What is it that makes a city stand still for four minutes? If you live in Australia, chances are you know the answer. It is, of course, the Melbourne Cup. But what is it about this particular horse race that makes it so famous, so iconic and that makes Australians all over the country waste the large part of a working day (only in Melbourne is it a public holiday) preparing for a horse race that is over in a flash. There are other horse races, after all.
I have never been to the Melbourne Cup. In fact, I have only ever been to a horse race once. It was simply not something that had ever crossed my path. On the few occasions when I’d been invited, by friends or business associates, I had other plans.
But every year more than 100,000 people attend the Melbourne Cup. And nearly 400,000 put on their best gear to attend the four major races at Flemington Racecourse that make up the Melbourne Cup Carnival.
Hat sales soar, frocks are fussed over, champagne is guzzled, form studied, bets laid, money won and lost. People who never gamble on any other day of the year put their money into office sweepstakes or make a visit to the betting shop, and at around 3pm on the first Tuesday in November, everyone turns their attention to the horses. And nothing – not rain, hail, wind, heat wave or public transport disasters – stands in the way of a good time. It is the place to be seen for the social set, politicians, the rich and the ridiculous.
The Melbourne Cup Carnival is made up of Derby Day, Melbourne Cup Day, Oaks Day, and Emirates Stakes Day. So when a friend invited me to a marquee in the exclusive “Birdcage” area at Flemington Racecourse for Oaks Day, I was very excited. I discovered this was traditionally Ladies Day, renowned for its Fashions on the Field competition, and is the day above all when the women strut their finest frocks and hats. I later learned that the name is derived from the fact that the horses are all three-year-old fillies.
Not wanting to let my hostess down, I agonised over what to wear. Finally, a sleeveless brown silk summer dress already in my wardrobe was deemed (by me) suitable. I hoped for a warm day. Luckily, although I had never worn them together before, I had a brown hat with a jaunty little feather and a sliver of veil that looked perfectly fine with it. You would never guess I had bought it at Target for $20. My teenage daughter cast a critical eye, decided I was too old for a fascinator (favoured by the teens who flock to the track these days) and gave me her seal of approval. A day in high heels wasn’t high on my list of good times, but I figured I’d survive.
On the day, as departure time loomed, I made an emergency gallop to the shops after laddering my only pair of pantyhose. Scanning the shelves, I became aware that I’d been joined by another customer – elegantly decked out in a broad-brimmed black hat. There was no question we were both headed in the same direction, and I realised that today my outfit would immediately signal my destination to everyone who saw me.
Arriving at the racecourse, it soon became clear that I could spend the day in the marquee without seeing a single horse. There was a television screen high on the wall, a bookie with a laptop sitting in the corner, and of course enough food and drink to keep starvation at bay indefinitely.
A form guide was thrust into my hand. I had no idea what to do with it or how to sensibly choose a horse to bet on. Throwing caution to the wind, while others around me discussed the finer points of the horses, jockeys and trainers, I chose a few names that I liked. The bookie smiled indulgently when I told her I didn’t know what to do. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You’re certain to have beginners luck!” It was a prediction that proved unerringly wrong. After a couple of races, I ventured out to see some horses. And in doing so, I also saw that the lawns were where the action was – the hats seemed bigger and more outrageous and the party atmosphere a little less restrained than in the Birdcage. Already, in the early afternoon, there were signs that for some people the horses were secondary to the social side of racing. It was hot, and the drinks were flowing freely.
By the time the Crown Oaks – the sixth of nine races – was run and the day was almost over, I knew I wasn’t a winner in the betting stakes or in the fashion field. I knew marginally more about racing than when I first arrived but I had definitely seen why people are drawn to this festive carnival each year. I’d had great fun, and wouldn’t hesitate to don a new hat another year for a return visit.