The Melbourne Cup

It’s the race that stops a nation. Or momentarily distracts It.

Before cynicism has its way with you, you should admit, at the outset, that there is beauty to be found in the sport. Beauty in its rituals and history, and in the grace of the animals. In the deep knowledge and care of the people who see it is a daily passion and a serious occupation. The culture and inner workings of horseracing can, to an outsider, seem cultish… monkish. Living near a stable you can see, on your morning walk for milk and bread, a gorgeous shimmer of black, led by loving hands, slowly trotting down a street that will soon be choked with cars, hoof clicks gently reverberating in the morning emptiness. You have to get up very early for that, but it never stops being beautiful.
But there is something of the madness of art to it. Aficionados and their private code, as baffling to the non-participant as calculus – not to mention the endless time of trainers: months of preparation for three minutes of racing.
Yet having said that, there’s not much art, or anything like it, to be found on this would-be day of days. Like most of our major sporting events, when money arrives, the regular crowds thin out. On AFL Grand Final Day, for instance, there is a politeness, an occasional flatness, that stands at odds with every other game played in September, which is full of tribal passion and violent demands. It’s the corporate boxes and overpriced seats doing the talking, or, in this instance, keeping quiet. Money can take the life from the natural order of things. And so it goes on Cup Day, which, at its heart, is barely about horses.

It’s about people. Lots of them.

Look at that mass of humanity roped into sections along lines of cash and class, squeezed into pavilions, into fashion parades official or imagined. Look at them forming restless lines in the hope of paying too much for as many plastic cups of mid-strength beer as their hands can hold. Break them down. Start at the top.
Here we find the regular punters and weekly track-goers. This one here knows bolters from stayers, and has race history to prove it, on all kinds of tracks and in all kinds of fields. This knowledge isn’t some lightly gained thing borrowed from a hastily arranged newspaper expert. It’s something approaching wisdom, and it took time to accrue. They know horses, know the particulars. One horse loves the wet, glides right over boggy turf. The other one, who is today’s favourite, will, upon seeing the darkening skies, have already run poorly, despite what others gamblers say. Any money that follows the assertion that a winner is a winner in any kind of weather is already in the hands of another.
As often as not, this regular might not even gamble, and if so, it is rarely, guided by principle and insight, not desperation. As a way to live, it goes against most of what The Cup stands for, which is why we find this person at some distance from the track, perhaps just watching on television, or moving around the grounds as unobtrusively as possible, taking things in, but not participating. These types recognize the uniqueness of the day, but a deep familiarity with the sport gives them the big picture, access to the wider continuum. It makes this race, at the end of the day, just one of ten on the card, and one of thousands for the year.
Then there is the mid-level attendee, whose knowledge of the sport might amount to an ability to name enough previous winners of the Cup that you could count them on one hand. They might have been before, or perhaps they have a passing fancy in the sport.
Maybe they’re still paying attention to the sports report when the winners of the day’s races are announced, deep into the broadcast, after the numerous forms of football have been covered, and take the news on board. These people are dilettantes, and admit as much. Like Melbourne people in January, suddenly experts on tennis; or your uncle, suddenly very keen to talk politics during the election campaign before falling back into silence for a few more years, they are polite, moderately engaged, attentive, and understand their place between the experts and the come-in-error punter.

Which leaves the rest. Here they come, already stumbling: everyone else.

