EVER thought how much more appropriate it would be to celebrate Australia Day with a national public holiday on the first Tuesday in November?

There can’t be too many events more Australian than the Melbourne Cup. Even those who don’t follow racing on a regular basis, like the rest of us, still religiously have a flutter on the big day.

The Melbourne Cup is more than a horse race. It’s arguably Australia’s only genuine, unaffected folk carnival. It’s a day when the richest and the poorest are drawn together by the flimsy excuse of a horse race.

It’s a day of extraordinary good humor, helped along by old-fashioned larrikinism and new-fashioned exhibitionism. It’s a day for toffs and showoffs, for winners and losers.

And one of the ironies of the Cup is that many of the 100,000 or more who converge on Flemington on Tuesday won’t see much of the big race at all.

For them, it will be little more than the roar that accompanies ‘they’re off,’ a flash of colors as the big field thunders by, the buzz that builds to a crescendo, and at the end, the million dollar question: ‘Who won?’

Even those in privileged places can but look and wonder. In the members’ enclosure they watch and hope but the finish is little more than a blur of horses’ hindquarters.

Except for that special area set aside for the owners and trainers in the grandstand. That’s where hundreds of hopes and dreams live and die on that first Tuesday in November. Then the cameras swing to the winning owners – many overcome by the occasion. The celebrations are about to begin again.

Most of those who make that ritual visit to Flemington and fail to see a thing will be back next year and the year after that. They wouldn’t swap the atmosphere of being there for the comfort of watching it on television in their homes or at their favorite pub or club.

Some even go through the crush of it all without having a bet, fighting to get to the bar to order endless rounds of drinks, but preferring the office sweep to the agony of making the painstaking push to the bookies or the tote.

Those who love to getaway and go racing will unanimously declare that Melbourne Cup week is an absolute must on the list of ‘things to do before you die.’

Many tell of planning this once-in-a-life time trip only to discover it was so addictive that they have returned every year since and never get tired of going.

Nothing quite compares with that wonderful week of racing, highlighted by the race that stops the nation. But these days you don’t have to be at Flemington to join in the celebrations with literally hundreds of Cup day race meetings throughout the country.

The founding fathers of the great race back in the 1860s would never have thought in their wildest dreams that the Melbourne Cup would grow into the event of today.

The Cup has long been lauded as ‘the race that stops a nation’ and the race which has become ingrained in the Australian culture. It is a race built on dreams, on hard luck and triumph. It is a race which is also survived by tragedy.

But while the Cup continues to evolve it will remain the greatest 3200m horse race anywhere in the world and, by the nature of the conditions, arguably the most challenging to win.

The great American writer Mark Twain visited Australia in the late 1800s, while on a world-wide lecture tour. He was realistic and humorous in his appraisal, but also, on the whole, quite flattering.

Twain arrived in Victoria at the time of the Melbourne Cup, and here are his observations at the time:

‘It is the Melbourne Cup that brings this multitude together. Their clothes have been ordered long ago, at unlimited cost, and without bounds as to beauty and magnificence, and have been kept in concealment until now, for unto this day are they consecrated.

And so the grandstands make a brilliant and wonderful spectacle, a delirium of color, a vision of beauty. The champagne flows, everybody is vivacious, excited and happy – everybody bets, and gloves and fortunes change hands right along, all the time.

Day after day the races go on, and the fun and the excitement are kept at white heat. And when each day is done, the people dance all night so as to be fresh for the races in the morning.

And at the end of the great week the swarms secure lodgings and transportation for next year, then flock away to their remote homes and count their gains and losses, and order next year’s Cup clothes, and then lie down and sleep for two weeks, and get up sorry to reflect that a whole year must be put in somehow or other before they can be wholly happy again.

The Melbourne Cup is the Australasian National Day. It would be difficult to overstate its importance. It overshadows all other holidays and specialized days of whatever sort in that congeries of colonies.

Overshadows them? I might almost say it blots them out. Each of them gets attention, but not everybody’s. Each of them evokes interest, but not everybody’s. Each of them rouses enthusiasm, but not everybody’s. In each case a part of the attention, interest, and enthusiasm is a matter of habit and custom, and another part of it is official and perfunctory.

