The blow-up over Australian quarantine changes regarding Hong Kong has certainly led to some loud harrumphing and curious backlash suggestions.
Last week’s story that October 2 would signal the suspension of Hong Kong’s direct export to Australia status, because of the addition of Conghua to the bio environment for racehorses here, has some very significant implications.
But, in the grand traditions of unintended consequences, Australian quarantine authorities might play a role in eroding the Australian thoroughbred industry’s strong grip on Hong Kong.
In the past year, there has been a breakthrough in the diagnosis of African Horse Sickness (AHS) with a new test using DNA segments able to make a determination on a horse’s status within four hours. Until now, AHS testing took two weeks to give a result.
This was described to us as a “game changer” by one Hong Kong-based South African trainer, first name Tony.
He may well be right as this more efficient testing for AHS holds the promise to lift the difficulties associated with exporting horses from South Africa to the rest of the world – and to do it by the end of next year as Conghua comes online.
Fans might remember that J J The Jet Plane’s 2010 Hong Kong Sprint victory had been prefaced by a long journey to Sha Tin via quarantine at home in South Africa, then in Mauritius and then more quarantine in Great Britain.
Direct exports would do away with that long, arduous process and we would certainly see a lot more South African horses here for international events and quite a lot more bought to race as well.
The Jockey Club says it at least partly funded the research that led to this vital discovery, and which could lead to a boost for the South African horse industry over the Australian industry. The new quarantine kerfuffle could assist that, too.
This season, some 48 per cent of the 507 starters have been Australian-breds. A random pluck of a couple of meetings from last season showed about 41 per cent of the individual runners at those meetings were Australian-breds.
Make no mistake, Australian-bred horses make up a large proportion of the racing stock at Sha Tin.
But they are not cheap – definitely not as cheap as South African horses, which are also of high quality and suitability for Hong Kong and include bloodlines that were bought in Australia and imported for breeding.
Through all of last season, there were only a handful of South African-bred runners (totalling just 67 runs between them), most trained by Tony Millard, who has championed his country’s breed as being the equal of other jurisdictions. He lets you know every time one of them wins.
The difficulties with AHS and the long process for export have been the reasons there are so few South African horses here – the reality is that an owner doesn’t want to buy his horse then wait at least a year while it tours the world before he can see it run.
If it becomes possible to import directly from South Africa to Hong Kong, in the same way as it is with horses from Australia or New Zealand but at a lesser price, they will become very popular, very fast and quarantine issues with Australia will push more owners in that direction.
Every time a horse is imported to race here, part of the contract between the owner and the Jockey Club is a payment up front to repatriate the horse when it is retired.
Adding a six-month quarantine in New Zealand and additional air transport to the bill will make it more expensive, or maybe it looks like hard work if it is decided to find somewhere else to retire the horse.
Many a prospective owner might well choose to buy somewhere else cheaper, like South Africa, knowing repatriation is a straightforward single flight home.
Other effects of the changes, with a 180-day third-country quarantine required before horses can enter Australia, are many.
The effect on Hong Kong’s international events will be small numerically, as Australia provides few visitors, but might be significant in terms of which visitors do not now make the trip – connections of Chautauqua have indicated a keenness for another crack at the Chairman’s Sprint Prize he won in 2016, for example. Presumably, that is over.
A backlog of incoming horses could be a problem if there are hold-ups in finding alternative retirement properties for outgoing horses and they continue to occupy limited space.
Then there are the horses who don’t acclimatise to Hong Kong and are sent elsewhere to race, often Australia, where they win races quite frequently.
There’s no better example than Newmarket Handicap winner Redkirk Warrior, who won another Group Two feature on Saturday in Melbourne and is firmly entrenched among Australia’s best sprinters.
He had problems with his feet in Hong Kong which David Hayes has been able to rectify in the different climate of Australia and Redkirk Warrior is showing now for his Hong Kong owners what he had always promised. Those situations will become rare or non-existent.
There was talk floating around at Sha Tin about what the Jockey Club’s reaction should be. There was talk of sanctions (whatever that means), there was talk (surely a little tongue in cheek) of whether Australian jockeys should be licensed any more because they might carry some contamination from Hong Kong when they fly back to Australia and thus represent a biohazard.
There was talk of simulcasts, an area where South Africa is already encroaching on Australia’s territory. The Jockey Club has added a South African simulcast to its list this season and dropped the Cox Plate and, with Racing Victoria seemingly happy to sabotage its own spring Cups, maybe others will be headed for the chop and dates switched to South Africa.
But, when all is said and done, any punitive action would be aimed in the wrong direction if it is aimed at Australian racing authorities or personnel.
Australian quarantine people have a black and white view of what they do and flow-on effects to the racing industry or its participants are barely considered.
Their job is to protect a country which has escaped many diseases because it is an island and the only way that changes is if diseases are imported.
Start talking to them about the ramifications for simulcasts or Zac Purton’s licence and you’ll have a very short conversation.
So, all of that talk is really irrelevant. How this will play out is through interminable conversations and meetings and putting protocols in place that will satisfy the hard markers at the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.
However long that takes, that is how things will be resolved and then life will return to normal.
But if it all drags out too long, the South Africans will be waiting in the wings with an alternative.