It is Spring Carnival here in Melbourne. No, we don’t celebrate Spring – instead we have a lot of horse races, culminating in the Melbourne Cup Carnival.
Firstly, there is Derby Day (which was this last Saturday), where it is traditional to wear black and white.
Today is Melbourne Cup Day – more of that one later.
Thursday is Oaks Day which is traditionally ladies’ day at the races but it is often referred to as ‘Blokes’ Day’ as all the guys go for a perve.
Then, Saturday is Stakes Day which is a family day at the races.
Cup Day is the ‘carnivale’ centrepiece of the four race-days of Cup Week, with race goers taking a festive approach to the day.
The Melbourne Cup is Australia’s major thoroughbred horse race. It is often called ‘the race that stops a nation.” The Melbourne Cup is a Group 1, handicap horse race run over 3200 metres on the first Tuesday in November at 3.10pm.
The race has been held since 1861 and was originally held over two miles (about 3,218 metres) but following preparation for Australia’s adoption of the metric system in the 1970s, the current race distance of 3,200 metres was established in 1972.
The $6.2 million Melbourne Cup is a truly spectacular event and the focal point of the Melbourne Cup Carnival. While most of Australia stops to watch or listen to the race, there’s nothing like being there amongst the 100,000 plus crowd to experience this truly unique event.
It is hard to convey the sheer scale of Melbourne Cup Day to someone who has not witnessed it before. It is an exciting and exhilarating event where you can experience the pulse of Australia in just one day.
Even for those who are not at the event, there are Melbourne Cup banquets, complete with fashion shows, sweeps, celebrity MC’s, and best-dressed competitions. Basically, Melbourne shuts down.
At around 3 pm (AEDST) the Melbourne Cup is televised to over 700 million people in more than 120 countries. Many more millions listen to the race on the radio or now also many more millions watch it live on the Internet. If you are out and about on the roads in Melbourne city at 3pm on the first Tuesday in November you can be forgiven if you think the world has come to an end, if only for a few minutes.
There’s a story that an English couple who had just emigrated to Australia wondered why Melbourne was such a quiet city, because there seemed to be nobody on the streets. They had arrived during the running of the Cup. This is probably just a good yarn, but there is some truth to it. Ever since the running of the first Cup, the race has been popular with the public. In fact, Melbourne is the only city in Australia and perhaps in the world, which gives its citizens a public holiday for a horse race. It doesn’t happen in country Victoria, just in the city and, it has been happening since 1876. People come from all around Australia, New Zealand, and internationally to participate in, or view this now famous event. This year has seen both Nicole Kidman and Rose Byrne return home for the races; and Prince Charles and his wife Camilla are here for Cup Day.
With the Melbourne Cup prize being the richest prize in Australian sport, racehorses come from all over the world to race in the Cup. Overseas entrants travel by plane in luxurious quarters.
Just before the main race, the National Anthem is performed and for many Melburnians, Melbourne Cup Day is the penultimate sporting day of the year. The Cup itself is crafted by Hardy Brothers Jewellers, and valued at $175,000. Created from 2,340 grams of solid 18ct gold, it takes more than 250 man hours to produce.
It has impressed many visitors to write about it. None more so than perhaps that great American author and humourist Mark Twain ( from Chapter 16 of his book about his journey around the world Following the Equator):
‘Melbourne … is a stately city; it has museums, and colleges, and schools, and public gardens, and electricity, and gas, and libraries, and theatres, and mining centres, and wool centres, and centres of the arts and sciences, and boards of trade, and ships, and railroads, and a harbour, and social clubs, and journalistic clubs, and racing clubs, and a squatter club, sumptuously housed and appointed, and as many churches and banks as can make a living. In a word, it is equipped with everything that goes to make a modern great city. It … has one specialty… on the first Tuesday in November… business is suspended … and every man and woman, of high degree or low, who can afford the expense, put away their other duties and come. They… swarm in …a fortnight before the day, and they swarm thicker and thicker day after day, until all the vehicles of transportation are taxed to their uttermost to meet the demands of the occasion, and all hotels and lodgings are bulging outward because of the pressure from within. They come a hundred thousand strong, as all the best authorities say, and they pack the spacious grounds and grandstands and make a spectacle such as is never to be seen in Australasia elsewhere… The grandstands make a brilliant and wonderful spectacle, a delirium of colour, and 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 race 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 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.’
But the Melbourne Cup is not only about gambling and horses. Increasingly many people are partaking in it for the fashion, fizzy and food (at boozy banquets).The Melbourne Cup has gained a reputation for fashion with a penchant for drama. It is the day to make your strongest fashion statement with an exotic or outrageous ensemble – hats are essential and so is a yellow rose in the lapel. Each year on this day, Flemington racecourse becomes the play pit for Australia’s most elegant, fashionable and classy.
Fashions on the Field was launched with the objective of ‘finding the smartest dressed women at the Carnival within economic restraints’. Since then the fashion follies of the fillies on the field have captured the imagination of the public and the event has grown rapidly in popularity. Race-goers compete among themselves for prizes awarded for the best dressed. Fashions on the Field can attract as much attention as the race itself with people in traditional formal race wear and others in amusing costumes. The competition has changed the nature of racing forever – fillies and fellas vie for as many awards as the horses.
But, it also witnesses some of Australia’s most drunk and disorderly behaviour. And there are some pretty dire scenes to be had: the girls who stumble out at the end of the day, shoes in hand, and the drunken men who vomit on their best suits!
Despite this, the day is one of buzz and excitement. However, it seems bizarre that on the day of ‘the race that stops the nation,’ only one state is actually given a public holiday.
Melbourne Cup Day could be a fabulous national holiday. It would be a holiday where we could hang out with friends and have a few drinks. Warring families would not have to spend torturous hours together as they do at Christmas. We wouldn’t have to spend frantic days in the lead-up, preparing huge meals and battling late-night shopping crowds. Secular groups (and various religious groups) would not need to conceal their bitterness about being forced to recognise the Christian calendar as they do at Easter. We could sidestep the heated and divisive political debates concerning the invasion of this country (as occurs on Australia Day) and our invasion of other countries (as occurs on ANZAC Day).
Currently, almost all of our national holidays alienate at least one group; indigenous groups on Australia Day, immigrants of countries who fought against Australian troops on Anzac Day, Muslims and Jews at Christmas, and even republicans on the Queen’s birthday.
While many dismiss such complaints as “political correctness run amok” it would still be nice to have one national holiday that could be enjoyed Australia over.
Anyway, I hope you back the winner or draw it in that quintessential Aussie office event, the Sweep.