Cup Day and Cup Day only, commands an attention, an interest, and an enthusiasm which are universal – and spontaneous, not perfunctory. Cup Day is supreme, it has no rival.

I can call to mind no specialized annual day, in any country, which can be named by that large name – supreme. I can call to mind no specialized annual day, in any country, whose approach fires the whole land with a conflagration of conversation and preparation and anticipation and jubilation. No day save this one; but this one does it.’

Who can argue that little has changed in more than a Century since Mark Twain penned those wonderful words?

As in Twain’s day, the crowds still throng. But TV cameras record for posterity all the action on and off the track, the fabulous clothes and ladies’ hats purchased for the event. Businesses in Victoria close for the day.

And throughout the land everything from work to traffic and even conversation seems to stop for those few minutes when the Cup is run (because while there are races for most of the day, nothing quite compares with the Melbourne Cup).

For the horses it begins with serenity in a lush green foaling paddock, perhaps in the Barossa Valley, the Hunter Valley or the Waikato area of New Zealand.

These days it could even begin on the rich, rolling hillsides of Ireland, England or Europe.

It culminates in stark contrast at Flemington in a frenzied carnival atmosphere, with almost 100,000 fans cheering the end of the most famous 3200m this side of the Equator.

The Melbourne Cup is the soul of Australian racing. From start to finish it’s an outrageous, glorious gamble – the only certainty that when it is all over the cycle will begin again.

Folklore suggests the lure of the Melbourne Cup hangs on the fact that it is a handicap – a race that brings together racing’s castes, horses and owners.

But let’s have no cultural cringe about it – the Cup is the most important and demanding test of a thoroughbred’s composite qualities of speed, stamina and moral backbone decided over two miles anywhere.

It would seem that the attitude of punters has changed over the years and they couldn’t give two hoots whether Cup day races are won by a battler or the world’s richest man – especially if they manage to back the winner.

Such was their good humor at the 1987 Cup meeting that they gave three rousing cheers to a bewildered Middle Eastern Sheikh when one of has huge stable won a minor race.

Suspicion suggests that the crowd was letting the Sheikh know that he was one of the lads, even though he could pay out the mortgages of most of middle Melbourne.

The ultimate test of the punters’ goodwill was seen in the mounting yard the year that the late Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, turned up for the presentation drunk as a skunk.

Such has been the impact of this horse race that brings a nation to a standstill that one wonders why the rest of the country doesn’t have a day off as well.

Perhaps Malcolm Turnbull should take a leaf from the Bob Hawke book after Australia won the America’s Cup and suggest that any boss who sacked a worker for suffering a Melbourne Cup hangover and failing to front for duty on Wednesday could best be described as a bum.

Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to celebrate Australia Day in November? We could even call it Bart’s Day. But if they don’t want to do that they let’s swap the Queen’s Birthday Holiday for Melbourne Cup day. After all it’s only a matter of time before we become a Republic – isn’t it Malcolm?

The history of the Melbourne Cup is one of winners and losers, of battlers and toffs, of hard luck and good, of sneering and cheering, of tall tales and true, and of accumulated memories of true blue Australians.

Doesn’t that have much more to do with the culture of this great country than commemorating the first white stake in the turf, Liz’s birthday or, heaven forbid, that of her son Charlie?

They say there are four great Australian myths to those foreigners who have never visited these fine shores and we include in that group the ones who sent us here to become convicts and bushrangers.

Their belief is that:

ALL Australians wear khaki shorts and say ‘Crikey!’

ALL Australians drink is beer.

Australians don’t speak English.

AND that the country stops for three minutes every year to listen to a horse race.

They got the last one right – so I guess three out of four ain’t bad!

Once again on Tuesday the Cup will continue to capture the imagination of an adoring public. It will continue to become the one race that every jockey, trainer and owner wants to win. And every punter – big and small – wants to back the winner of.

In conclusion, let’s reflect once more on those carefully chosen words of the great Mark Twain who was heard to say over a century ago: “Nowhere in my travels have I encountered a festival of the people that has such a magnetic appeal to a whole nation. The Cup astonishes me!”

One can reasonably argue – and who would dare to disagree – that is still the case today.



Join Us on Facebook

Racing News

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Getaway & Go Racing &
Day at the Races FREE Ratings
BN: 55127167

Login Form