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Class and climate drive Melbourne Cup hostility



'It is harder to imagine a finer representation of the Australian principle of the fair go ... Hope rides on each of the 24 runners at the starting gate, not because the horses or their riders are equal, but because everything possible has been done by the organisers to ensure they have an equal chance.'

Craig Williams rides Vow and Declare to win the Melbourne Cup at Flemington Racecourse on 5 November 2019. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)That's Nick Cater, defending the Melbourne Cup by reprising an argument he previously made in his book The Lucky Culture. It's a perfect example of how out of touch the professional culture warriors have become. I can't imagine how anyone could look at the Melbourne Cup and see a vision of the 'fair go'. 

On the contrary, much of the new hostility to horse racing — and this year's Cup attracted the smallest crowd since 1993 — stems from a perception that its rituals celebrate grotesque inequalities. The top one percent of Australians own more wealth than the bottom 70 per cent of us combined — and last year the 200 richest of them increased their wealthy by 20 per cent

But wait — who's that in the Birdcage? 'Resplendent in Ralph & Russo haute couture,' ran a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, 'with an equally elaborate headpiece in ruby and bridal white, billionaire [Gina] Rinehart was reminiscent of an exotic coral-encrusted creature from the Great Barrier Reef as she arrived at the Victoria Racing Club's 1 Oliver Street marquee on Tuesday.'

With the reef itself a grey shadow of its former self, we're asked to admire the tycoons responsible for bleaching it, as they clink crystal flutes with Lindsay Lohan, Bill Shorten, Kerri-Anne Kennerley and footballers' wives. George Groz himself could not sketch a more fitting tableau of class relations under late capitalism.

The growing contempt for the Cup doesn't just reflect the obvious social polarisation of contemporary Australia. It also expresses a related shift in attitudes to nature, in the context of a planet on the brink of ecological meltdown.

Cater and the other ideologues who associate the, um, 'Sport of Kings' with an authentic working-class identity, do so via tropes of class taken from the Great Strikes of the 1890s, back when a substantial proportion of the population worked in rural industries. In Europe, even the dimmest pundit knows the proletariat bears some relationship to modernity and the city. In Australia, where no new ideas have troubled the commentariat for at least a generation, 'class' invokes, now and forever, white blokes from the bush.


"George Groz himself could not sketch a more fitting tableau of class relations under late capitalism."


But let's think about that image. In rural Australia of the 19th century, the horse meant mobility — geographical and thus, at least to some extent, social. Hence the immense significance of the old country races, events centred on animals that almost everyone owned. When you read about the Greta Mob, the crowd of impoverished youths from which the Kelly Gang emerged, you realise that, back then, young men talked about horses the way later generations talked about cars: a method of transportation but also a source of status and power.

Horses were also undeniably living, breathing creatures, with whom a rider necessarily developed a relationship. Back then, the brutality of racing was of a piece with the brutality of farming. You killed a lot of animals but you did so overtly and without any particular shame.  Everyone knew where their meat came from.

But, of course, as early as the First World War, Australia had become one of the most urban nations in the world. By the middle of the 20th century, racing no longer involved jockeys demonstrating a skill that many ordinary people also possessed. On the contrary, as Australian life became more and more metropolitan, the industry associated with the racetrack became a highly-specialised business: a lucrative machine in which both horse and rider were no more than cogs.

Descartes, the philosopher of modernity, famously saw animals as non-sentient automata. 'They eat without pleasure,' explained his disciple Nicolas Malebranche, 'they cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.' Until comparatively recently, a Cartesian opposition to sentimentality about nature prevailed in the cities, bolstered by the growing distance between everyday activities and the natural world.

Many progressives defined themselves by a Promethean conviction that the world existed merely to serve mankind, with science a process of putting nature on the rack to wrest out her secrets. In a Quarterly Essay from some years back, the novelist Amanda Lohrey discussed the destruction of Lake Pedder by Tasmania's Hydro Electric Commission: 'I was an active member of Labor Youth,' she wrote, 'and I supported the flooding of the lake, as did most of my political cohort ... at that time we still believed in the "drive towards modernisation", as it was then called.'

These days, of course, the drive towards modernisation has swerved into a ditch, as every new bulletin from the IPCC shows. Nature quite palpably isn't a piece of clockwork that clever engineers can bend to their will but a complex system on which, despite all our technology, we still depend. In the context of the climate emergency, the casual cruelty of racing seems quite in keeping with the determination of Rhinehart and her friends to keep mining coal, despite the dire consequences this will bring. 

