<Cup Day, and Cup Day only, commands an attention, an interest, and an enthusiasm which are universal and spontaneous, not perfunctory. I can call to mind no specialised annual day in any country, whose approach fires the whole land with a conflagration of conversation, and preparation, and anticipation and jubilation. No day save this one.
When Mark Twain attended the Cup in 1895, Melbourne's population was barely a million and yet 10 per cent of the colony's population turned up that day to witness the event, a remarkable turnout. With Melbourne's population today roughly 3.5m, the Cup is only now again approaching the sort of mass appeal it enjoyed at the turn of the 20th century. Crowds of around 400,000 are expected over the four day carnival, precisely double the attendance in 1993 when Irish champion Vintage Crop became the first internationally-trained entry to win the race, heralding the advent of the Cup's "modern era", an era that coincides with the march of globalisation in trade and communications and in the horse racing business. The success of the event in recent years has been driven in part by the considerable public interest generated by the international contingent that hails typically from UK, Ireland, France and more recently Japan.
So it's Cup time again, and the international horses have arrived in numbers looking to win Australia's greatest horse race, this year worth a hefty 5.65 million Australian pesos. Eight internationals will start in the race and they make up seven of the top ten in the betting market, surprising considering for the visitors, it is no easy feat to win, with just two wins since Vintage Crop's (Media Puzzle in 2002 and Japan's Delta Blues in 2006). Add Australia's strict quarantine conditions to the rigours of travelling a horse across the other side of the world to race two miles, often in scorching heat, then for most the adventure ends up a folly costing at least $100,000.
Still, each year, as the first Tuesday in November doth approach, so crescendos the chorus of whining from local trainers and owners who can barely contain their protectionist disgust at the perceived superiority of the international runners. This Spring His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, was the first to deflate the national ego two weeks back when his classy chestnut All The Good strode away with the Caulfield Cup. This cued locals to bemoan more pillaging of homeland's glory, but they neglected to mention the win was the Sheikh's first Group 1 win in Australia in more than a decade trying.
On cue, the tabloids have been cranking up the emotive language in a brew of envy, gall and indignation: "we" are at "the mercy of the raiders"; the "foreign invaders" are so good they have an unfair "stranglehold" on the Cup; there are "fears" this year that "foreign" jockeys will "blight" the race by engaging in team riding, an illegal practice. And the broadsheets have also got into the act: "Australian racing's defence of the Melbourne Cup from a European blitz took a battering," railed the Sydney Morning Herald when construction tycoon Lloyd Williams' 2007 Cup winner, Efficient, was scratched from this year's event during the week. The nation must be at risk when it's left to a former casino boss to "repel the European Invasion" and save the nation from turf capitulation and global embarrassment.
And then there's Bart. Winner of the race an extraordinary 11 times, every year the old marvel clambers up onto the soapbox to tell why the foreigners should stop coming. This year Cummings said it was a case of "spot the Aussie", prompting a good comeback from Ireland's Aiden O'Brien, Coolmore's private and the world's leading trainer who is here with Cup favorite Septimus and two other lesser lights. Asked why his horse, the highest-rated stayer in training, would win: "Septimus, when you ask him, he gives it all.''
The visitors aren't averse to making their own threats, with UK jockey John Egan facing charges for calling local officials "tinpot Hitlers"! On Sunday Tom Magnier, son of Coolmore tycoon John Magnier, threatened to scratch Septimus, making the extraordinary claim that the Flemington track was "not safe, and we'd rather take the horse home than race in the cup... if the track isn't watered." The visitors always call for the track to be watered to improve the chances of European horses which prefer soft racing surfaces. Officials usually oblige, prompting more push back from the locals that the internationals are getting preferred treatment.
