It’s the biggest horserace in the southern hemisphere, one of THE events on Melbourne’s sporting calendar, and The Race That Stops A Nation (or two). But what’s it like being at Flemington on Melbourne Cap day? This year I got to find out.
I’ll confess to being something of a Cup tragic having watched the past thirty or so on TV here. Commentaries of years past – “Kiwi’s flying he’ll beat them all, Kiwi’s come from last in a phenomenal performance”, “Natski won’t make it, and the big mare (Empire Rose) wins”, and “Here’s Makybe Diva, a nation roars for a hero. She’s starting to wind up… …but a hero becomes a legend” – rattle through my brain. And in that time the race has gone from being an Antipodean one to a truly international event, with Irish horse Vintage Crop’s 1993 triumph ushering in an era where horses trained in Ireland, England, Japan, and France have won, with the massive Dubai-based Goldophin operation finally breaking their duck last year with Cross Counter who returned as the top weight.
When you walk in the gates – and in my case the Elms entrance along the Maribyrnong River rather than those at the railway station – it’s the scale of the place. Looming up to left are the grandstands; the Lawn, Hill, Members, and Old Members. To the right is the winning post and the vast marquee of the same name put in place for the Spring Carnival. But all around is the sense of history; its where Archer won the first two Cups (and was prevented in running in a third by overprotective locals), and names like Carbine, Phar Lap, Makybe Diva, and the “Cups King” Bart Cummings are immortalised.
And even at 8.45am, there’s the scramble to get the best places on the Lawn.
There’s the glitz and glamour, not just of the Fashions on the Field in ‘The Park’ up behind the main grandstands – my wife chose to enter it as a bit of fun – but everywhere across the course. There’s the celebrity aspect as well, which from a sporting perspective was mainly AFL players but included former Central Coast Mariners football trialist Usain Bolt; OK… he’s perhaps better known for some other things.
We paid for an upgrade into the Parade Lounge (just don’t ask how much!), near opposite the 300m and just up from the famous clock tower that often signifies a pivotal point on the run home. Next to the entrance is one of the oldest structures on the course, the hut where Carbine was prepared for his races including his win in 1890. Out front on the East Lawn is the statue of Makybe Diva, behind is the one of Phar Lap, and on the concourse to the betting right the one of Bart Cummings.
Having eventually annexed a prime location on the balcony out front we had a great view out across the Lawn for both race and people watching, as well as into the stabling and parade ring before the horses’ head into the tunnel underneath to the mounting yard in front of the main stands. Even though that was a couple of hundred metres away, it didn’t feel like it.
And that’s perhaps the best way to describe things, despite the crowds it doesn’t feel busy or hectic. Everything off the track runs like the thoroughbreds on it, even the alcohol outlet in front of us was putting punters through at such a rate that the queue seldom got beyond 40 people.
The first six races pass in what seems like the blink of an eye, before the hour to the big one kicks off. The atmosphere rises as the horses head to the mounting yard and then out onto the track where they go the “chute” at the top of the main straight and loaded up. The walkways and paths are empty, as is the queue for drink in front of us. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is focused on the track. There’s a roar when they jump from the gates, a wall of noise as the pass the crowd for the first time, and the straining of necks and ears as the field heads long the back straight and rounds the top turn. It’s loud, but the thunder of hooves drowns that out as they pass where I’m standing before the crescendo as they pass the post. It’s all over in about 3½ minutes.
It’s a triumph for the locals, with fifth-favourite Vow and Declare becoming the first Australian bred, owned, and trained horse to win since Shocking a decade ago. But the drama isn’t over as the siren rings out with fourth protesting second and putting bets on hold. Eventually its upheld, something that impresses the bloke from the Gold Coast standing next to me as the revised result sees his syndicate turn $100 into nearly $3000, and somewhere out there one punter has picked the first four home in order, with his $10 outlay becoming nearly $800,000.
The speeches and presentation of the famous three-handled gold trophy takes place but by then the mood has moved on. Punters start to let rip or drift up the gates to carry on into the evening. The strapper for Vow and Declare hands his bib over to anyone who wants a photo wearing it. There’s enough time for us for the wife to back her second winner of the day in the ninth on the card before we too start to head off, although there’s still plenty to see amongst the revellers as we make our way back to the transfer buses.
A fantastic experience, and one I won’t be forgetting. It’s well worth putting on the bucket list.
(Footnote: It would be remiss of me to not address the major issue surrounding horse racing in Australia now. Recent televised revelations about the treatment of racehorses after their track careers are over have certainly laid the industry bare. Some celebrities cancelled their appearance as a result and may have been a factor in the crowd of 83,000 being the smallest since 1995. Simply put, it must do better.)
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