Saying 'Nup to the Cup' won't save the planet. Nor will it do a great deal to prevent  cruelty to animals, so systematically embedded in a society grounded on cruelty to humans. But it's a small gesture towards a better future, a world in which we employ neither people nor animals as commodities. If it upsets the apologists for the status quo, well, so much the better.



Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Main image: Craig Williams rides Vow and Declare to win the Melbourne Cup at Flemington Racecourse on 5 November 2019. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, Melbourne Cup, horse racing, Gina Rinehart, Adani, Great Barrier Reef



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Existing comments

The idea of the Melbourne Cup as an egalitarian affair where all strata of society rubbed shoulders was easier to maintain when Melbourne was a much smaller city than it is today. It harks back to a time when the horse was a main form of transport, when the horse was integral to social connection and ultimate destinations. Those days are gone forever. The very idea of a horse race today connotes an historical spectacle, the physical grind of the hippodrome and the machismo of the Curragh. It is synonymous these days with drunken mindlessness and the pretence of business as normal. It's a party without a soul.

Philip Harvey | 06 November 2019  

For so many years the Melbourne Cup has been a significant event in Australian life; the office sweep, the once-a-year bet by otherwise uninterested punters, most people stopping to watch the race, the trainer who reached legendary status with his number of winning horses. It was viewed as part of our culture. Now, people are more aware of the impending climate catastrophe (not too strong a word) and are also now thinking more about animal welfare, previously the domain of animal rights activists. Knowing all this, I still feel a bit sad that an era is ending.

Pam | 06 November 2019  

There’s something very 1794 Paris about this article. Should anyone be allowed to keep any pets? And what about the guide dog? Surely that’s regarding an animal as a commodity if ever there was one? And, further afield, should we invade the third world to stop people using oxen and horses as commodities to pull ploughs?

HH | 06 November 2019  

The latest in postmodern deconstruction - a cocktail of Marxist envy and puritanism advanced as concern for justice? Why not appreciate the effort, skill and achievement of the horse, rider and connections; not to mention the thrill of the competition and the spectacle?

John RD | 06 November 2019  

Thank you Jeff Sparrow for expanding the much-needed national discussion about our use of animals, including horses. Horse racing represents everything that has been destructive in this continent in the past 230 years and it is inevitably linked with the military. In 1788, the English arrived on this continent with a purpose - to take, occupy, use, tame, control, in addition, of course, to creating an open prison for Britannia's flotsam and jetsam. Of course, to do that you need to use force, or the threat of force. You need soldiers. In those days soldiers needed horses. Good horses. Racing would encourage the breeding of good horses. For the military. The first race course was established in 1810 and the first races run on 15th October. A place chosen had been an Aboriginal ritual gathering place, and then a commons for the ordinary folk of Sydney, as well as a military place of assembly. It is now called Hyde Park. The horses and tracks are gone, but the military presence remains.

Janet | 07 November 2019  

This is one of the most penetrating and thoughtful articles I've ever read in Eureka Street-or anywhere else for that matter. Congratulations Jeff, and thank you.

Paul Collins | 07 November 2019  

Jeff, I have to totally agree with you.Well said!

Gavin | 07 November 2019  

As a daughter and niece of ex jockeys, I can say that if my father or uncle were here now, they would be horrified by the cruelty and callous disregard for horses and their treatment after their racing career is finished. My father told me many stories of how races were run in the 1950s and it wasn't pretty but today it's much worse. The whip hurts horses, try it sometime. Jiggers hurt horses. Trainers sometimes hurt their animals, even when they are still earning them money. The whole horse racing industry is based on greed. They aren't doing it for altruistic ideals. They aren't doing it to breed the fastest horse on earth. Everything comes down to money and where money is the main objective, abuses abound. In a perfect world, there would be no greyhound racing, no horse racing, no dog fighting etc. It's not surprising how these animals are treated after their "use by" date has expired but it's still shocking. Is it possible to rein in the abuse with so much money and media hype invested in the industry? I doubt it.

Linda Behan | 07 November 2019  

Thanks Jeff for another well argued piece and very thoughtful exposition of the state of play. Yes indeed, the Melbourne Cup has come to symbolise all that is wrong with the division of the extremely small number of exceedingly wealthy few and the rest of us. The birdcage and the rabble. One addition I would like to make is the issue of the use of horses by the police at the recent protests in Melbourne. Ironically, sometimes these horses that are used against protestors, are former race horses.

