A symbol of hope as we get back on the horseNovember 1, 2021
The Age’s racing correspondent was unimpressed with the measures introduced to combat the Spanish flu pandemic in Victoria in 1919, which included shutting down racing for a time. He called the Victorian government of the day “panic stricken”, its proscriptions “a mass of contradictions and irrelevancies” that forced people to “mope at home”, and he lamented the loss of thousands of jobs in racing.
When at last the ban was lifted, he wrote: “Fortunately, this ridiculous state of affairs came to an end on Saturday, and after an enforced period of dullness, Melbourne took on quite a carnival air.”
Plus ca change. That year began with NSW and Victoria blaming each other for the spread of the pandemic. But on the first Tuesday in November, the Melbourne Cup drew a record crowd of about 110,000 to thrill to Artilleryman’s win in a record time. The city – and for that matter, the country – was back on track.
Leading trainer Gai Waterhouse at Flemington with the 2021 Melbourne Cup.Credit:Wayne Taylor.
One remarkable fact about the Melbourne Cup is that in its 161-year history, it has never been cancelled. The race that stops a nation has never been stopped. Wars, depression, pandemic: none could waylay it. Arguably, the Cup has mattered even more in bad times than good. Phar Lap’s triumph in 1930 would have been a great story anyway, but the context of the Great Depression made it legendary. Last year, the Cup was run for the first time without a crowd – but it was run.
This year, the Cup acts both as a symbol of hope and a signal for caution. It’s a staying race, like the one we’ve all been in for nearly two years now. We might even be at the top of the home straight. But at Flemington, that’s still many furlongs from the winning post. It’s where a new race begins, the one we’re in now, the living-with-COVID handicap.
It’s also where the crowd’s roar rises. It will be a tinny roar this year, merely 10,000-strong, but a roar nonetheless. It will be augmented by mini-roars all over town and around the country as the people of Australia begin to coalesce again into a community. Trainer Peter Moody, who has Incentivise, the red-hot favourite, says this Cup will be a coming-out party for the city and the country. We’re getting back on the horse.
As well as a history to live up to, the Melbourne Cup has one to live down. Six horses have been put down on Cup Day in the past seven years, all international visitors. This year, stringent new veterinary oversight has been introduced in an effort to eradicate what has become a blight on the event.
Together with COVID-19 restrictions, it means far fewer international horses will line up this year. Though the Cup has become a race for all the world, a home-grown fairytale would be apt this year. You might say that’s reason enough for Incentivise.
Even on the modest scale of this year’s staging, the Melbourne Cup can help us to reaffirm our identity as we re-emerge from our COVID torpor. It always has.
Visiting in 1895, Mark Twain was captivated by Flemington, “the Mecca of Australasia”, and by Cup Day, “the Australian national day … like no other specialised day in any other country”. The grandstands were “a delirium of colour, a vision of beauty”, and the women’s clothes were “ordered long ago, at unlimited cost, without bounds as to beauty and magnificence”. Perhaps only the labels have changed.
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