Crazy about the cup

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 November, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 November, 2006, 12:00am

The true Australian national anthem is about a swagman who stole a sheep (Waltzing Matilda). Australia's most highly revered political hero is an armour-clad Irish outlaw who took on the establishment single handed (Ned Kelly). And Australia's most hallowed day is reverently set aside to celebrate a horse race that has revved up the entire country's psyche for 145 years and has become 'the race that stops a nation'.

Although horse racing is the sport of kings, in Australia it's a sport for everyone. In a nation that prides itself in being egalitarian, CEOs to street cleaners are equally welcome at the racetrack.

'The Cup' is a consuming passion, a party, a sport, an event, an escape, a hoot, a holiday, a glamour-fest and a chance to strike it rich ... all rolled together.

Every office in Australia hosts a Melbourne Cup sweepstake, schools down pens and sports clubs from golf to lawn bowls get in on the act.

Even Australians whose knowledge of horse racing would fit on the back of a betting ticket place their once-a-year wagers and go out of their way to watch the race at Flemington. 'What other horse race in the world is a gazetted public holiday?' says Colin Jesse, an Australian businessman and racehorse owner living in Hong Kong.

Besides overseas jockeys, horses, owners and trainers upping the stakes, Diana Ross, Greg Norman, Lleyton Hewitt, Chris Isaak and former Miss Universe, Jennifer Hawkins, will be among the 100,000 plus people who will attend this year.

The Emirates Melbourne Cup, a permanent fixture on the Australian racing calendar since 1861, is run on the first Tuesday of November. Over the years it has transformed from a national event to an international phenomenon. Since the early 1990s the race, now the richest two-mile handicap in the world at A$5.1 million, has grown in international status.

'The vast overseas input witnessed in a big way since the early 1990s just makes the cup even better,' says Jesse. 'It's harder to pick the winner now there are top-class jockeys, trainers and horses from other countries competing. Races of this calibre are usually not handicapped, it's impossible to have comparable form now it's an international event and at 3,200 metres it's a longer race than most.'

Horse racing Australia-wide has been astutely repackaged in the past five years, a move that has increased grassroots popularity. 'Racing used to attract beautiful young women who wore classical black and white outfits,' says Robert Sullivan from the Australian Jockey Club, which championed many of the changes. 'That crowd grew older and racetracks became a place mostly for older men on the punt. It was time for a change. We worked on the premise that if we attracted young women again, young men would follow.'

Another strategy has been to take the race to the remotest parts of Australia. Towns large and small are invited to bid for the privilege of displaying the cup.

One selected outback town, Come by Chance (population five), won the cup for a day. Testimony to the love of racing in the outback is the fact that Chance's recent picnic race meeting attracted 3,000 visitors. Wives, daughters and jillaroos (the female version of 'jackaroo' farm workers) pulled out their best dresses, hats and high heels in defiance of the three inches of red outback dirt. Juggling sausage sizzle in one hand, beer or wine in another they do the ubiquitous 'Aussie salute' to wave the flies away.

Looking back, it comes as no surprise that Australia should hold such a passion for all things equine. Two of the nation's best known poems - The Man from Snowy River and Clancy of the Overflow are about horses. During the first world war, Australia sent some 160,000 horses to Europe's battlefields. Despite this, in 1918, Australia was home to one horse for every two people. The ratio may have changed, but the fascination has not. Much like JFK's assassination, Australians often recall where they celebrated each Melbourne Cup.

The spirit of the cup has been apparent from its inception. Before winning the very first race, Archer reputedly walked the almost 1,000 kilometres from Sydney to Melbourne, to take part. The 1930 winner, Phar Lap, sealed his place in history via his suspicious death, intriguing Australians ever since and rivalling the disappearance of 1960s Prime Minister Harold Holt for conspiracy theories. The 'Horse with the Huge Heart' now stands, in stuffed resplendence, in the Museum of Melbourne.

English supermodel Jean Shrimpton - who was paid more than the Beatles for their first tour of Australia - was responsible for 'The Mini Skirt Affair' in 1965, when she introduced her miniskirt to the traditionally demure, long-hemlined, large-hatted, stockinged and gloved event.

Such is the passion for the event it is exported to wherever Australians settle around the world. In Hong Kong, the cup even changes the race calendar, bringing forward by one day the traditional Wednesday night meeting at Happy Valley. More than 500 revellers make an annual pilgrimage to a day of celebrations arranged by the Australian Association of Hong Kong.

As for the Melbourne event, guests arrive in full regalia for a day that starts early and finishes late. 'By 10am you're having your first glass of champagne,' says Jesse. 'This is followed by the 'Fashion on the Field' competition for the best hat and then the race is screened live from Melbourne around lunchtime.'

Despite the lack of horses, guests agree that the combination of atmosphere, effort and outfits transform Happy Valley into the Flemington racecourse for the duration of the day. Some stay on for the evening races, in what perhaps must be the longest day of horse racing in the world.

Dean White, president of the Australian Association of Hong Kong, agrees that it's the event's good humour that makes it so successful, 'For my first few months here I practically lived in the office. The day I went along to the cup in Happy Valley changed my life. My social life went crazy and I got some balance back.'

Wherever you find yourself, the key to enjoying the Melbourne Cup, it appears, is to enter into the spirit of the race that has endured and strengthened over its 145-year history. As Jesse says: 'The Melbourne Cup is a race that you bet on with your heart, not your brain.'