Tom Kingston | 07 November 2019  

Horses and other beasts of burden have becoming relics of a bygone era, outmoded by the likes of Benz and Henry Ford such that civilization no longer needs these creatures for mobility or productivity. They've served humanity well in the fields and battle fields for a few thousand years and became bred and valued for characteristics of strength, speed and stamina...and as eluded in the "sport of kings" the finest bred for and tested in competition. Even today most machines are rated in horsepower and the bulldozer in my backyard replaced 40 horses yet doesn't require the husbandry of its equine counterparts... The question I'd ask of any person promoting the banning of racing or use of creatures for human purposes is: "and then what?" Please outline your "plan" for the continuing management of these creatures into the future, who will breed, feed and attend to livestock which then has no other purpose on the planet than just to "be"; more specifically for Australia, horses are not a native species here, where do they all go if nobody wants them? The articles angst at the status quo pleads for change but fails to identify change management.

Ray | 07 November 2019  

Has anyone asked the horses what they think?

john frawley | 07 November 2019  

WOW what a demonising article.Maybe we need to look at other major sports. Formula one, rich people polluting the air not to mention the sexism of the sport. Golf, fuel used once again to maintain greens, not to mention the water used. At the moment in all forms of the media, minority incidents are highlighted as the norm. If a poll was taken of both horse owners & trainers there would be a resounding emphasis on their care of the horses in their charge. Please let’s have a balanced view.

Sue Swift | 07 November 2019  

99 years ago, my grandfather, a young railway clerk from faraway Townsville was in the crowd to watch Poitrel win the 1920 cup. Ironically, Poitrel is now the name of a Bowen Basin coal mine, where I worked a few years ago. I myself have grown up around horses - I even had to euthanaise my family's best horse the way Ogilvie describes in "The Pearl of them All". So I don't share your hatred for horseracing. It's true that Australians are less interested in the Melbourne Cup and it does certainly have plenty of ostentation but what big money sport doesn't? (and I'm not defending that) I know lots of 'ordinary Australians' that are involved in horse racing - school teachers, truck drivers, engineers, farmers - and they are salt of the earth people by and large. As for your contentious link to climate. While I'm not sure about Great Barrier Reef bleaching (I'm a student of Dr Peter Ridd's from 25 years back) even if it is bleached, I don't think many of the rich and famous of Australia could be to blame - and certainly not Gina because she hasn't even sold a wheelbarrow load of coal!

Rob McCahill | 07 November 2019  

“much of the new hostility to horse racing ….stems from a perception that its rituals celebrate grotesque inequalities. The top one percent of Australians own more wealth than the bottom 70 per cent of us combined — and last year the 200 richest of them increased their wealthy by 20 per cent.” In that case, the new hostility is nonsensical. Envying the superrich is irrational because almost everything they can enjoy is, courtesy of the free market and technological innovation, available at less cost in the average punter’s life for him or her to enjoy: backyard pool, home gym equipment, snazzy kitchen and bathroom makeovers, a virtual home theatre if you have a computer and a Netflix subscription, various culinary delicacies available at your supermarket, nice shoes and handbags that don’t cost $5000, and so on. When it comes to the material substance of the average punter’s daily lifestyle, can it be said that s/he is missing out on ‘luxury’? Envying Gina Rinehart for her gold-plated taps (if she has any) is grotesque when the water she enjoys from them is of the same quality as the water the rest of us enjoy from ours.

roy chen yee | 07 November 2019  

‘Pets’ are precisely that, not exploited for money purposes, and nothing to do with the case. Nor guide dogs, if you ask the blind who live in grateful symbiosis with them or the people who work hard to provide such a service. And ‘Marxist envy’ is an oxymoron as well as being irrelevant to Jeff Sparrow’s argument: Marx wanted social and economic justice that was not based on ‘envy’ (“I want some too!”) but on rightful entitlements of the oppressed and deprived classes exploited by the owners of capital and the establishment. Jeff is talking about the subjection of animals to cruelty and commodification despite the growing awareness that it stinks. (Well, it stinks to me, if not to his critics.)

