, racing is an important business to keep not only alive but vital and healthy.

Unlike an influenza, which can spread via airborne droplets of moisture (i.e. sneezing) from infected animals, the spread of EHV has been much more mechanical and direct, reducing the potential impact on the horse population.

It just remains now for the club's PR machine to soothe the nerves of owners and trainers of potential invitees for the Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup and the Champions Mile - both to be run two weeks from Sunday - that their horses face no health risk from a visit to Hong Kong.

Yesterday's international inquiries included one from the Singapore Turf Club, anxious to know how the outbreak might impact on its signature event, the S$3 million (HK$15.5 million) Singapore Airlines International Cup at Kranji on May 20.

Hong Kong has five live entries for the SIA Cup - Best Gift, Champions Gallery, Green Treasure, Hawkes Bay and Supreme Gains. It will be imperative that the trumps at the Singapore Turf Club are totally convinced it's safe to allow a Hong Kong horse to travel to the island, because they will not run any risks of having their horse population infected with EHV.

By and large, the management of the EHV outbreak seems to have been professionally handled. Racing will continue, the programme of twice-yearly inoculations has proved effective and the policy of twice-daily temperature checking has identified infected animals at the earliest opportunity and thereby aided containment.

However, one cannot help wondering what might have happened if the world's number one turf sprinter, Absolute Champion, had not become one of the EHV victims, registering an elevated white cell count in his Monday morning blood analysis.

When Absolute Champion joined stablemates Hurray Hurray and Silver Mark as scratchings from the big holiday programme, it was crystal clear there was an infection spreading among the horses, and suddenly the veil of secrecy was lifted.

It has to be said, however, that the gap in time between the club's declaration that nine horses had been infected on February 10, and a total of 132 had gone down as announced on Sunday, was a long one.

For a club that prides itself on its openness, this was one little mess that remained hidden under the carpet for way too long.

Health equals wealth The well-being of the racing industry is vital to Hong Kong

The year racing shut down for three months in Hong Kong because of equine influenza 1992


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