Twain's comment above illustrates the extraordinary popularity the Cup and horse racing held in earlier times in this country. It's not unreasonable to claim that Australians have historically displayed an obsession with the turf not seen among any other people, not even the country which was its cradle: mother England. In fact the thoroughbred is a man-made, in-bred genetic freak which to be eligible to race must be able to trace its family tree back to just three foundation Arabian stallions imported to England in the 18th century. The bluebloods of the turf hold a flattering mirror to the British aristocracy, to which it is its plaything. Breeding is everything, old chap, and the notion that we can breed "the best" with "the best" to realise the equine equivalent of a monarch, the champion racehorse, is the kind of ideology that can launch both a global empire and beget generation upon generation of upper-class twits. With inherited wealth to spare, the poms take their time with their horses, racing them sparingly while young, breeding them to stay the "classic" distance of a mile and half and beyond.
In Australia, it's different. Racing has been a working class and mass entertainment, and we often hear that in Australia the racetrack is the great leveler, where both toff and tradesman are equal before the judge's decision. (Tell that to the 'greencoat' standing guard at the Members' Enclosure gate.) Since the Cold War, we have bred for speed, not stamina, and for a quick return. We buy them as yearlings and race them into the ground at two and three, and then pass them off like a sub-prime loan to the nearest sucker at the first hint of unsoundness. Two year olds scampering with all the precocity of a Chinese gymnast are our go, pounding their baby legs over sprint courses for big prizemoney in races like Sydney's Golden Slipper. As for the Melbourne Cup, its two mile marathon distance has always been an anomaly, and before the era of the "overseas raiders", local trainers used to greet the "Kiwi invasion" of stayers in the English mould with a similar derision.
The Antipodean breed, while technically a thoroughbred, has historically not run thick with the bluest blood of the most influential UK and continental sirelines. Not until the 1990s, when the bloodstock industry went through a period of consolidation and globalisation which has seen the emergence of two dominant global breeding and racing operations: Ireland's Coolmore Stud and Dubai's Darley, owned by Shiekh Mohammed. Following the Shiekh's $400m purchase earlier this year of the country's biggest stable, Woodlands Stud, the two rivals have each established large Australian operations. Coolmore's billionaire owners race Cup favourite Septimus while the Sheikh's big hope, All the Good has been scratched. The racing game as it turns out is a fount of tolerance for the big spending Emir who, along with his brother Sheikh Hamdan build a global empire after rescuing the British racing industry from terminal decline when the local aristocracy were going through a tough patch in the 1970s.
With 24/7 coverage online and on cable TV, racing fans now follow the best horses on a global racing calendar: the Dubai World Cup in May, the Kentucky Derby and Royal Ascot in the Northern Summer, the Arc de Triomphe in October, the US Breeders Cup and the Melbourne Cup in November and the Japan Cup and Hong Kong Internationals in December. The ascension of the Melbourne Cup to the attention of this exalted audience has been due in no small measure to the trailblazing efforts of Weld and Vintage Crop and those that have since made the journey in numbers with, it must be said, not much success.
However the Cup going global seems to have ruptured the proud maelstrom of the Australian turf and the role a horse race plays in the national narrative. In a globalised world dominated by the large developed and emerging economies, "little Australia" must punch above its weight to stay in the game. But faced with international competition in the Melbourne Cup, the locals view themselves as wanting, their bubble of self-congratulation lanced like a boil full of hubris. For the rest of the year they remain convinced that our racing and horses are the best in the world. Except, when one looks at the results of the international horses, three cup wins in two decades, their dominance is also a myth. The key to this conundrum? Anthropomorphism. Thoroughbreds do not vote and are not citizens. Horses are stateless, have no truck with nationalism, couldn't care less about good breeding and have no idea what a cultural cringe is. They win because of talent and circumstance, not what it says on their trainer's passport.
Hutak's Cup tips: New Zealand four year old Nom du Jeu has a regal carriage, a powerful finish, deep wells of stamina and class to spare. Dermot Weld is back again with the classy mare Profound Beauty. With a postage stamp weight of 51.5kgs, and Glen Boss wasting to make the ride, the smart money is on. Melbourne grey Barbaricus has been the local revelation of the Spring. Will race handy and fight on to the finish.