(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)
The Melbourne Cup, held each year on the first Tuesday in November, is followed by millions of people across the country and many more worldwide.
And a large part of its charm each year is its – usually – surprise result.
It’s now been over 150 years since horses were raced for the first time on the now-famous Flemington racecourse in 1861.
At that time, thousands of people flocked to see the first Melbourne Cup.
Victoria Racing Club consultant and historian, Dr Andrew Lemon, says the Cup is one of few events that started big – and kept growing.
“It began at a time when Melbourne was a very rich mining boom city, it was the gold period, it was a very young city. It was a time when there was a very big prize put up. People here just loved their horses, because that was the best way of getting around. And right from the start, it has attracted attention from all around Australia. Unlike some events, which start small, really the Melbourne Cup started big and just kept getting bigger.”
University of Sydney professor of religion, Carole Cusack, has an unusual view of the event.
The co-author of an essay titled “The Melbourne Cup: Australian identity and secular pilgrimage” says over the years and decades, it has come to represent an opportunity for the whole country to celebrate in a way that contributes to national identity.
“In the culture that we have now in the West, there’s a high degree of consumerism, there’s a low degree of serious or intense religious commitment and for a lot people, certain kinds of celebrations come to mean as much perhaps as the marking of time by religious ceremonies used to in the past. And so in Australia, we have a range of these sorts of ceremonies. Obviously the Olympics in Sydney in 2000 was a particular kind of bringing everybody together. But that kind of things are big things: in general people need more regular kinds of events to occasionally cut across different community groups and produce a moment of unity.”
Whatever its possible spiritual role, the Melbourne Cup is also an occasion to take a special outfit out of the wardrobe and drink something bubbling.
And then there’s the large-scale betting around the event.
Professor Cusack says, in Australia’s diverse society, some people may be uncomfortable with these particular traditions.
But she says other Cup rituals, such as the gathering in front of a TV screen with colleagues, family and friends, have the potential to foster social cohesion.
“The problem of course is the national identity question, because lots of Australians come from different ethnic groups and language groups. They have different religious beliefs or no religious beliefs at all. Some people don’t drink and don’t gamble and there is an element of the Melbourne Cup that is always about the champagne and the gambling, but I think also one of the interesting things about the Melbourne Cup is that the horses are such an emotional point for people. What you are seeing is a magnificent display of equestrian ability.”
The Melbourne Cup is a *handicapped race over a distance of 3,200 metres – a race for stayers, rather than sprinters.
This year’s prize money is 6.2 million dollars.
Richard Clancy is the Executive Director of the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
He says the Cup and all other events in the Spring Racing Carnival contribute not only to the state’s economy but also to the nation’s finances.
Mr Clancy says last year the race managed to attract about 53,000 tourists.
“The Victorian state economy was estimated to benefit by approximately $366 million in financial stimulus last year from the Melbourne Cup Carnival and nationally the estimate was placed at $750 million.”
This year’s field includes nine overseas-trained horses.
Five overseas stayers have so far won the Melbourne Cup: Dunaden and Americain from France, Delta Blues from Japan, Vintage Crop and Media Puzzle from Ireland.
But this year’s number one favourite is Fiorente, who came second last year and is trained by Sydney-based Gai Waterhouse.
To win her first Melbourne Cup, Ms Waterhouse will have to overcome the international raiders as well as businessman Lloyd Williams’ army of runners, that counts six of the field of 24, including last year’s winner, Green Moon.
Dr Lemon says Fiorente’s form is promising.
“Gai’s had several near-misses. She’s also got a horse, right down the bottom, who might sneak in called Tres Blue and that’s a European horse, who’s come here and she started training it as well. But Fiorente has the very good local form coming into this race. And if we were going on our traditional way, we’d be saying Fiorente is a very worthy favourite and it will be ridden by Damien Oliver, who’s won two Melbourne Cups before.”
However Dr Lemon shies away from speculating on a possible winner, describing the Cup as a “four-legged lottery”.
No doubt we’ll all be wiser once the race is over on Tuesday afternoon.