SMK | 07 November 2019  

I read Jeff's article as a rebuttal of the philosophy behind Nick Cater's romantic (?) socio-economic evaluation of the significance of the Melbourne Cup. There is a strong love of sport in Australian society. Many Australians also like having a gamble or a punt. Some Austraians will leap at the opportunity to take a day of work. The beauty (or the ugly side) of the Melbourne Cup is it brings these three factors together in the dullest month of the year. The Cup has another lure. It is a handicap race. It fulfils the Tall Poppy syndrome. But more importantly it provides our civic leaders with the equivalent of the circuses the Roman Emperors put on to distract the plebs.

Uncle Pat | 08 November 2019  

SMK, Marx did not advocate "justice" in any shape or fashion. He was a materialist through and through. Concepts such as "justice" or "morality" were for him purely passive reflections of social relations at any one point in history. To Marx, there is no such thing as "justice" or "morality", shorn of the concrete historical process. And what's the problem with treating animals as "commodities"? Our serious obligation not to be cruel to them is independent of our using them for any given purpose, be it as a pet, a helper (guide dog/sniffer dog/carrier pigeon/scientific research) or for generating economic wealth (livestock/pet breeding/racing/show trials). It's difficult to see how condemning the use of animals for wealth creation purposes doesn't lead to condemning the use of them as a means to any other human end ... unless of course, one regards the creation of wealth as somehow uniquely evil.

HH | 08 November 2019  

Jeff Sparrow’s article provokes thinking about our relations with other species, not just race-horses. Unless you take the view, presumably derived from Genesis statements like ‘God pronounced…take command of … all living things that move on the earth’, that humans can use animals so long as they aren’t ‘cruel’ (!) the thinking person realises that much of our behaviour/attitude to other animals of all stripes has been/is deplorable. Father Andrew Linzey is someone who has deeply thought about how a Christian should view the relationship not based on such species-ist prejudices. The ‘use’ of other animals is as problematic as our ‘use’ of other humans, and I’ve no doubt that those who defend an unqualified use and commodification of racehorses are ultimately more interested in maintaining traditional power/ authority structures and interests than revisiting the moral questions raised by the evolution of society and a growing planetarism rooted in environmental changes. By the way, Marx was materialist and rejected theoretical metaphysics, and he was not a utopian but a revolutionary, but that he did not have moral views about the historical structures he analysed including capitalism will never be accepted by anyone who knows what he was talking about.

smk | 08 November 2019  

As media narratives that deconstruct popular public events according to ideological norms prescribed by the New Left and delivered in 'woke' tone increase, the less resonance they have with the experience and values of ordinary people. The official review of Labor's election performance reads as a cautionary tale and a potential corrective to extremist political, social and economic platforms and their imposition in a democratic society. (Especially sports-loving ones like Australia!)

John RD | 08 November 2019  

Excellent column. I wholeheartedly agree. It's high time we stopped using defenceless animals for human entertainment and gambling, hoping to make money out if them.

Lynne | 09 November 2019  

smk, In a 1971 televised debate with Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, the late luminary of New Left activism in the Marxist revolutionary tradition, asserted: "The proletariat doesn't wage war against the ruling class because it considers such war to be just. The proletariat makes war with the ruling class because . . . it wants to take power." In the same interview, Foucault sees "no objection" to "violent, dictatorial and even bloody power" when it has been attained.

John RD | 11 November 2019  

I’m not a species-ist. I’m a free will-ist. Animals that don’t have free will (inter alia) don’t have rights and it appears at this stage that all animals on earth, except for humans, lack free will. Nevertheless, humans have duties in respect of all other animals, and it seems that in our culture which can afford, unlike many previous cultures, to treat animals more gently, animals are still in many situations dealt with excessive cruelty or at least morally culpable indifference to their unnecessary suffering. I don’t see the argument that raising and using animals to create wealth for oneself as per se an abandonment of one’s duties to animals. Nor horse-racing, show-jumping, etc for entertainment. On the other hand, such activities as bull-fighting or cock-fighting (etc) seem to me obviously immoral, aimed as they are at the pain and suffering of the bull or cock. Likewise, painful experimentation on animals for non-essential products (eg. the Draize eye test). As David Oderberg writes in his thorough, non-Bible based, discussion of the matter, “each case of the use of animals must be assessed on its merits.” (“Applied Ethics” (2005 ed) Ch 3: “Animals”, p.142.)

