Hallowe’en is no big deal in Australia – despite the best attempts by the retail stores. No, we set our sights on much more important matters than the Day of the Dead. Next Tuesday, the first Tuesday in November, the Melbourne Cup will be run and won. It’s a horse race, dare I say one of the most famous handicaps in the world. Run over 3200 metres (2 miles), these days it attracts stayers from around the world. But we’re a parochial bunch in Oz and we always prefer our own to win.
Australia has a love affair with sport, and horse racing gets a gig in the calendar all its own. Melbourne’s Spring Racing Carnival fits in nicely between the end of the football season (AFL and rugby league) and the beginning of the cricket. They run the Oaks, the Derby, the MacKinnon Stakes. But the Melbourne Cup’s the thing. They say it’s the race that stops a nation – and believe me, it does. Melbourne has a holiday on Cup day and for any other places, it might as well be. Restaurants, pubs and clubs around the country have Cup Day lunches, where you wine and dine and watch the Cup on the big screen. Even if you have to go to work, there’ll be a special spread of chicken and champagne and you’ll gather around a TV for the ten minutes it takes for the starters to go out on the course, run the race and return to scale. You’ll find a Cup sweep in every tin-pot country town, Aussies all over the world collecting in pubs and bars or around a tinny radio if there isn’t anything else. And for many, many people, it’s the only day in the year they’ll bet on a race. Forget about the form guide. What colours is the jockey wearing? What number is on the saddle cloth? What was last night’s dream about?
The popularity of this horse race is immense. The crowd on race day is expected to be over 100,000 people. That says something in itself, in a city with a population of about 4 million. But the first time the crowd stood at 100,000 was in 1926, when Melbourne’s population hadn’t quite reached 1 million. Think on that. One person in every ten was at Flemington racecourse at around 2pm on the first Tuesday in November.
So all you folks around the world, if you can’t get much sense out of an Aussie mid-afternoon next Tuesday (Eastern Daylight saving time), you’ll know why. Raise your champers, say ‘cheers’ and join the race that stops a nation.
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