TRUE OPINION: It’s heralded as the greatest sporting and cultural tradition of this nation. Gary Johnston spent a day at the Melbourne Cup to give you this first-hand glimpse of an ugly, faltering Australia dressed to its best.
So, welcome to the Lexus Melbourne Cup.
Yes, that’s right the LEXUS Melbourne Cup, same as it’s the Caltex Socceroos, the BMW Wallabies and the Methylhexaneamine Australian Cycling Team, though I might have made that last one up.
But Lexus, a car company, sponsoring a horse race? Given what we know happens to the animals when they cease to be productive, wouldn’t Pedigree Chum be more appropriate?
Of course, the product itself is irrelevant, what it comes down to, is the exposure. Every time the Cup is mentioned on television, the announcer is contractually obliged to emphasise the sponsor, that’s the deal.
And they do, how they do.
It’s 7.30am, as I stand outside the main entrance to the Flemington racecourse. This early in the morning, the only people to be seen are ancillary staff rushing in to set up the bars and restaurants, teams of cleaners and a veritable army of Victoria Police officers, most of whom are standing around gas-bagging to each other, though no doubt they’re ready to spring into action with the pepper spray and rubber batons should the opportunity present itself.
I’m joking of course.
VICPOL issue their officers with polycarbonate batons, not rubber ones. Easier to carry and more durable.
The Victoria Police presence was far more friendly at the races than just a week before at climate change protests outside a major mining conference in Melbourne (Image: Gary Johnston)
I strike up a conversation with Lucy, who tells me she’s on duty in one of the marquees in the ‘Birdcage’ the most exclusive and expensive bar area. She’s working for $10 an hour, cash in hand, but declines to name her employer.
“Otherwise I’d have to kill you,” she says, “Or more likely they’d kill me.”
“Nah, they wouldn’t do that. They’d just fire me and find someone else.”
I wasn’t able to find out how much the Police were being paid, it’s not a subject they’re keen to talk about, though we can assume overtime rates are more than $10 an hour. Which could explain why, this early in the morning, they all look so happy.
They certainly do look happy. Friendly, even.
After suffering a PR disaster at the recent International Mining and Resource Conference demonstration at the Melbourne Convention Centre, when climate change protestors from the Whistleblowers, Activists and Community Alliance were confronted by aggressive police officers, some of whom were openly displaying confrontational badges and making dubious hand gestures, you can see there’s a different policy at work here.
This is the amiable face of policing.
The chummy coppers are on duty today. Well, they are, at the moment anyway.
I go looking for the protesters. They’re here, but a fair distance from the main gate, which will obviously dissipate their effectiveness. And, as demonstrations go, it’s a fairly benign one.
Chairs and table are being assembled and a free picnic is offered to anyone who fancies it. They’ve also set up a few posters, most of which are being ignored by the racegoers who are now arriving in their suits, hats and party dresses.
I stop one elderly gent, Terry from Gippsland who tells me he’s here every year. Terry’s not fazed by the protesters, not one little bit.
“I love horses,” he says. “I’m a beef farmer, an animal lover. And Cup Day is fantastic, great. It’s a tradition, isn’t it?”
Yeah, so are deep fried Mars Bars. I don’t say.
Actually, I love horses. Despite the fact I was nearly killed by one once, when my riding helmet slipped over my eyes, rendering me temporarily blind, at the same time as I lost a stirrup, whilst galloping along the beach in Byron Bay.
I fell off, broke a rib and had concussion, which was entirely my fault as the horse was called Mason and I’d recently written an expose of Freemasonry, the secret society who pledge to exact terrible revenge on anyone who gives away their rituals and shady practices.
It could have been worse. Usually, they disembowel whistleblowers straight off, toasting their testicles over an open flame by way of an entree.
I had horses. At my peak, I owned seven, since buying them at auction is actually surprisingly cheap. Cheap to buy, costly to run, in more ways than one.
As we all know now, ex-racehorses, some of which never actually reach the track being regarded as too slow and therefore useless, end up at country horse sales, with the asking price being less than $200.
The unlucky, unsold ones are then taken away by the ‘dogger’ for pet food, a fact everyone who’s ever attended an auction knows only too well, despite claims to the contrary by Racing Australia.
No secret – it was common knowledge – and to feign ignorance is even more disingenuous than the small print attached to TV betting ads, which implore punters to “bet responsibly”.
As if. That’s the last thing they want. Irresponsible punting is catnip to the betting industry.
“Happy Cup Week” (Images: Gary Johnston)
And there’s the rub. The Melbourne Cup, like every sports event in Australia, is about betting. Or, more to the point, about people spunking money they don’t have on the extremely unlikely contingency of a big win. Even the pissed-up patrons in their polyester suits and flimsy fascinators, many of whom don’t actually see a horse the entire day, will splash out on complicated wagers, ensuring that the bookmakers, if no one else, will go home with a bagful of cash.
By 4.30pm, it’s all over, bar the shouting. Of which there’s rather a lot, as the crowds disperse, their race day finery now looking more than a little worse for wear; people are arguing, getting the shits and pissing in the pavement, a highly convincing reenactment of the Village of the Damned, providing plenty of evidence that the horses are not the only dumb animals being exploited in Melbourne on the first Tuesday of November.
It’s an ugly scene, suitable for an ugly event for which the main – some would say only – motivation is financial gain.
The real profiteers, the business people, executives and hopelessly rich owners are nowhere to be seen, quickly off the scene, by helicopter mostly, a world away from the hoodwinked masses puking, peeved and penniless in the periphery.
The Cup? A great day out? A noble tradition?
Loser friendly, I’d call it.