HH | 13 November 2019  

Thanks for your clarity, HH. I agree with David Oderberg's assessment and daresay that were we to examine the merits of each case we would see that the vast majority of horse and pet trainers and owners display a strong bond with and care for the creatures in their charge. Oderberg's "Why Peter Singer is Wrong" is accessible on youtube.

jJohn RD | 14 November 2019  

While I am indebted to your correspondent, John RD, for introducing to this discussion a televised debate between Chomsky and Foucault, his selection doesn't satisfy his hypothesis that Foucault was a Marxist revolutionary activist. Foucault's critique of power and control sits comfortably within the Christian/Dominican theological tradition that rejects as inadequate linguistic approaches, based on a presupposed moral machinery or grammar. Foucault rightly criticised medicine for pathologising human behaviour by creating systems of exclusion and correction, which schooling and prisons sometimes do. In sum, he was an ethical disciplinarian and advocate of free-will, who said that “improvement, the perfection of the soul that one seeks in philosophy…. increasingly assumes a (behaviourist) colouration", describing ways in which pleasure and desire were highly circumscribed by utilitarian systems of manipulation. In misreading Foucault's early influence by Althusser, and how lucid and perceptive he was as a thinker, John ignores the self-reflective critique of this colossal intellectual, who says, “How can we know ourselves if not with our own knowledge?” This endeavour requires a “complete twisting of our reason on itself.” Few thinkers have been able to make such moves with as much clarity and scholarly rigour as Foucault (History of Sexuality, Volume 3).

Michael Furtado | 16 November 2019  

It's worth noting that Michel Foucault expressed his televised paean to "power" in 1971 - evidently nothing had changed in his revolutionary outlook since his membership of the French Communist Party twenty years earlier. Foucault's view hardly "sits comfortably within the Christian/Dominican theological tradition" - it would indeed take "a twist of our reason" to recognise it as such, and the sort of linguistic legerdemain so fondly and mischievously cultivated by postmodernists. Further, on gaining his post in 1969 as Head of Philosophy at a new university outside Paris, the Centre Experimentale de Vicennes, Foucault surrounded himself with department of Marxist-Leninist and hard-Left activists, denouncing metaphysics and participating in violent protests with police. Again, this would suggest an intellectual affinity and commitment at a far remove from the "Christian/Dominican theological tradition". His disclaimers of Marxist affiliation do not square with the facts, and suggest that they were motivated more by his falling out with Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (see David Macey, "The Lives of Michel Foucault", London: Hutchinson, 1993, pp. 173-177) than by ideological conversion.

John RD | 18 November 2019  

Were one to typecast Catholicism as a religion of identity John's critique of Foucault would be unassailable. In today's post-Royal Commission global aftermath such claims are no longer possible. While Christians will recall that Paul in Romans 1 identifies sexual depravity as a sign of human rebellion against God, Paul also asserts that we are all depraved. We may also forget that Jesus, who denounced sin in the most emphatic terms, befriended sinners and exposed the hypocrisy of the self-righteous. That is precisely why, if we want to understand contemporary culture we should be willing to think hard about Foucault’s life and thought. His analysis of modern society is often profound and his critique of the Enlightenment’s rationalistic hubris is one that Christians of all hues should welcome. Moreover, his suspicion that truth-claims act as covers for oppression unerringly alerts us to the recently exposed appalling abuse of power by the Church. Sensitised by Foucault’s critique, we should be driven back to the scriptural teaching that the church is not meant to conquer by worldly power or wisdom, but by proclaiming the ‘foolish’ message of a crucified Christ. ‘I was looking for You by the sensations of the flesh’ (Augustine).

Michael Furtado | 21 November 2019  

Doubtless, clerical paedophilia and attempts to conceal it have gravely impaired the moral and spiritual credibility of the Catholic Church. However, the very same excess Michel Foucault identifies in the Enlightenment's rationalistic hubris is evident in his own blanket (and self-contradictory) hermeneutic of suspicion that all claims to truth merely serve as "covers for oppression." Such totalising scepticism and cynicism does not serve truth; it preclude its possibility, undermining Christ's incarnation as "the way, the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6) and the salvation he achieved and offers in befriending sinners and calling us through repentance into the full freedom of his light and life (Jn 10:10). The "'foolish' message of a crucified Christ" is not, as Tertullian supposed, a summons to negate the reason with which God has endowed humanity as a creaturely characteristic; rather, it is a call to align reason, severely incapacitated though not totally eclipsed by sin, with its source and purpose - available and knowable in the person of Christ, whose truth expresses itself in love. Augustine's "Confessions" is a profound testimony to the efficacy of this transforming power, and highly relevant to the renewal the Church and our world need today.

John RD | 22 November 2019  

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