That one bite threw the immediate future of South Africa’s feature race programme into uncertainty, with prospects of the upcoming Western Cape summer season ending up a damp squib.
The tiny biting midge, Culicoides imicola, is the most feared creature in the equine world as it carries the dreaded African horse sickness (AHS). About 80% of horses die once they’ve got the killer virus.
Panic spreads on word of a “confirmed case” of AHS – like the one reported from Nietgedacht at the weekend.
National veterinary authorities have strict rules for an AHS outbreak – notably bans on horses moving between demarcated areas. Cape Town is the pristine epicentre of the AHS-free zone, so absolutely no horses from suspect places can travel there during a scare.
That means the Highveld stables of top trainers like Mike de Kock, Sean Tarry and Paul Peter – and others – might not be allowed to take their south for Cape features such as the Queen’s Plate, the Cape Guineas and the Sun Met.
De Kock, speaking after his star galloper Soqrat posted an impressive victory in the Grade 3 Victory Moon Stakes at the Vaal on Saturday, said: “Hopefully we will sort out this horse sickness nonsense because if Gauteng horses can’t race in Cape Town then it is not a season worth talking about.”
The master trainer had just announced his inclination to aim Soqrat at the Queen’s Plate and Met, rather than the Gauteng Summer Cup at Turffontein in two weeks’ time. Now that decision might be taken out of his hands.
“We need to allow travel,” added De Kock. “If we don’t have the confidence in our own local movement of horses how can we expect the world to believe in us?”
To some, this might sound reckless, but there is a strong feeling in racing that AHS travel bans are overly strict due to the fact that the sickness is not contagious – meaning it can’t be passed from horse to horse. It is infectious, but an animal has to be bitten by a midge to contract the virus.
But every racehorse is regularly vaccinated against AHS and the dose must be recorded in each equine passport. Currently administered vaccines are considered largely effective. So, thoroughbreds at the Randjesfontein training centre, for example, will not catch AHS on a breeze blowing in from Nietgedacht some 20km away, nor are they likely to be infected if that pesky midge flies over and takes a bite or two.
In short, in terms of risk, an inoculated racehorse in an insect-controlled barn is a far cry from a non-vaccinated farm animal on a smallholding.
The battles of South Africa’s horse industry to get foreign export protocols changed to allow easier international travel are well documented. The gist of the argument is that AHS cannot be spread if “vectors”, such as very specific insect breeds, are not present. That means much shorter quarantine periods are adequate to protect potential export destinations such as Europe, the US and Australia – where AHS has never been seen.
A scrapping of the onerous, protracted export process would be a major boost for stud farms and racehorse owners. Locally bred racehorses and equestrian-sport horses have proven their excellence on international stages and loosening restrictions would open the export floodgates, it is believed.
Hence De Kock’s wish to see free travel in the next few weeks, Nietgedacht notwithstanding – thereby emphasising that AHS is non-contagious and a vaccination regime has the problem in hand.
The glamorous Cape season attracts many foreign visitors to Kenilworth racecourse and the presence of the brilliant Soqrat – not to mention clutches of other top runners – can provide depth and dazzle to convince them that South African racing deserves a bigger international presence.
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