The spring carnival is like the Kentucky Derby, but on a larger scale, and runs from now, until the Melbourne Cup which is in November
Horse racing has been suspended across Australia, after an equine flu outbreak in Sydney.
The racing board says if the flu has spread, racing could be suspended for a number of months.
The news is devastating for the Australian racing industry and comes on the eve of the biggest event on the racing calendar - the Spring Racing Carnival.
The Spring event leads into one of the world's most popular races - the Melbourne Cup, which attracts mounts from the UK, Japan, Hong Kong and New Zealand.
The Federal Government says all private horse and pony owners also need to follow a 72 hour ban on the movement of horses.
11 horses have been been confirmed suffering the EI virus, prompting the shut down of all race meetings across Australia.
Agriculture Minister, Peter McGauran says the action had to be taken, even though it's damaging to the horse racing industry.
"The decisions that we make now may very well influence how long this pain and suffering is born by the industry, we must give the strategy of containment every opportunity to work, that's everybody's focus at present, to contain the outbreak of the influenza.", he said.
Fears for 50,000 jobs as equine flu brings horse racing industry to the brink
Race meetings cancelled as quarantine bites
From Nick Squires in Sydney
IT IS known as the sport of kings, but a devastating outbreak of disease threatens to reduce the people involved in Australia's horse racing industry to paupers. Sydney's hugely popular spring racing carnival was cancelled last week after eight racehorses tested positive for equine influenza.
The discovery of the virus is nothing less than a catastrophe for the industry, threatening thousands of jobs.
The horses were from Sydney's Randwick racecourse, the headquarters of racing in New South Wales, and there were dire predictions that the highly contagious virus would spread to a further 700 thoroughbreds stabled there. The course has been shut down for at least the next two months. The virus has also claimed its first fatality - an elderly horse died in the village of Wilberforce, on the rural outskirts of Sydney.
In total nearly 500 recreational horses have caught the flu in New South Wales and a further 1700 are suspected of having it. More than 50,000 people rely on the industry for their livelihoods, from trainers and jockeys to vets and bookies. Caterers, dress designers and hat-makers will also be badly affected.
Some stable hands have already been laid off at Randwick.
"This is the equivalent of a cyclone coming through a region and I think that people have to look at it in this context," said Bill Shorten, the national secretary of the Australian Workers' Union.
Industry representatives said there was a perception that horse racing was the preserve of the super-rich, but in reality it provided jobs for many low-income workers, including cleaners, maintenance workers and bar staff.
"We've had young single mothers who do track work to supplement their income and they can't even pay their rent or their mortgages now," said Peter V'Landys, the chief executive of Racing New South Wales, calling the epidemic "an absolute disaster".
His plea for financial help was sympathetically received by the prime minister, John Howard.
"There are a lot of people in the industry who have modest incomes," he said. "The focus tends to be on the celebrity part of the industry, but beneath that there are a lot of people on very modest incomes who will find it tough as a result of this."
Yesterday was the first day of spring in Australia and punters across the country had been looking forward to the start of the season's racing.
Randwick, which is home to some of the nation's finest race horses and leading trainers, attracts legions of suited and booted young men, attracted as much to the groups of girls in strappy dresses and high heels as they are by the fillies on the track.
But all that has now been abandoned, with an estimated $80 million set to be lost in betting turnover. A further $4m in prize money will be forfeited.
"We're all going down on the one ship and no-one has been given life jackets," said jockey Darren Beadman, who has twice won the Melbourne Cup, Australia's most popular horse race.
The virus was first detected among recreational horses in Sydney last week, with suspicions that it was brought into Australia by a horse from Japan, where a major outbreak has forced the cancellation of races for the first time in 35 years.
An investigation is under way into how the infected horse could have been allowed to leave a federal quarantine facility at Sydney's Eastern Creek after arriving on August 8.
The federal agricultural minister, Peter McGauran, said that quarantine services would be held accountable if there had been a breach of the country's bio-security.
"We want to identify what went wrong so it can never happen again and so we can repair the breach," he said.
If the virus is found to have escaped from the quarantine station then the federal government could face compensation claims amounting to tens of millions of dollars.
The disease has spread to neighbouring Queensland, where 100 people were placed in quarantine in the town of Warwick.
Although horse flu does not affect humans, it can be passed from one horse to another by a person's infected clothing or footwear.
While the Melbourne Cup, known to Australians as "the race that stops the nation", is still likely to go ahead as scheduled in early November, it will be much diminished because it will lack any competitors from New South Wales and Queensland, the two states so far infected with the flu.
One town, however, responded to the lockdown on the movement of horses with a novel idea: replace them with camels. If the ban is still in place on September 13, Ballina, in New South Wales, will ditch its traditional horse race with a "dromedary dash".
Deputy mayor Sharon Cadwallader has already lined up 25 camels to take part in the race. There is no shortage of camels in Australia - around half a million are believed to be roaming the outback, having been introduced as beasts of burden in the 1800s.
The federal government has set up a $5m distress fund to help laid-off workers, including individual grants of $1200 in emergency assistance.
You may wonder why they are talking about camels, Australia has the largest wild camel population IN THE WORLD