It’s November 1 here -All Saints Day and my son’s birthday. Nothing eerie about either of those.
But it’s also the first Tuesday in November, so there’ll be a moment this afternoon that you could find distinctly eerie if you didn’t know it was coming. From about 2.50 until 3.15, the streets will be empty and a great hush will appear to hang over the land. Because the first Tuesday in November is Melbourne Cup Day, and the Melbourne Cup is ‘the race that’s stops a nation’.*
A horse race? you think. All that for a HORSE RACE? (assuming you know that’s what it is). But as Mark Twain said of the Cup in 1895, Nowhere in the world have I encountered a festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation. The Cup astonishes me.
What Mark Twain didn’t know is that this festival that appeals to the whole nation didn’t happen by chance. The first Australian race meeting was organised by Governor Macquarie in 1810, designed specifically as a meeting place for colonists of all classes. It worked. It was embraced. And when crowds seemed to be dropping off in the 1960s, the Victoria Racing Club Committee held the first Fashions on the Field competition in conjunction with the Cup to add an extra glamour to the whole affair. After that…well, you have no idea.
From bow ties, champagne and caviar to no ties, beer and a pie, it’s still a meeting place for ‘colonists of all classes’, but it’s also rip-roaring Event characterised by outrageous hats, ‘who cares’, and Having a Good Time.
But what of those who can’t make it to Flemington in Melbourne where the race is held? Never fear! Somewhere near you there’ll be a Melbourne Cup Luncheon, either privately or at a club, pub or restaurant, where you too can don your glad rags (or not) and roll up for a slice of action. And if you’re at work? You still won’t miss out. For those few magic minutes work will stop while you while you listen to thundering hooves and the roar of the crowd, and with a bit of luck, you might even win the office sweep.
Fortunes are won and lost on the Melbourne Cup, and even non-gamblers and racing ignoramuses like me will occasionally have a few bucks each way. But there’s more to it than that. The Melbourne Cup not only stops the nation, it unites it. Don’t ask me why, but that’s the way it is. I guess Governor Macquarie knew what he was on about.
*The Melbourne Cup is the world’s richest handicap horse race. It’s run over 3,200 metres. This year’s purse is $6.2 million.