The women are dolled-up self-consciously, heavy with the burden of escape, with their ‘big day out’. Like actors in roles they’ve been shoehorned into, there is no hope of escape. They are soap stars who know they won’t survive the shift to movies and are too comfortable with the steady work and pay to go back to theatre. Every gesture is pre-meditated, every line rehearsed so thoroughly that when they speak, it will be like the thought had just occurred to them. Considerations of women’s fashions cannot, at this point, be entered into, for fear that looking directly into the abyss will provoke madness in the beholder. Everyone is dressed as if a journalist might turn around at any moment now and ask them who they’re wearing: life as a near-red-carpet experience. Not to mention the burdensome nature of hats. Friends are kept nearby to double check every five minutes that the intricate yet delicate rigging of their fascinator is still in place. “Princesses Welcome!”, ran an old advertising campaign, bedecked with shots of actresses in tones so pastel the whole thing turned into a very pretty and sweet- smelling bar of soap. And so it goes here, with femininity roped into its most predictable and conventional form for the delight of someone, presumably… somewhere.
The men, meanwhile, are beasts. They are not paying attention to the women with them – a woman who is either a model or looks good enough to be a model (an opening line, perhaps?) is walking past, and they are distracted. They will remain so. On another day, in another setting, we’d understand that we were dealing with fathers, good family men, nervous guys, polite, deferential. The occasional monster, of course, but for the most part, citizens. But not today. Like the women they accompany to the track, or the women they hope to find there, they are lost in roles that have landed on them without their request, and which they feel they must now joylessly inhabit. Sunglasses are perpetually tilted on their head, as Male Law demands, but never worn over the eyes. Their clothing is someone’s idea of classy. Business casual? It doesn’t really matter either way, because who gives a shit how they’re dressed?

The day has begun.

Many get to the track early, not wanting to miss a thing, only to find the one race they’ve come for slotted late in the afternoon. Why wasn’t this mentioned earlier? And now there’s a horrendous lull, nothing but time to fill and booze to fill it with. Perhaps, someone suggests, we can take in the atmosphere around the track? And so, with baffled ears they listen to seemingly endless discussion about odds and turf and history, miles of talk in curious relation to the brevity of the race to come. Perhaps because of it. They are already lost. Perhaps another drink? It washes away uncertainties, and lets you be confident in who you are. The veterans of the track who’ve decided to brave the crowds look at these lost souls with the amused contempt regular football fans bestow upon the casual partygoer who watches one football game a year and spends half the time asking for players’ names.
Although the forecast predicted early clouds, clearing in the afternoon, it’s now just hot and bare, and everything feels exposed. The quality of light is unforgiving and unflattering. Images come to the minds of a few, often the quiet one in the group. They are images that seem distant from the present spectacle. A stablehand washes out a small room with a hose. Two horses gallop playfully at dawn, like joggers in friendly conversation. A trainer and an owner, silhouetted, lean over a bar and exchange a series of looks that seems to operate more effectively than words. None of this is to be found in the current arrangement. It is also very noisy, far more so than many were expecting. The TV doesn’t capture that.
How long’s it been now? Someone checks their phone. Not even noon? It feels like they’ve been there forever already. It’s turning a little sour. Is this decadent? Is the sport, at its core, ridiculous? Jockeys ride on horses worth ten times more than they make. People talk fondly of the horses, feigning a familiarity and bonhomie, trying too hard, failing. People have written biographies of Black Caviar. How? The owners say the horses are just like people, friends. How?
‘I’m not having a good time’, someone is heard to say. ‘Relax’, says their friend, ‘the day’s just starting.’
Some dodgy cover band is wheeled into the hall just after lunch, something to distract the locals. One anonymous dude on keyboards and an attractive girl up front, standard cocktail dress, more leg than usual. A few of the all- male crews, already drunk, approve, and let their approval find voice. ‘She can’t really sing that well’, one says. ‘Mate, who gives a shit?’ says another. Requests are shouted. ‘Thanks’, says the singer, a little meekly, after each song ends. ‘We don’t take requests.’
And what about lunch anyway? Are you even hungry? A bucket of chips perhaps, or a pie heated to a dangerous temperature and eaten at great speed before it disintegrates in your hand? Maybe just a pack of crisps. Oily hands. Elsewhere there are long tables and large plates, an endless amount of food for people too classy to dig in with the gusto the cooking deserves. This all takes place behind glass, on another floor, far from the band.

Everyone an expert. A flutter based on nothing.

