21 Jan 2019

Thoroughbred racehorses with strangles quarantined in NZ since July

8:20 am on 21 January 2019

Thoroughbred racehorses worth millions of dollars bound for Hong Kong have been stuck in New Zealand since July after an outbreak of strangles disease.

Thirty thoroughbred race horses were due to be flown to Hong Kong in July last year.

Thirty thoroughbred race horses were due to be flown to Hong Kong in July last year. Photo: 123rf.com

Strangles is common and can cause problems breathing.

Thirty horses were due to be flown to Hong Kong in July last year, however their progress was stopped after one showed signs of strangles.

Hong Kong has strict biosecurity requirements to protect its racing stables and will not accept horses until they are rid of the disease and have been in quarantine for 60 days.

On 7 September, 12 horses were cleared to ship to their Hong Kong owners, however the remaining 18 were held back once again after another four tested positive.

The man in charge of the shipment at New Zealand Bloodstock, Greg Northcott, said the horses had to be moved from their Waikato quarantine facility to a clean Auckland one to go through their clearance.

The horses were from about 25 different properties and were each high-end racing stock valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Mr Northcott said.

"New Zealand horses are very popular [in Hong Kong]."

Mr Northcott said the disease could be very contagious and could "close down racing" if found in racing stables.

Horse racing is a multi-billion dollar industry in Hong Kong. In the 2017-18 financial year, the Hong Kong Jockey Club had punters spend more than $NZ23b betting on races.

Mr Northcott said he did not think the case would stop their enthusiasm for New Zealand horses but admitted affected owners may be disappointed.

"It's very frustrating for everybody, to be honest."

'We need to be hypervigilant'

The Ministry for Primary Industries said it was notified of the positive result on 9 July and had been working with the exporter to manage the spread of strangles and meet Hong Kong authorities' requirements.

"MPI has recently approved a new pre-export facility to enable the remainder of the horses from the original consignment prepared for Hong Kong in July to start their pre-export isolation to meet the requirements for export."

It said one horse had been removed from the consignment due to "commercial reasons".

The executive director of racing at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Andrew Harding, said as the country's racing authority, they had taken a keen interest in the case.

"Under the model of Hong Kong racing we have a special responsibility to safeguard the interests of racehorse owners and we're also the body that's responsible, logistically, for not only issuing permits for people to purchase horses but then also arranging for their shipment to Hong Kong."

Without its own breeding programme, Hong Kong Jockey Club imports about 450 horses a year with up to 70 percent coming from Australia and New Zealand stables.

"New Zealand breeds very good horses and I'm certain that what's happened here isn't going to damage the long-term relationship. But if there are learnings from it, it's important we identify those and that, collectively, we get some benefit from this."

Hong Kong had to be particularly vigilant without the separation afforded by multiple stables like in New Zealand, Mr Harding said.

"Once [a horse] enters the population it's entering a population that's concentrated at one training centre in Hong Kong and now another that we've developed at Conghua. So we need to be hypervigilant about preventing diseases."

With strangles endemic throughout the world this case did not reflect poorly on New Zealand.

However, he said the seven month delay for 18 of the horses would have consequences for their owners.

"That is an inordinate amount of time when you consider the racing life of a racehorse and there's also then the important consideration that the horses have been relatively inactive during this prolonged period.

"It essentially will mean they've lost a season of the racing career of these horses."

Mr Harding acknowledged Hong Kong's strict testing and quarantine requirements had slowed things down but that only accounted for a "proportion" of the delay.

"The attempts to re-established pre-export quarantine has been potentially compromised by the way it has been managed.

"There are things that you can do when you're trying to deal with the disease outbreak that can minimise the spread of the disease. Has this been done here? I don't know."

What is Strangles?

It is a bacterial infection of the upper respiratory tract. It is known as strangles because it causes abscessation in the lymph nodes at the back of the jaw. In foals, the glands can get so large with abscesses it can cause them to make a strangling noise.

The president of the New Zealand Equine Health Association, Dr Ivan Bridge, said it was highly infectious but uncommon for horses to die from.

It was most common and most dangerous among foals, he said.

"Stud farms are always on the lookout for it and taking preventative measures and if they suspect it they isolate the foals.

"It pops up intermittently and it is normally in younger horses but of course, as we know, it can pop up in adult populations as well.

"It's spread by horse contact. It is highly infectious but just like in a classroom of kids exposed to the flu virus, a percentage of them will get it and a percentage of them don't even notice people are crook around them."

Vaccination was not 100 percent effective, Dr Bridge said.