Tasmania has banned horse and greyhound racing “effective immediately” in the latest wave of shutdowns intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus, while the racing industry in other states is quietly trying to make arrangements to house thousands of furloughed racehorses should the ban become national.
Tasmanian premier Peter Gutwein announced the ban on Thursday, cancelling all race meetings for four weeks but allowing training facilities and people responsible for the care and wellbeing of the animals to continue operating.
Explaining the decision, which followed an outbreak of Covid-19 in the regional hub of Devonport, Gutwein said he was concerned that large groups of people were continuing to gather at the races, even though spectators have been banned.
“Many of them live in regional and rural Tasmania; what we don’t want to do is to increase the risk to those regional and rural communities,” he told reporters in Hobart. “Effective immediately, racing in Tasmania will cease.”
The Tasmanian ban comes as the horse industry has warned of an “animal welfare tsunami” caused by the coronavirus shutdowns which they say could see animals neglected or sent to slaughter by owners who can no longer care for them.
Horse and dog racing has been allowed to continue in Australia, without crowds and with reduced fields. Ireland shut down racing last week, following the United Kingdom. Hong Kong and Japan are still running.
New South Wales Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi has called on other states to follow Tasmania’s lead, saying it was “absolutely crazy that greyhound and horse racing is continuing in the middle of a global pandemic”.
Racing Victoria said it would continue racing after Victoria introduced tough stage-three social distancing laws this week. Jamie Stier, the executive general manager of integrity services, said the industry was “continually reviewing our biosecurity protocols” and “learning from our collective experiences over the past three weeks”.
Both thoroughbred and harness racing was suspended last week due to coronavirus scares, but the sport resumed when tests were returned negative.
If racing is shut down, there are potentially more than 20,000 horses that would need to be moved from trainers’ properties – where the daily cost to owners is higher – to studs and other agistment farms.
Tom Reilly, the chief executive of Thoroughbred Breeders Australia, said stud and agistment farms were looking at ways to increase capacity “if the need arose”.
“Nobody quite knows what the capacity is for farms to take horses leaving racing because we’ve never been in a position whereby, if there was a shutdown of racing, so many would be leaving at one time,” he said.
RSPCA chief scientist Bidda Jones said it was “inevitable” that horse racing would be suspended in Australia.
Jones said the RSPCA did not think it was essential that horse racing be allowed to continue. But she said those whose job it is to provide basic care for horses, including feeding, grooming and exercising, should be listed as essential workers.
Jones said a shutdown posed “a huge risk” to horse welfare and the industry needed to prepare so it was not attempting to retire a large number of horses at once.
Julie Fiedler from Horse SA said that widespread job losses caused by the shutdown of the hospitality industry and other coronavirus control measures would cause a “silent animal welfare tsunami” as people became unable to afford to care for their horses. Major saleyards such as Echuca and Pakenham in Victoria have suspended their horse sales, leaving knackeries the only option for a quick sale.
“If it goes on for an extended period of time, people are going to have to reevaluate the cost of keeping a horse,” she said.
Shutting down racing could see the accelerated retirement of a number of horses, at a time when retrainers are unable to take them on.
“Definitely keeping the racing industry going is better for horses at the moment,” Fiedler said.
Reilly said the thoroughbred industry was also concerned about the impact of a recession, saying “it’s clear everybody understands this is a possible issue and that we need to be looking at what the impacts will be from a welfare perspective”.
The industry last year committed to improving outcomes for horses retiring from racing.