This horse is grey. Your mum always liked riders with an orange sash. Torn TAB tickets. Fake expertise, someone compelled to care by dint of a workplace sweep. Some C-List celebrity is interviewed about their pick, and you won’t believe who they’ve tipped. Glassies move around, keen to remain invisible. Uncomfortable clothing on dead-eyed staff. A 50-dollar bill peeking from his shirt pocket, the TAB branches everywhere and always frantic. The early races, slowly but surely, are being run. With some random gambling and enough imbibing, this has been made tolerable. The real thing approaches.
It’s starting, you hear. It’s finally starting. The room begins to rearrange itself for optimum viewing. Some people stay in the rooms, happy enough to watch it on one of the TVs. Others chance a seat outside, a bit closer to the action. But the start isn’t really a start, not in the way you’d hoped.
It’s just the start to proceedings, as they call them, and now the horses are led out, arranged, announced, discussed. It takes a fresh slice of forever to end. Plus booze slows it down even more, everything covered in that lazy, submerged, weak-legged light.
The light’s softer now, almost pretty. But then you’ve drunk more than you should. A return to a teenage oblivion, drinking beyond common sense. Here it’s permitted, encouraged. You can sleep on the grass, and your fallen form on the lawn provides a kind of unmalicious joy to the other drinkers. It’s a low pastoral they all find themselves performing in.
While you’re pondering this, and trying to split the difference between your curious mood and the reality you know exists out there just past your fingertips, the race has started.
Later that night, when you watch various montages on YouTube, the slow motion will give the moments you missed a pleasing aesthetic, but in real time, it’s frantic and baffling, only really clearing at the end, a brief fumbled orgasm after hours of grinding delay.
In the crowd, it’s chaos. Necks arch and no-one has any idea what’s going on. Some horses bolt early, and the responses vary, falling clearly into two groups. For the seasoned viewer, once they see their horse clear from the indistinguishable thicket, they know their hopes are sunk. For the others, a brief moment of joy strikes them before logic sits them down again. My God, it’s happening, it’s really happening. Someone asks, ‘Has a horse ever pulled out at the start and held the lead the whole race?’ ‘Not sure’, someone says. ‘But yeah, probably not.’
The midpoint of the race does seem to be taking forever. For tyros, there’s a slowly dawning awareness of just how long 3200 metres is. Some people who’ve spent the entire day inside, checking out the opening races on the screens and slowly stewing themselves are now amazed at how far away the horses are, how distant that leg of the track. A slight loneliness to it. It’s like the first time they played on a proper snooker table, or saw a cricket pitch in the flesh and realised just how far it is from the bowler to the batsman, and how tiny the wicket is from that distance.

For the longest time, you’re taking the caller’s word for it, and then, as the horses make their final turn, you can begin to trust your own eyes.

They fan out, looking for a clear run, or struggling to exit from congestion. Some won’t make it. Without malice from the other riders, running their own race and oblivious to those behind, some horses are blocked in and can’t find a straight line of approach to the end. Already some dimming hope in the crowd – hundreds of thousands of dollars lost.
There are probably even a few who are missing it, having gone to the bathroom at the wrong time, or perhaps drinking a little too bravely too early, telling their friends they’re going to take a seat for a second and, being shaken a few hours later, discover it’s all over as they groggily stumble their way towards a cab.
What have they missed? One horse wins, everyone else loses. People who have money coming their way celebrate as you’d expect, and the owner embraces the jockey for the cameras as they always do, but otherwise it dies down quickly. There’s no song to sing, no individual to applaud. Some stay for the final races, happy to have an unobstructed view. For the others, a protracted last round that could extend to half a dozen drinks.
‘It’s time to go’, one partner tells another. Someone’s lost a shoe and marshals her squad to retrieve it. Their partners huddle in a pack, joking about the shoe’s fate. One might stoop to assist in the hunt but, for most, that’s beneath them.
They are downing their last cup, asleep on their feet, trading cryptic scraps of conversation that, to an outsider, would be completely indecipherable. Soon enough they’ve organized themselves and make their way to public transport, where the lines are ridiculously long, or to the taxi queue, where the lines are even longer, and manned by staff with faces of great stoicism and remove. The possibility of a riot is quelled by the remainder of what were once manners and decency.

Everyone dreams of sleep on soft leather taxi seats.

A few people rush to the bathrooms to be sick.

Photography by Ingvar Kenne
Essay by Adam Rivett