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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Melbourne Cup and Me

The first Tuesday of November, every year it is the same
Every Aussie heart is beating with excitement of the game
For they bet on dream or fancy or the forms they've followed up
From a dollar up to thousands on the famous Melbourne Cup

 So go the lyrics for Slim Dusty's song "The Melbourne Cup".

It is the first Tuesday in November and DH (that's Darling Husband) and I have just returned from our annual flutter. The bookies call it "Mug Punters Day", the day when everyone, young and old, across Australia throw their money at Race 7 at Flemington, participating in an office sweep or darkening the doors of a TAB to lay their only bet for the year. In Melbourne it is a public holiday and as we walked home from our trip to the TAB, groups were gathering on the foreshore with their picnics to enjoy Cup Day.

Archer...the first (and second) winner of the Melbourne Cup

 I actually have a personal connection to the Melbourne Cup being descended from the family that raced the first winner of the Melbourne Cup in 1860. Legend tells us that Etienne de Mestre walked Archer from the family property in Shoalhaven (New South Wales) to Melbourne. Sadly like most legends it is blatantly untrue - the furthest Archer walked was from his stable to the boat that brought him around the coast to Melbourne. Archer went on to win the first two cups.

I knew nothing about Archer or the Melbourne Cup when I arrived in Australia in July 1968 from Kenya, a small shy 9 and a half year old, transplanted from all that was familiar to me into the rough and tumble world of an Australian childhood. My parents had decided on Perth as our new home and I had been duly enrolled in St. Mary's Girls Grammar School, a respectable Anglican Church school for young ladies. Everything was new and strange but the oddest thing of all took place on the first Tuesday in November. At lunchtime there was a mass exodus to the back of the playground and the girls gathered around a transistor radio to listen to a horse race. I stood on the outer in mesmorised wonder as a group of ten and eleven year old girls cheered Rainlover (yes, I can still tell you who won the 1968 Melbourne Cup) to victory in what was to be my first Melbourne Cup. (see footnote)

Dressed for the Cup Eve Ball November 1982
The family moved to Melbourne and Cup Day became part of our culture. We would gather around the black and white TV to watch it run. For the next few years, university exams intruded on Cup Day and it was not until 1982 I attended my first ever Melbourne Cup.  DB (darling boyfriend at that stage) and I   attended a Cup Eve Ball and woke late the next morning feeling at a bit of a loss as to what to do. On the spur of the moment we packed into my housemate's car and headed off for a day at the races. No dressing up, no fancy hats, just three friends out for a good time.

I have been to the Cup several times since then. As officers of Her Maj. our respective Officers' Messes were given prime position on the finish line at the cup. Up would go the regulation gree 11x11 tents, the Army bands would play,  the officers mess staff would be conscripted and we dressed up in our finery to go to the races.  Fickle Melbourne weather always throws a curve ball and one year it was so cold and wet, I stayed in the trainers I had worn to walk from the car to the tent.  Sadly commercialisation overcame this odd hark back to military colonialism and the Officers Mess' lost their spots.

Almost Melbourne Cup Program 2000
As careers advanced along came the invites to the "Corporate Tent". I loved the corporate tents - a chance to dress up and watch the races in civilisation rather than scrumming with the drunken crowds. Horses? Who cared about horses? I was there for the champers... One of these invites resulted in a flaming row with DH who told me I had a choice between a new hat or "educating your children" (yes, dear, that is still recorded in my black book!). In a scene oddly reminscent of nascent colonialism we paid for the privilege of course. The executive wives found themselves seated with the wife of the "country manager", an opinionated American who held court between races with complaints about the pokiness of her house in Toorak and the difficulty in getting good staff. That was probably the last time I attended the Melbourne Cup.

In 2000 we moved to Singapore and as I may have reflected before, the importance of "tribe" becomes paramount when you are away from your native shore. That year, in the innocent days before the events of 9/11, the Australian High Commission hosted its annual "Almost Melbourne Cup Night", a charity night that raised money through "betting" on a 7 set race meeting run using wind up clockwork animals - penguins, elephants etc. It was the last time the "Almost Melbourne Cup" was run at the Australian High Commission. The following November, the world still reeled from 9/11 and the barricades had gone up outside the AHC, a building that was found to be on the "hit list".

ANZA Melbourne Cup 2002

In 2002, the Australian New Zealand Association organised a Melbourne Cup Lunch with live feed from Flemington. I bullied a few of my non Australian friends into glamming up and off we went to the Intercontinental Hotel. Actual betting was not allowed but the wily Australians got around this somehow with a sort of ballot system.

So the race that stops a nation will be run this afternoon. If DH or I are lucky we may recoup something of our massive outlay ($5 each way bets!). Melbourne Cup is a race for mugs but we love it, it's as Australian as kangaroos.

Footnote:  My mother reminded me that she had been invited to a school "Mothers' Club" Melbourne Cup luncheon on that day in 1968. The invitation read "bring a plate" - she took a plate...with nothing on it. When language fails...