“A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up to and outpace.” Ovid
Australians certainly love sport and although renowned for our egalitarianism, we are fond of “the sport of kings” - horse racing. One can find horse racing events around the nation on almost every day of the year. Of course, there is a lively wagering that goes on in association with these events too. Although I am not a gambler I do take part in the yearly flutter that comes with the Melbourne Cup in the form of the office sweepstakes where I hand over my two-dollar coin as I bid goodbye to it - I haven't won once! Anyway, that's the extent of my gambling…
The Melbourne Cup is the horse race of all Australian horse races. Every year when this race is run around 3:00 pm, it literally stops the entire nation. Melbourne Cup Day is fixed on the first Tuesday in November and although it is a public holiday only in the Melbourne Metropolitan area, Australians all over the nation are glued to their television screens or listen on the radio (or on the internet too, nowadays, I suppose) to watch this historic race.
The race is held over a distance of 3,200 meters, the traditional two-mile cup distance, for horses three years and older and is the richest and most prestigious “two-mile” handicap in the world. It is held in Flemington Racecourse, located in Flemington, one of Melbourne's inner city suburbs, which is named after a butcher who lived there in the 19th century. I certainly hope he didn't sell horse meat - that would be grand irony!
The first Melbourne Cup was run in 1861. There were 17 starters and the prize was 170 pounds and a hand-beaten gold watch (this was the trophy given before the traditional Loving Cup which the Melbourne Cup is known for). “Archer”, the first Cup-winning horse, had been walked to Melbourne from its stable in Nowra, New South Wales, a distance of about 800km. “Archer” won again the following year to a prize of 810 gold sovereigns (£810) and a gold watch. “Archer” went on to win the race the following year once more, making him one of the five horses to win the event more than once.
The Victoria Turf Club and the Victoria Jockey Club merged to form the Victoria Racing Club in 1864. The Victoria Racing Club (VRC) had taken charge of the proceedings since then. The Melbourne Cup saw even more promise and popularity under the auspices of the VRC. By 1865, Cup Day was declared a half-day holiday. By 1877 it was declared a whole day holiday to allow patrons to crowd the Flemington racecourse. The Cup was first held on the first Tuesday of November in 1875. It then too adopted the four-day format, which later evolved to today's well-attended Carnival. From then until now the Melbourne Cup was growing to a locally and internationally supported event.
The Flemington racetrack is the most popular course in Australia and the home of the organisers of the VRC. The whole field has a capacity of 120,000. Spectators who cannot get into Flemington watch from the television panels outside of the field. The pear-shaped track has a back straight of six furlongs. The final straight to the finishing post measures 450 metres long. The length of the home stretch has decided Melbourne Cup races throughout history.
“Green Moon” passed the winning post to take the 2012 Melbourne Cup. Sitting atop the flying six-year-old stallion was jockey Brett Prebble. “Americain”, the favourite, did not even rate a place - as is often usual with favourites! Prebble said on his win: “It's a lifelong dream. That was super, he was outstanding. He's a machine, you can take him anywhere in the world and he's a high class animal. What can you say, I won a Melbourne Cup.”
The Spring Racing Carnival, but especially the Melbourne Cup and the Oaks Day races run the Thursday two days after the Cup, is a glamour fashion event also. Many people simply attend to be seen in their best finery. Women compete furiously for winning the fashion stakes and every year it is amazing to see what they balance on top of their heads in the form of some type of headgear: Caps, hats, fascinators, berets, shades, turbans, titfers, headdresses of every kind, from the sublime to the ridiculous (mostly the latter)!
This year, Charles the Prince of Wales and his Consort the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla, graced the Melbourne Cup with their presence. The royal couple met some of the jockeys who rode in the Melbourne Cup and they will stay in Melbourne for a total of three days, as part of their Australasian tour.