Melbourne’s Cup: The race that can’t stop inflation
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The cruise ships tethered to Station Pier at Port Melbourne began disgorging their passengers early.
They filled a procession of coaches bound for Flemington. The adventurous queued at the Beacon Cove tram stop; a skirl of excited confusion over the mystery of buying a myki card.
They had cruised in to Melbourne to attend the Melbourne Cup, just as thousands do every year.
“Why can’t I just tap my card?” cried a woman graced with a multi-hued fascinator.
Quite. The myki is among Melbourne’s puzzles to outsiders. So, at its heart, is the Melbourne Cup.
It has long been tagged the race that stops a nation. In truth, it is the race that stops Melbourne.
To understand, you need only join the roistering throngs on Flemington’s lawns, the connoisseurs of horseflesh in the members’ and the grandstands and around the mounting yard, or – if you had an invitation and the inclination – the pleasure palaces of the Birdcage, where horse races barely intrude.
A hot sun pouring down, farewelling a long winter, the towers of the city almost within reach.
The Cup very nearly defines our southern capital, and the state of Victoria, too.
The rest of the nation looks on with a mixture of fondness, envy and loathing – or packs itself into cruise ships and planes to get a taste of its mysterious essence.
Melbourne Cup winning jockey Mark Zahra celebrates.Credit: Eddie Jim
Sydney’s spruikers, having misunderstood the enigma of the Melbourne Cup, imagined – as they regularly do – that it must be about the prize money, for the Cup had long been among the richest horse race in the world.
Not so long ago, Sydney’s money folk manufactured a race with a greater prize and called it The Everest, succeeding in creating a slightly spivvy event notably lacking the 163-year history of Melbourne’s grand old Cup.
Melbourne and Victoria all but ignored the challenge from The Everest.
Is there a state anywhere but Victoria that is officially permitted to go on strike on a Tuesday to go slightly bonkers over its favourite horse race?
If so, we can be sure there is no other place than Victoria that gives two public holidays for sporting events in a matter of weeks – one the day before a game of footy and the next for the Cup.
Indeed, Melbourne is surely defined by the two most exultant explosions of springtime pandemonium to be heard anywhere: the bounce of the ball at the MCG at 2.30pm on the last Saturday of September; and the unearthly howl that builds from some 100,000 throats as stampeding thoroughbreds hurl themselves at Flemington’s finishing post about three minutes and 20 seconds after 3pm – or 3.08pm on Tuesday, to be precise – every first Tuesday of November.
The roar brought home this Tuesday the somewhat misnamed Without A Fight, a champion gelding that had already fought its way to the winner’s post at this year’s Caulfield Cup.
It was the second time in two years that jockey Mark Zahra had won the Cup, and it resurrected the legendary racing family name Freedman to the Cup’s winner’s circle, for father and son Anthony and Sam Freedman trained the winner.
There was, perhaps, an extra edge of desperation to the crowd’s great howling on Tuesday.
Melbourne Cup winner Without A Fight celebrates with the crowd.Credit: Daniel Pockett
Just half an hour before the big race, the Reserve Bank announced another rise in interest rates, just as it did on Cup Day in 2022.
The Cup, in short, has become the Race that Can’t Beat Inflation.
Much of the Flemington crowd, growing bleary beneath the relentless sun and oceans of canned alcohol, seemed all but oblivious to this latest assault on their spending power.
Still, each had spent $95 for mere general admission, $238.60 for a reserved seat, and just about any number you might pick for a luncheon package high above the winning post.
Add the outfit, of course: Cup Day is all about preening even if, like some chaps, it was a spot minimalist: shorts and boat shoes without socks.
You could almost hear the scandalised intake of breath through quivering moustaches among the members, who must wear jacket and tie, though shorts seemed a shrewd choice on a day when the thermometer edged beyond 30 degrees.
Would next year’s outfit need to be pared back even further if the Reserve Bank’s latest manoeuvre failed? Would the cruise ships continue to bring thousands from elsewhere?
Up at the Victoria Racing Club’s marquee in the Birdcage – Lucky’s, they named it – rather a lot of presumably fortunate people each paid $1700 for a grazing menu and drinks. It was not known what they thought of the RBA’s latest challenge to mortgage holders – if they even gave it a thought.
It was, after all, Melbourne Cup Day. The hangover is always reserved for Wednesday.
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