Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The race that stops the nation.

The thunder of hooves coming down the straight at Flemington racecourse, the roar of the crowd and the increasing pitch of the race caller signal the end of another Melbourne Cup and there's not long left in the Spring Racing Carnival.  My participation in Melbourne Cup celebrations was always much greater when I didn't live in Melbourne.  So important is this race that Question Time is Parliament was rescheduled to allow our elected representatives to watch the race.  Oh and the Reserve Bank lowered official interest rates.  But the Cup will lead tonight's news bulletins.  You can bet on it.

Since living in Melbourne I've been to the actual Cup once and a couple of parties a couple of years.  The year I went to the Cup, Brew won.  It was my very first year of living in Melbourne and it seemed to be an essential part of the experience.  It required getting up very early and a lot of organisation and sunscreen.  The horse racing was almost peripheral to other activities of socialising and sipping champagne.  I remember the weather was gorgeous and the roses looked excellent.  My feet really hurt by the end of the day and even imbibing champagne was not providing the numbing effect one would expect.  It was impossible to actually see the race when it was run and getting to the bookies to place a bet was a trek that made the Nepalese mountains seem like a walk in the park.

I didn't win.  I can't remember which horse I backed.  And that's part of the magic of the Melbourne Cup - the winner goes down in history and milestones of life can be remembered by who won the Melbourne Cup.

I remember backing Makybe Diva the first year she won the race. It was 2003.  I can remember exactly where I was and who I was with.  I also remember being just about the only person in Federation Square leaping in the air with excitement as her nose went over the line.  I had put $1 on her to win and took home about $33 for her run.  The inevitable "if only" conversation ran as the soundtrack in my head on the way home.

Tawriffic in 1989 was the other one I remember because I backed the winner.  I just got it in my head, somehow, that this was the horse that was going to win.

Today I watched the race in my lounge room.  The view is great on the television.  I like the rhythm of the longer race.  Strategy and placement is the aim early in the race and then during the final 800 metres you begin to see the horses stretching out as they can sense the end of race looming.

It was an exciting and emotional race.  Seeing Dunaden running for his life with his ears flattened with Red Cadeau right beside him for a thrilling photo finish was fantastic.  I often wonder if the horses know what's going on.  Do they know that they have won the race, or come second?  They look like they're enjoying themselves.

Fashion is the other big focus of the spring racing carnival.  Women and men look magnificent dressed up with flowers and feathers and hats - until the trip home.  I was out late on Derby Day and the city was swarming with racegoers clad in the traditional Derby Day black and white.  By the end of the day, many people were looking the worse for wear:  goose flesh on nuclear orange spray tan; feathers that were drooping in direct proportion to the level of the wearer's sobriety.  There were large, overwhelming gaggles of women who had had too much to drink and were loud and inelegant and complaining about their sore feet and their drooping feathers.  There's something a little sad about drooping feathers.

To lift the mood, take a look at some of the lads who dress up for a lark.  This year there was a group of grown men dressed as smurfs.  I don't know what they used to paint themselves blue, but I hope they won't regret it in the morning.  The last time I saw a real life, fully grown smurf was at a college ball.  I think the theme was cartoon characters and a bloke called Bolte went as a smurf.  He dyed his whole body blue by taking a bath in some kind of blue dye.  The effect was quite unsettling.  He had a blue tinge long after the ball was over.  I suppose commitment is to be commended, but it can have other drawbacks - especially when a girl from a neighbouring college turns up the next day with blue on the soles of her feet.  Think about it.

I hope that Dunaden and Red Cadeau and Lucas Cranach all get a big hug and a special treat tonight.  Horses are magnificent and they're what makes the Melbourne Cup.

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