Werribee has become synonymous with the spring carnival. Since 2010, Werribee racecourse has been home to racing Victoria’s quarantine centre and in that time has produced five Melbourne Cup winners, four Caulfield Cup winners and a couple of cox plate champions.
Werribee’s importance to Australian racing runs much deeper than the space the quarantine facility occupies, and is not limited to when the first batch of international gallopers arrive in September and the last horse leaves in mid-November.
It is also home to the University of Melbourne U-Vet Equine Centre, a state-of-the-art equine hospital.
The centre, based 5km from the racecourse in the town that is 32km from the Melbourne CBD, specialises in treating horses who have problems unable to be diagnosed, or unable to be treated, at their first point of veterinary contact.
It boasts 10 equine veterinarians, six of which are specialists, and 10 qualified veterinary nurses along with specialists in anesthesia, clinical pathology, and diagnostic imaging.
Specialty areas that members of the team are qualified in include equine surgery, equine medicine, equine emergency and critical care, equine sports medicine and rehabilitation, while it welcomes additional visiting specialists in equine surgery and opthalmology and a visiting horse dentist along with a veterinary podiatry and farrier consultant.
The centre serves a dual purpose as not only a place for treatment of animals; it also educates the next generation of animal health specialists.
Procedures undertaken are overseen by University of Melbourne veterinary students, whose studies include exposure to all the specialist treatments that occur.
“A bit like the big public hospitals that are teaching hospitals for humans, students are rotating through our hospital and learning from the cases we take on and the clinicians,” Chris Whitton, Head of the Equine Centre, said.
“While our students have the opportunity to work with various animals, the fact that we’ve got a world-leading equine hospital is an attractive option for those students who are interested in equine work.”
Students gain exposure to cases and, most importantly, intelligence they would not see in a normal veterinary practice. As a research-based referral centre, it is the next step for horses with complex issues in need of specialist care.
In most cases a trip to Werribee is the secondary course of action, sometimes the third port of call and often a last resort.
“We’re providing advice that is based on the latest research that is evidence based, it’s not just opinion,” Whitton said.
“The sort of cases that come to us are incredibly challenging and sometimes the answers can often be difficult.”
The centre has a worldwide reputation for its work around racehorse injury prevention, specialising in lameness, and is at the forefront of one of the world’s leading research programs into that topic.
As such, it is home to some of the most technologically-advanced equipment in Australia.
Its High Field MRI machine produces the sharpest images available, while the standing CT scanner is one of just three machines of its type anywhere in the world, and access to this world-leading technology now available to all horse owners (not just racing). The cost for scans in the standing CT are currently subsidised by RV and the Victorian Government.
It was in the news last spring when it demonstrated its effectiveness by detecting issues with Marmelo and Ispolini, leading to their withdrawal from the Melbourne Cup field.
“The key areas for us are the difficult lamenesses, because they need a lot of time and effort to localise where the source of pain is coming from,” Whitton said.
“The technology we have here enables us to investigate those in great detail. That’s a big part of what we do, the difficult challenging lameness, when a horse is lame and there’s nothing obvious.
“We try and put in the time and effort to pin down where that’s coming from.”
Sometimes, answers are not possible, but doesn’t stop Whitton and his team searching for them.
“It’s a challenge, which is why most of the vets here that I work with like it,” he said. “It’s not the same everyday and it’s not routine. Every case that comes in is challenging and different and difficult.”
Racing Victoria realised early on that its Sandown quarantine centre, which housed spring visitors since the internationalisation of the Melbourne Cup in 1993, was not ideal.
The makeshift facility, with room for up to 22 horses, provided visiting horses with a great surface to gallop on, but it took out that same surface as an option for race meetings for a large chunk of the season.
In 2010 Racing Victoria’s dream of a state-of-the-art quarantine complex was born with the construction of the Werribee International Horse Centre.
Comprising three compounds – the Newminster, Vintage Crop and Americain barns – the WIHC can house 32 horses who have the run of Werribee Racecourse and its facilities.
Horses must serve 14 days quarantine upon arrival in Australia, which follows doing 14 days in their homeland, and the barns being split into three allows for staggered arrivals.
Traditionally, the first lot arrives on the last Saturday in September, with another shipment landing around two weeks later. In recent years, a smaller group of horses have come in early September to target the early spring Group 1s.
Horses are free to leave the facility once they have served their two weeks, and those who come on a one-way ticket to take up residence with an Australian stable often do, but it remains open to those who are heading back overseas.
When that does happen, it is regularly with one of the most prized trophies in Australian racing, in no small part due to the facilities at Werribee.