The Race that Stops a Nation

(John Holland is having the same problem as Jim Domzal, can't figure out how to post. If anybody has a suggestion where to move this blog so as to be more "user-friendly" I'm open to suggestions-The Commissioner)

Today for approx. 4 minutes at around 3.00 p.m. Australian eastern daylight saving time an entire nation comes to a standstill. People driving pull over to the edge of the road and turn on the radio. Those shopping or walking along the street, stop and watch a TV in a shop. In the city of Melbourne it is a public holiday.

In every office, a sweep is run (set up in advance if the office is in Victoria ; done on the day if in other states). In offices and factories in states other than Melbourne , people stop work and gather in the conference room, canteen or wherever else there is a TV. In every city, town and village the local totalisator agency (TAB; government run betting shop) opens four hours earlier than normal and has a queue outside the door. Every pub has its TV turned to one channel.

Tens of thousands of women have gone out and spent a small fortune purchasing a special frock just for this day.

In every suburban Melbourne rail station, there will be the incongruous site of men and women dressed to the nines as if going to the opera and boarding trains on the one day of the year they would deem to leave their cars behind and take public transport. On this day they are “off to the races”.

Throughout suburbia, the smell of onion frying on the barbie will permeate neighbourhoods and cause heads to pop up over fences. Many of those heads will say to themselves: “that’s a bloody good idea, I’ll go and grab a few snags from the fridge and fire up my own barbie.” They will then call out to their wives: “Hey, darling, I’m going to get the barbie going, can you make some coleslaw?” In countless homes throughout Victoria , those barbies will be held with the TV set up outside and going all day. Unusual for a barbie, the normal stubbies of beer will be replaced by tall stems of champagne. The first question everyone will ask each other as they arrive will be: “What horse have you backed?” And no matter which horse it is, everyone will hope that you will win, even though they may have put their wager on another horse.

Today is the first Tuesday in November: Melbourne Cup day. Horses from around the world have come to Melbourne for the Spring Carnival, two weeks of horse racing and socialising which culminates in the running of the Melbourne Cup, or just the “Cup” as any Aussie says. With a purse of AUS$6 million (US$6.4 million), it is the country’s richest race. But it is also the richest in tradition; in past years legend recalls how country nags have been walked hundreds of kilometres to Melbourne to compete and win against the city thoroughbreds.

Now, in the year, 2012, it is a race with a global audience of some 700 million people in 120 countries.

In Melbourne , approx. 120,000 people will cram into Flemington Racecourse, one of four courses in the city - yes, racing is that big in Australia. Many of the men will come in top hat and tails with the women in gorgeous, delicate, flimsy, often revealing, always fashionable, frocks which often leave them freezing cold when the weather turns as it can do four times in a few hours in a city which often experiences every season in one day. They will gather in the Members Car Park around cars with the boot open, a portable TV set up and a picnic hamper featuring chicken sandwiches - no vegemite today! - and champagne measured by the esky full, not the bottle.

A few fortunate ones will relax in the corporate marquees, graciously sipping Mumm champagne or cointreau-on-ice while grazing on foie gras and assorted canap├ęs as their hosts and hostesses ensure that the client is well looked after so that contracts are renewed next year.

Other men and women, the plebs of a multi-strata society, will congregate on the lawn as close as they can get to the Winning Post. They will have come by train and tram - there is train stop right at the gate to the racecourse - with dozens of special trains running the 5 or 6 km distance from the city centre to the course.

If room can be found, rugs will be laid on the ground, picnic hampers dumped on the corners and a bottle opened and some sangers (chicken again) distributed. If room can’t be found, you just drop onto a patch of grass a few square centimetres in size in between a couple of strangers and say “don’t mind if we squeeze in here do you?” without expecting an answer. But always an answer will come back “no worries mate, getting a bit crowded isn’t it?”. And after 15 minutes of shuffling and wriggling they will somehow have moved over a bit (more likely, reduced the size of their area), your rug will be overlaying theirs and their neighbours and there will be room. Some will have to stand; not everyone will be able to sit down, no one will be able to lie down. That is, until late in the afternoon after the champers (champagne) has taken hold and some of the younger bucks and a few of the fillies are simply no longer capable of standing up.

Their outfits vary. From standard skirts and dresses, slacks and shirts, to dinner suit jackets and bow ties worn with shorts and rubber boots. One year, one wag turned up in a frogman’s outfit. Appropriately, it rained.

At around 2.45 p.m. a murmur will rise as the horses are led out to the mounting paddock. Then, at 3.00 p.m. as the gates open, with a cry of “They’re off and running” coming from every TV screen and radio, at the course itself a roar will go up which can be heard for miles around.

Momentarily, as the riders do their initial jockeying for position, that roar will drop before rising again as the horses come past the finishing post and members' grandstand for the first time around the course. As the 3200 metres (approx. 2 miles) is raced, the crowd steadily increases the volume of its calls. “Go Dunaden.” “C’mon Lights of Heaven”. “C’mon, C’MON, C’MON”.

At the final turn as they enter the home straight, it is a bedlam of shouting, jumping, waving people. And then the horses flash past with a cheer going up for the winner. A champion has won and the crowd always acknowledges that the best horse won, no matter which horse they had bet on.

Postscript: Horse racing is a great celebration in Australia. Every city and tiny country town which boasts a racecourse has a public holiday when its local"Cup" day is held. There is one "town" (Birdsville) at the end of a very long dirt track in outback Queensland which has a population of less than 100. But each year thousands of people drive for days to get there - or fly in on their own light planes and land in the scrub - for the Birdsville Races.

(editor's note- The Melbourne Cup 2012 was won by Green Moon, a 20-1 underdog. Second was taken by a 30-1 horse, and an 80-1 nag took show. Wish I had a trifecta card n that one!)

1 comment:

  1. The rich, they say, are different. Well, so are the Aussies. God love'em.