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Among the gods of the Melbourne Cup

  • 03 November 2017


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.

But 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