Since its inception, and not even halted by two World Wars, the Melbourne Cup has been embraced with increasing gusto by every generation of Australians. But at some point during the 70s and 80s — when work was just a place you visited five days a week to fill in time and lunches were spent downing beers at the local pub — our attitude to (and love of) the race began a slow transformation into something much uglier.
Those heady decades leading up to Black Monday were a time of enormous wealth generated largely by a booming resource industry; a time when entrepreneurs like Alan Bond were showing the rest of us how they lived large in the ‘wild West’. A precedent was set and celebrating the Melbourne Cup ever more excessively became the new Australian way, the thing to do, iconic and culturally fitting.
Then, on the first Tuesday of each November, offices around the country would close for business from mid-morning. Old box televisions were wheeled into board rooms, canapés and flutes of French champagne were passed around with largesse by ruddy-faced directors, and there were always at least five sweeps on the go in any one place, giving every tipsy worker a fair chance of scooping enough cash with which to celebrate later. For those few hours, corporate tiers were torn down, bosses mingling (usually in more ways than one) with employees, the reception desk abandoned and the switchboard turned off — all for the sake of a three-minute horse race. What other nation on earth would dare to slow its production wheels for such a silly thing?
But if the race managed to grind too-rich corporations to a halt, there were plenty of industries that didn’t — couldn’t — stop to partake: teachers, doctors and nurses, emergency services, transport workers and the like. The adage that the Melbourne Cup ‘stops a nation’ didn’t then — and doesn’t now — bear scrutiny. How could it? But it’s a great marketing gimmick, and one that Racing Victoria clings to.
Even the most extreme measure taken by Victoria — declaring Melbourne Cup day a public holiday — hasn’t proved the claim true. In a number of regional centres it’s business as usual; they celebrate their own spring racing carnivals (Kyneton Cup) and they’ll take their holiday when it suits, thank you very much. Most Melburnians decide, since Tuesday’s already a holiday, they might as well bunk off on the Monday off too, so it becomes the longest of long weekends. A chance to get away. Race? What race? And for those Victorians who do give a damn; who plan a modest get-together of their own — the men tapping in online bets and beering it up around the BBQ while, in the kitchen (yes, even in 2014), women peel cling film from bowls of salads and supervise hordes of children — it no longer holds the same appeal. Because, just as it’s been for the last 40 years, celebrating the Melbourne Cup isn’t about watching a race. It’s about over-indulging and skiving off work. And when you’re already off work, what’s left to celebrate?
Indeed, unless we ignore the race altogether, what else can Victorians do except attend the bloody thing?
So we do. In droves. Every year the numbers increase (over 104,000 in 2013) and one could be forgiven for thinking the enforced holiday nothing more than a clever money-spinning ploy. But there’s no denying that for many who frock up and flock to Flemington for the big day (or the whole week: 331,196 last year), the Melbourne Cup remains a high point on the social calendar. And it celebrates everything that’s wonderful, as well as all that is truly awful, about our society.
It’s about selection – the fastest horses, the best-dressed race-goers, the most expensive foods and wines, the most coveted of tents — the rich, the powerful, celebrities and dignitaries alike, all choppered and chauffeured to the track and separated by affordability and popularity from the untidy masses who collect on the concourse. It’s as much about selection as it is about rejection, and it isn’t hailed ‘the sport of kings’ for nothing. Charles Darwin, if he were alive today, might be more than a little bemused by the spectacle.
Because there’s nothing natural about the Melbourne Cup. It has become a day of wanton excess. A day where twenty-four of the world’s most thoroughly-bred and genetically engineered horses compete for brief accolade, and their owners and trainers compete for huge prize-money.
It’s about breeding, and not just on the track. It’s about who’s-who and what’s-what and where to be as well as how best to be seen. It’s about gambling, about squandering that last fiver or throwing down another five hundred — because let’s face it, so many there can afford to — on a whispered tip. It’s a day that heralds every extravagance and every hope and every desperate dream. It’s a race that’s less about the majesty of the horse — its power, its grace, its extraordinary stamina — or the skill of the jockey, and more about a multi billion-dollar industry.
While it can be argued that the Melbourne Cup generates huge profits for all involved in organising and running the event (no, they don’t ‘stop’ either) and helps fill government coffers, it’s not all pretty.
It’s been impossible (for me, at least) to find any records stating the exact number of horses that have had to be euthanased as a result of injuries sustained on Melbourne Cup race day. Racing Victoria guards such statistics zealously. And this year, much has been made of the legal wrangle between the racing industry and The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, when the latter erected a billboard depicting a dead racehorse over one of Melbourne’s busiest tollways. (It’s since been removed). Add to this any number of horror stories about what happens to these magnificent animals once their use — their money-raking days — are over.
But there are other horror stories too, the derisive kind, those that mock ridiculous fashion and excessive drinking and spending, and next-day’s tabloids are filled with pictures of the plastered and the poorly attired and all the mess they’ve left behind. And for us Melburnians who have ignored it — who’ve escaped the city and are returning from our long long-weekend — there’s the after-race spectacle to endure as dishevelled, panda-eyed girls totter and weave their way home, while already drunk race-goers decide it’d be a ‘great idea, mate!’ to continue their carousing, crowding pubs and clubs before vomiting and defecating on street corners. Yep, it’s a glorious day for all.
So wherever you are tomorrow, if you’re watching, make sure you savour every second of those three minutes. After all, ‘the race that stops a nation’ is the real reason you’re there. Isn’t it?