Melbourne Cup Day at Flemington Raceourse features the race ‘…that stops the nation’. Aleady a national obsession when I was growing up in Sydney during the 1950’s in Australia, my father used to annually relate his many funny tales about life at the track during his childhood (he was born in 1901).
They included the horse who stood still at the old standing start gate story. As all the others jumped, when the starter waved his flag and said go, one horse remained. When queried why he had stopped and not joined the race the jockey replied, I thought you said whoa!
The teachers at the local primary school would generously bring in their radios for us to down tools and listen to the ‘Cup’ on the first Tuesday of November each year. Starting at about ¼ to 3, we loved cheering our favourites along. Then when the bell rang at 3 we would all race home to see if anyone had backed the winner.
For me this was a norm and all about growing up at Coogee Beach in Sydney, where in those days many of the thoroughbred racehorses from nearby suburb of Randwick came with their strappers to exercise on the wet sand and to swim in the sea.
It was well known at the time that this exercise was as good for a horse’s health as it was for a humans.
Watching them canter along the beach with their heads and tails flying behind them was always such a joy, so beautiful a sight to behold it used to make my heart ache with joy.
Thoroughbred horse racing is a spectator sport in Australia although it only comes in third behind Australian rules and rugby league football.
On an international scale, it seems per capita we have more racetracks than any other nation.
Held at Flemington Racetrack in Melbourne, Victoria over a series of weeks, the Spring Racing Carnival includes such memorable races as the Caufield Cup, the Derby, the Cox Plate and the Oaks Stakes.
They are all defining races with the star turn being without any doubt The Melbourne Cup.
Horses, fashions, flowers and memories are all integral to my experience of Australia’s most famous horse race, the ‘race that stops the nation’, a line from a poem written by Vivienne McCredie, 1986.
Each spring around the world blossoms burgeon and ideas of rebirth, renewal and regrowth abound.
Experiencing the nature of beauty involves ‘utility in variety and variety in unity’.
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all.
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know*
During the VRC’s Spring Racing Carnival the rose blooms that flank the horses as they walk to and from the track, only aid our perception of beauty.
Head gardener at Flemington Racetrack in Melbourne since 1976, Terry Freeman has since that time ensured the floribunda roses, which now number 16,000, provide their best blooms throughout the carnival,
Winning the top trio, triple crown or Spring Grand Slam of the Caulfield Cup, Cox Plate and The Melbourne Cup has only happened once in 1954 when the great New Zealand galloper Rising Fast won. He was inducted into both the New Zealand and Australian Racing Hall’s of Fame
A rare beauty, when Rising Fast retired, the Moonee Valley Racing Club held a special farewell for the champion.
He strode up the straight with a garland of flowers around his neck, while the band played “The Maori Farewell.”
A popular pubic holiday for those working in metropolitan Melbourne, the ‘Cup’ is held on the first Tuesday in November, the horses competing over ‘two miles’ (3,200 metres).
Archer winner of the first two Melbourne Cups became famous for walking to Melbourne from Sydney to win the first of the now famous race, with a crowd of some 4,000 people watching.
Within a decade the Australasian Newspaper (1871) recorded
There was barely standing room on the lawn and many ladies were unable to find a seat for the whole day. The Paddock was overcrowded to excess and the Hill was simply a mass of human beings. It has reached a stage now that almost everyone in Melbourne goes to the spring racing.
With The Melbourne Cup now one of the richest horse races in the world, owners, trainers, jockeys and horses travel internationally to compete for the coveted Melbourne Cup Trophy, which is made of 18 carat gold in a ‘loving cup’ design.
The first thoroughbred horses arrived in Australia with the First Fleet. English bred horses were imported for racing after the 1830’s, with the New Zealand bred horse Carbine becoming the sire every horse owner wanted in their foal’s lineage for generations.
Flemington racecourse today is on the National Heritage list. When it was founded on the former ‘rough river flats beside the Maribyrnong River’ in 1840, the city was but barely five years of age.
It was in 1852 the Victoria Turf Club was founded to organise thoroughbred horse racing with an aim to make Flemington the premier sporting and recreation centre.
By 1880 100,000 attended in a state that only boasted a population of 290,000, an impressive statistic.
Met Morphing into the Victoria Racing Club in 2006 it has a colourful history attached to its development including scams and scandals,
Famous winners include Carbine (1890), Phar Lap (1930), Peter Pan (1932 and 1934), Comic Court (1950), Rising Fast (1954), Rain Lover (1968 and 1969) and Makybe Diva the only winner of three Melbourne Cups, and a mare to boot (2003, 2004 and 2005).
Fashions in the Field established in 1962, have added a huge economic benefit to both the racing industry and Australia’s commercial success.
Bold and beautiful, now the fillies on two legs are nearly as important as the fillies on four as they compete to be a standout in the style stakes.
A melting pot of glamorous girls in designer dresses, fancy frocks and fabulous headwear the guys are now sporting colourful suits and in 2015, giving the girls a run for their money.
Everyone takes on Melbourne’s unpredictable spring weather in his or her stride.
Whatever else happens at The Melbourne Cup horses, fashion, flowers and beauty abounds as those attending make memories to last a lifetime.
For down the years it’s history,
How losers come and go –
And horses who with bursting hearts
Can make the legends grow
The memories of champions
Will always linger on –
Immortalised forever by
The race at Flemington!*
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015