Among the gods of the Melbourne Cup

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The Melbourne Cup is a deeply rooted Australian ritual. It has always had something slightly anarchic about it, perhaps tracing back to an ancient conflict between the worship of the Goddess of Chance and the service of the Siren of Productivity. Bosses used to complain about workers who took sickies on Cup Day.

Chris Johnston cartoonBut teaching institutions had a bob each way. They had class as usual. From the early days of radio, many schools would halt for a few minutes while the Cup was broadcast through the class rooms. In at least one theological college, where the exams were held during Cup week, the invigilator would silently write the name of the Cup winner on the blackboard.

The mixture of pretension to respectability with a touch of raffishness has characterised other aspects of the Cup. Betting on races was once confined to the better-off who could attend or who had accounts with bookmakers. But any of us who played cricket at Peanut Farm in St Kilda and other suburban grounds would have noted the constant stream of punters putting SP bets at the oval fence.

The Cup, too, offered an occasion to celebrate high fashion and social distinction at the racecourse and to immortalise it in newspapers and magazines. But the conventions of high fashion have also often been undercut in Melbourne Cup Week, once memorably by visiting English model Jean Shrimpton whose simple shift left everyone else looking massively overdressed.

More recently the classy dressers in the hospitality tents of the Bird Cage have had the Micky taken out of them by youngsters in the carparks, dressed in tuxes, tennis shoes and op-shop specials.

In the Catholic world racing and betting were seen as forgivably disreputable because of their earlier association with the Goddess of Chance, seen as a rival of the theologically favoured Divine Providence. But by tribal Catholics a Catholic Melbourne Cup winning jockey was feted as highly as a Catholic Collingwood football captain.

Indeed, in one huge 1950s devotional event at the MCG, Jack Purtell and Phonse Kyne each recited a decade of the Rosary. The practical parcelling out of what was owing to Caesar and what was owing to Mammon was precisely stated by a devout Catholic lady who explained that, though prayer was undoubtedly important, it was no substitute for a day at the races.

 

"As in so much of Australian life, the pastimes of little Australians are colonised and exploited by big corporations."

 

More recently, though, Mammon has dominated the Melbourne Cup. It has been targeted by wealthy owners and stables who snaffle the most likely stayers in order to buy the result. It has also been used by corporations to fuel their engines of misery that suck money and life out of many Australian families: once big tobacco, then big grog, and most recently big gambling.

As in so much of Australian life, the pastimes of little Australians are colonised and exploited by big corporations. For many people from impoverished and migrant backgrounds the Melbourne Cup is now of no interest. It belongs to an unattainable world of ready money and corporate excess. They dream rather of satisfying their addictions at the Crown Casino.

But as a festival of chance the Melbourne Cup turns its back on the pomps of wealth and power as much as it once spurned the austerities of religion. A sunny Melbourne day gives way to a wild storm that blows over marquees, puts hats to flight, soaks dresses and turns dining tables into stables that need mucking out.

If chance puts down the powerful from their thrones, so from time it also raises the lowly, and exalts people who are real and values that are true. The sun shines on the beauty of the rose gardens, and attention turns from celebrities to the well-groomed horses and the strappers who care tenderly for them.

From time to time, too, a disregarded horse at a hundred or so to one will split the field and win the race. When the horse is ridden by a woman, attended by her brother who was born with Down syndrome, and one of a tight knit family who had suffered many hardships, then all the ambitions, calculations and triviality that line the commercial face of the Cup are seen for what they are. Simple human habits and values street the field.

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Melbourne Cup


 

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Existing comments

My first memory of the Melbourne Cup was listening to the race call in a classroom at our Josephite school across the road from the convent. It was the year Rising Fast was first past the post. In Adelaide, where I grew up, the racing game and pubs were the main means of employment for Irish Catholics when they came to live in the city from remote country towns. As one relative put it: "In a Freemason establishment, we took what work we could get, and did what we knew best then: horses and hospitality." And, of course, there are local legends like Dan Moriarty and Bart!
John Kelly | 06 November 2017


I must say, as an admirer of Jean Shrimpton's fashion sense, I thought her simple outfit (without a hat) at the Cup was wonderful. I can't remember who won the race that day. And now I also know what 'invigilator' means - who says that the Melbourne Cup isn't important!
Pam | 06 November 2017


I just heard the most ridiculous interview ever on Radio National. A podiatrist is discussing the way so many women damage their feet (and entire body frames) wearing very high heels to the Cup, and walking home drunk, shoes in hand. There are two solutions to this. One is to thicken the very high heels so you are not so inclined to teeter. The other is to do exercises for weeks beforehand to strengthen your feet and legs so the shoes do not do so much damage. Neither interviewer nor interviewee seem aware of the obvious third solution - wear flat-heeled shoes. But then, I do not attend the Cup so maybe I cannot appreciate the difficulty Cup-oriented women might have with that obvious third solution.
Janet | 06 November 2017


A brilliant piece of writing Andrew. Whilst not a race -gower nor gambler! I appreciate how you extract the true values hidden beneath the pomp and ceremony of the yearly event which 'stops the Nation'. The profoundly moving realities, as described eloquently in your final two paragraphs, will remain a treasured memory and inspiration for me as Cup Day enters our calendar in years to come. Thank you
Yvonne Harte | 06 November 2017


These days the Melbourne Cup is dominated by unbridled corporate excess, in an effort to attract international identity. But the fact that Racing Victoria spends mega amounts of money to bring overseas horses and their strappers to our carnival seems unfair to our local industry. I hear that it costs ninety thousand dollars to fly each horse and then the expenses of their strappers includes phones, accommodation and transport. Its really nice when a local girl riding a local horse can trump them all!
Trish Martin | 06 November 2017


Not surprised, Fr Andrew, that a theological college had an invigilator rather than a supervisor at the exams. Such is in keeping with the "specialty " of theological language! The Melbourne Cup reeks of an Australia of the nineteenth century, of A B Paterson, Henry Lawson, of brave soldiers in losing battles striving against all odds, horsemen, jockeys and losers and a poor community whose only sense of achievement or enjoyment was picking the winner. For some strange reason it always saddens me (perhaps its the loss of a colourful, battler's past) despite the fact that I backed Piping Lane, the Tasmanian stayer, who won at 100 to 1, the one and only time I ever won anything!
john frawley | 06 November 2017


We were in Melbourne on Cup Day a couple of years ago and as we travelled on the train to the city, we saw hundreds of race goers, dressed to the nines. How ludicrous they looked in their precariously perched fascinators and stilettos on a suburban train. Another year we drove through Brisbane as the race was on and usually busy roads were empty of traffic. I dread the day that a bank is robbed or a terrorist attacks at that vital moment. Meanwhile let's enjoy our little sweeps and local fundraising and leave the suits and designer clothes and shoes to the wealthy and those who wish to ape them.
Mary Round | 06 November 2017


In the immediate post-war years at my boarding school, the nuns - many of whom were French - had a wireless set up in the study hall for the calling of the Cup. When it was noted that Vatican Radio had broadcast the Cup for the benefit of Australian prisoners of war in Europe, it was not read as a sign of papal approval; rather that 'those men' had finally shown some common sense.
Sandy Curnow | 06 November 2017


Perhaps what happens regarding the Melbourne Cup and the comments on it are a spirituo-cultural snapshot of modern Australia? Non-involvement and public dissent are very much part of this.
Edward Fido | 10 November 2017


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