Today is the 152nd Annual Melbourne Cup, the most prestigious race in the Australian Spring Racing Festival. With over AU$6 million in prize money, it has become one of the richest races internationally. The changes to the carnival over the years have been a true reflection of Australian racing culture and the race is a proud piece of Australian history.
Australia, or to be more accurate Melbourne, is about the only place in the world that takes a complete, official day off in celebration of a horse race. Even outside of Melbourne, in the rest of Victoria, where there is no official public holiday, the vast majority of businesses close their doors at noon and everybody trots off home to watch the race.
What race, some people may ask, though there can’t be too many, anywhere in the world, who have never heard of the Melbourne Cup, except perhaps in wildest central Africa or deep in the Amazon forest. And for many, often people with no great interest in the race, but an avid interest in a bit of time off from work, it’s not just the race day, (which is always on the first Tuesday in November), that moves them, it’s the weekend leading up to the great day!
They turn the day into a very long weekend, starting on the previous Friday and sometimes even including the Wednesday after the race, though most do go home on the Tuesday evening. A four day weekend holiday – the first of the “summer” holidays, with the next one being Christmas, who could ask for more?
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For some reason, maybe because of the size of the prize, (over six million dollars), the Cup is classed amid some of the greatest horse races in the world, attracting top thoroughbreds from England, France, America and New Zealand, plus numerous other places. Many years ago only Australian horses competed, then, as transportation became more efficient New Zealand animals came over to have a go, with ‘Martini-Henry’ winning in 1883. Later on ‘Backwood’ won in 1924, ‘At Talaq’ in 1986 and ‘Jeune’ in 1994, all international horses, but domiciled in Australia for some time before winning. In 1993 ‘Vintage Crop’ flew over from Ireland only a few weeks before the race and went on to win, thus proving to the doubtful that horses could be flown in and still do well without lengthy acclimatisation.
The average crowd on Melbourne Cup day hovers around the hundred thousand individuals and the party starts in the car park just outside the track, with hundreds of people picnicking alongside their cars, drinking large quantities of Champagne, (or sparkling Australian wine as we are now supposed to call it), and dressing in anything that might attract attention. The car park party is so good that many of the participants never get in to the track at all – in fact it has been known for some stalwarts to still be there, having a good time, twenty four hours later!
In some ways, because of the enormous crowds, it’s a waste of time going to the race. Jacqui and I have been on several occasions and unless you are very lucky to get a good viewing position, you see very little of the race at all. It can also be nearly impossible to place a bet because of the enormous queues at every bookie – the wise punter puts his money on as soon as he gets to the track, and then hopes the odds on his horse don’t change too much just before the ‘off’.
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No, if you really want to see the whole race, in its entirety, you’re better off staying at home watching it on the television! But boy-o-boy, you are missing the experience of a lifetime if you do that. The atmosphere is truly electric, with everyone excited, mildly drunk, dressed up to the nines and, if they’re lucky, making a few bob off the bookies as well.
That’s why the Melbourne Cup is so accurately called “The race that stops a nation”!
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO THE MELBOURNE CUP?