MELBOURNE — No sporting event grips Australia quite like the Melbourne Cup, the race that stops a nation.
On the first Tuesday of November, the country quite literally shuts down to watch the finest thoroughbreds from Australia and abroad battle it out to be first past the post.
But what is it about this particular horse race that draws the attention of an entire population to the cracking whips and pounding hooves of Flemington Racecourse?
Its long and rich (and we mean rich) history
In the 1850s, the discovery of the Victoria goldfields drew would-be diggers from far and wide, leading to a surge in population of Melbourne and its surrounding areas. And as the miners started to count their stacks, the first running of the Melbourne Cup in 1861 presented the perfect opportunity to flaunt their newfound wealth.
While this first outing only drew around 4,000 attendees, it soon evolved into the place to be seen for Australia’s elite, with the rich and famous descending on Flemington each November to party and outshine each other with the latest in cutting edge fashions.
A chance to look pretty
This trend-setting tradition would become entrenched and later formalised, with the establishment of the Victoria Racing Club’s Fashions on the Field competition in 1962.
These days, racegoers both male and female deck themselves out in the most dazzling of outfits, which invariably translate to hand-carried heels and loosened neckties as the effects of day’s worth of boozing start to take hold. But hey, who doesn’t like stepping out in their Sunday best, even if it only lasts until the jubilation of picking the first winner sees your friend offer a euphoric embrace-turned-surprise beer shower?
The dangers of problem gambling are well-established, and are drilled into us through adverts when we contemplate a flutter on a football match or hit the cash machine at the casino. But the Melbourne Cup stands alone as the one time when it’s acceptable to smash open that piggy bank and gamble it all on the horse with the coolest name.
At this time of year, the only thing more abundant than a bookmaker’s bank balance is the fountain of racing knowledge sourced from part-time punters. Herein lies the beauty of race that stops a nation: you don’t need to know your fillies from your furlongs to get involved.
A reason to stop work for a few minutes, days, whatever
As a mechanism to halt productivity, the Melbourne Cup really is perfectly designed. A timely start of 3 p.m. AEDT serves as the ideal disruption to the final class or work task of the afternoon. You can’t be expected to return to the job after the emotional turmoil of having that sure bet overrun on the final straight, can you?
The Cup is a public holiday in Melbourne and parts of Victoria, and has certain folk lobbying to cast the event as a nationwide celebration. But as Tuesday follows Monday, which follows Saturday and Sunday, there are fears that doing so would grant the country an unofficial four day weekend, as is more or less the case in Victoria.
A survey conducted in 2010 found that the Melbourne Cup costs the country around A$1 billion in lost productivity. That is, the three or so hours taken off by workers outside Victoria on Cup day amounted to 31 million hours in total. This of course is countered by an immeasurable boost to workplace morale that only cheering on a bunch of indistinguishable horses together can offer.
Oh, and the race itself
All of the fashion, partying and frenzied gambling aside, a prestigious thoroughbred horserace is the centrepiece of the Melbourne Cup. Run over 3,200 meters, it is the richest handicap horserace of its length in the world, with more than A$6 million in prize money up for grabs.
Winning the Melbourne Cup has been the making of some of horse racing’s most revered names. In November 1930, Phar Lap overcame a shooting attempt to take out the Cup at the shortest odds ever recorded for a winner – 8/11. In 2005, Makybe Diva etched her name into the record books by becoming the only racehorse to win the Melbourne Cup three times.
So whether you’re looking for a platform to parade your new fascinator, love holidays as much as the next person or are a genuine racing diehard, the national celebration that is the Melbourne Cup has something for just about everyone.
Now excuse us while we try to make sense of this form guide.