One of the unique benefits of the Australian lifestyle zeitgeist, particularly in Victoria, is the national celebration of a horse race! As a child the Melbourne Cup was so worthy of reverence that it was even broadcast over PA systems during school hours, crackling and spluttering through while students and teachers alike vocalized support loudly for their particular contender. I once had a teacher, name purposely withheld for legal reasons, who ran an illegal book for his colleagues and students (50 cents would get you in for a win, another 50 cents for a place). By 3:00pm on the first Tuesday in November this teacher had amassed a pot of considerable proportions. As the race played itself out from the small speaker in the corner of the room I swear I could see him silently praying, hoping for that magic combination of least wagered horses to dominate and ensure his profit margin. During these times his glasses would fog up and a subtle glance at the sky betrayed a stolen, “thank you God.”
These days the Melbourne Cup is big business, worth over six million to the winning owner… the horse gets a roll in the sand. Race horse owners from all over the globe fly in their prize nags for a chance at the big win, and bragging rights for the richest two-mile handicap in the world. Politicians in Australia’s capital concluded important governmental procedure earlier than usual in order to be able to watch the race, throwing back a few Crown Lagers on national television. As a considerate husband to a newly arrived American resident I felt it my patriotic duty to induct my wife into the intricacies of Australia horse racing culture, and so chose instead to watch the Melbourne Cup from the splendour of a rural race meeting, specifically the Mansfield Cup.
Mansfield is a small rural town located in the north-east of Victoria, tucked away in the first slopes of Victoria’s Great Dividing Range. During the winter months Mansfield is overrun with visitors seeking access to Victoria’s snowfields, but summer provides respite from the hordes and Mansfield returns to sleepy satisfaction, except on Cup Day when country race goers descend. Six races throughout the afternoon, fashions on the field, children’s amusements, bookies, the obligatory sausage sizzle and the XXXX Angels. This final event consists of overly tanned, bleached blonde, silicone adjusted nymphs performing impromptu dance routines on the back of a semi-trailer. I myself sauntered over to critique their performance… shite actually, but they tried really hard!
In order to properly account for the fashion events on this day of “picnic racing” I must turn the comments over to my erstwhile companion, and wonderful wife, Ash.
Although most Australians don’t celebrate Halloween with the enthusiasm I had hoped, they all but make up for it on the day after. Fashions on the Field at the Mansfield Cup surpassed my expectations for people and outfit-watching. As a typical follower of the newly betrothed Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, I have become a fan of the fascinator, the flamboyantly frilled and feathered hat, hair clip or headpiece worn by the fashion-conscious lady on race day. Prior to our arrival at the Mansfield Cup, I acquired fascinators for myself and Lily, announcing that we would be wearing them with gusto, despite groans and eye rolls from my typically un-fashionable Australian husband. As it turned out, we were right on target, sporting our relatively mild black (me) and pink (Lily) fascinators amidst two-foot hats, large multi-coloured feathers, and sequined toppers Dr. Seuss would be proud of. Fortunately for us, we chose to wear our fascinators with relatively comfortable skirts and flat shoes, unlike some of the other young ladies we saw on the field that day. Trying hard to emulate their sophisticated Melbourne Cup counterparts, girls and women under a certain age (usually) sported short, tight, and low-cut garments complete with matching four-inch platform heels. As I followed a pair of them in from the parking lot, I could tell by the way they wobbled through the grass and gravel that, even with the assistance of a few gallons of champagne, they would be in for a fairly uncomfortable afternoon. A couple hours in, I wandered over for a peek of the cream of the crop at the “Fashions on the Field” contest. Twenty or thirty fabulously-dressed gals paraded across the aforementioned trailer-stage, all vying for the flowers and title ribbon of “Elegant Lady.” Even though there were just as many applause-worthy outfits and fascinators in the audience as on the stage, I thoroughly enjoyed the contest and agreed with the judges’ selection of winner and runner-up.
Satisfied, I wobbled back with another glass of champagne to see how Marcus had fared betting on the horses.
It was apparent fairly quickly that country race meetings sometimes find it difficult to attract entrants for scheduled races; two races on this particular afternoon only managed to field three or four horses. To the uninitiated this might appear to be an advantageous scenario for the would-be jackpot chaser. This however is not taking into account my almost mythical ability to choose the horse that will be guaranteed to come last; seriously, I actually managed to pick horses twice (racing in fields of four) that came last. This ability is not to be underestimated, in fact not only would any horse backed by Marcus run last, it would most likely trip coming out of the gate, fall over, leap the guard-rail, stomp on several spectators and then proceed to run in reverse around the track, pausing only after passing the other horses on the final straight. Of course, it goes without saying that my horse would soon have a screen mounted around it, quickly followed by a loud rifle shot… such is my luck.
At 3:00pm backs were turned to the race-track, eyes glued to televisions, awaiting the start to, “the race that stops a nation.” A field of twenty-three equine athletes leapt forth from the barrier and proceeded around the Flemington raceway amid quiet calls of, ”Go…go!” As the horses rounded the final turn, and people began to see their retirement savings running in 14th place (and sixteen lengths back from the leaders) cries of, “Whip ‘im jockey!” and “Come on you fucker!” could be heard amongst those well dressed punters surrounding us. Crossing the finish-line, accompanied by the “thwack, thwack” of the jockey’s whips, the clutch of galloping, snorting animals required a photos finish in order to determine who actually came first, second, and third! People held their tickets to their lips in anticipation, hoping to see their horse’s number posted up in the television, and ensure that their children would not have to attend community college instead of the venerable centre of learning that was originally intended. Upon the announcement, people exhibited either of two reactions; those that leapt into the air, kissed their buddies wife full on the lips and shouted the bookie a beer… and those that fell to their knees, apologised to their wives, wept to their kids and asked their mother for a loan. My horse stumbled out of the gates, threw his jockey, shat extravagantly on the course and then proceeded to eat its way to the finish line. I tell you, I sure can pick ‘em.