Anne here, where it's Melbourne Cup time and horse racing is in the air. The Melbourne Cup a cultural phenomenon, unlike any other race in the world, I suspect — not because of the racing, not because it's the one of the richest turf races in the world but because of the way it touches people all over the country who normally have no interest in racing.
The Melbourne Cup is billed as "the race that stops a nation" and it's not just advertising hype, it's actually a pretty fair description of the race that's a national institution. In Melbourne, where I live, Cup Day is a public holiday and has been since 1877.
On Cup Day at 3 o'clock, the time of the race, hundreds of cars on freeways all over the country simply pull over (illegally) while the drivers listen to the race.
In workplaces and social groups across Australia, people who normally never listen to or watch a horse race, who've never been to a racecourse or laid a bet in their lives, will participate in a Cup Day Sweep where, for a sum of money you get to pull a horse's name out of a hat. The money is divided between 1st, 2nd and 3rd, with a small prize for last. And at 3 o'clock they'll stop work to watch the race on TV or listen on the radio.
In Melbourne, people come from all over the world to attend the race. Locals will also go to the racecourse, some from the early morning for an event called "breakfast with the stars" — the stars being the horses— others to have champagne picnics in the car park out of their car boots.
But most don't go to the racecourse, they have picnics and parties, where sweeps will be drawn and hats will be worn. Hats are a huge part of the Melbourne Cup -- ranging from the glamorous to the ridiculous, and worn by men and women. It's said the Melbourne milliners flourish because of the Cup.
Even those who don't go to parties still incorporate some Cup fun into their day. This year some of my writing buddies and I were on deadline so we didn't go a-partying, but we still had an on-line sweep and sent pictures of cyber hats.
I love the Melbourne Cup, and yet I've never been to it. Pretty much all I know about about horse racing is from Dick Francis novels and from a very funny comedy show on radio years ago, called Punter to Punter. So why does this particular horse race, of all the other races in the year, appeal to me and so many others? I think it's because this race, more than most, is about stories. And stories touch people in a way that simple racing and betting doesn't.
It started with the first Melbourne Cup, back in 1861, when Victoria was a brash new colony, flush with money from the 1850 Gold rushes. There were 17 starters and at that time the prize - apart from the money (170 pounds ) - was not a cup at all, but a hand - beaten gold watch.
That first race was a dramatic affair: one horse bolted at the gate and three more fell during the race — two of them died and a jockey was injured. Archer, an outsider from Sydney won, and the crowd marveled when they heard that to prevent the theft of the valuable horse by bushrangers, Archer, had been walked all the way to Melbourne by back roads and across country, a distance of 500 miles (800km.) At least, that was the story everyone was told. Recently it came out that in fact the horse was brought to Melbourne by ship, but by then the legend was well established.
Since then more legends have emerged and I think these stories are what keep it in the public imagination. That and the glamour and fun of it all.
In order to attract a bigger crowd to the fledgling Cup, the first secretary of the Victorian Racing Club, Robert Bagot (c. 1828-1881) decided to issue members with two ladies tickets, calculating that "where ladies went, men would follow". This was to prove a stroke of genius, and added a great deal to the party atmosphere of the cup.
Click on the link to see a marvelous image of the Melbourne Cup of 1889. You can see that sophistication isn't a recent phenomenon. But it's not just a day for the rich and glamorous; the fact that it's a public holiday and some fun traditions ensure Cup Day is "the people's day."
These days we have 'Fashions On The Field' with hundreds of entries, from top models and celebrities, to office workers and suburban wives. It's judged by international fashionistas and substantial prizes are awarded for the best-dressed man and woman. It's also a dress-up day in other ways, people wearing outrageous or silly outfits, group outfits or simply shorts and t-shirt.
But it's not just the glamour and party atmosphere that makes the cup catch the imagination of a nation — after all,most people aren't dressed up and at the races — it's the stories associated with the cup, starting from Archer, and continuing, stories of hardship and sacrifice and great strokes of luck, and mysteries, and dreams shattered and dreams come true.
Probably the greatest of all is the story of Phar Lap, in his day, the most famous horse in the world. It was the depression, and Phar Lap, an awkward looking colt who started his career with a few unpromising starts, won his first race and then went on a winning streak that caught the public imagination. He won 37 of 51 races he entered in his short racing career and became a huge favorite with punters.
He won the Melbourne Cup in 1930, despite the handicap of carrying a huge 138 lbs (61.5 kg.) The following year there was public outrage when the handicappers forced him to run carrying an unheard-of 150 pounds (68 kg) and he came eighth.
Phar Lap was then taken to race in North America, but he died there in mysterious circumstances — murdered by the Mob, it's said -- and the whole country grieved. Such was the regard he was held in that his body was brought back, his great heart preserved and on display in the National Museum, his skeleton returned to his birthplace, New Zealand, and his hide stuffed, and mounted in a glass case in the Melbourne Museum where, nearly eighty years later, it's still the most popular exhibit.
There is a bronze statue of him at Flemington Racecourse (where the Melbourne Cup is run) and I once saw a drunken young man climb up on it, cheered on by his equally drunken friends. An old chap stormed at him; "Oy, you young lout! That's sacrilege, that is, climbing up on Phar Lap. Get off him at once, d'ye hear me?" And the young man meekly climbed down— and apologized.
But that's just one of the many stories that make the Melbourne Cup more than just a horse race. Each year there are more; stories of humans and horses, hopes and dreams, euphoria and heartbreak — what more could a lover of stories ask for?
So what about you. Do you like horse racing? Is there a special horse race in your area? Or have you a racing experience to share? Tell us your story. And if you're an Aussie, tell us what you did on Cup Day.