Photo courtesy of Jupiter Firelyte (Melbourne Cup 2013)
Visiting Melbourne this November? Something big is happening…
The Melbourne Cup is the major thoroughbred race in Australia. It’s called “the race that stops a nation”, but in reality it stops two nations as the Kiwis follow it with as much enthusiasm as the Aussies. And then there’s the global audience – which this year will be an estimated 650m people.
Melbourne Cup Day is an annual event held on the first Tuesday in November. The race, which starts at 3pm, was originally run on a Thursday but was altered in 1875. It is held at the Melbourne’s Flemington Racecourse and organised by the Victoria Racing Club.
The history of the Melbourne Cup
Flemington Racecourse has been holding races since 1840 when the town of Melbourne was only 5 years old. When the Cup was first run in 1861 the area was in the midst of a gold rush. People were heading into the area in the hope of striking it rich. Those that did enjoyed a day at the races which even in those early days was developing a carnival atmosphere where people dressed up and enjoyed picnics and side shows.
By 1880, Melbourne’s population numbered 290,000 and the race meet was attended by 100,000 people travelling from far and wide for the spectacle. There was barely standing room.
The race was originally run over 2 imperial miles, but has since been shortened by around 61 feet when Australia adopted the metric system.
Photo courtesy of Argus (Melbourne, Vic.) (Picture Australia), via Wikimedia Commons
When the race starts, Australia stops
The Melbourne Cup is open to horses aged 3 and above and is not only the richest handicap race in Australia but one of the richest in the world. It has grown from its early beginnings to a week-long festival and is a national holiday in Melbourne and some regions of Victoria. ACT has also recognised race day as a national holiday since 2007, and although it may not be officially recognised as such, pretty much everything stops when the race starts.
Quite how much impact the race makes depends on the part of Australia you’re visiting. Many courses hold their own race day to coincide with Cup day. In Melbourne, many offices will run sweepstakes (not unlike what happens during the Grand National in the UK), have fashion competitions, organise catering and close early.
And in every bar and restaurant where the event is televised you’ll find parties in full swing.
The Melbourne Cup across Australia
Outside Melbourne and the ACT, the Melbourne Cup hits varying degrees of fever pitch. Brisbaneites go bonkers for it while Perth is just a little more relaxed about it. You’ll still find plenty of race luncheons in the city’s hotels and larger restaurants though, with all-inclusive ticketed events including catwalk fashion parades and hat competitions, then lunch followed by the race on a big screen.
Dress for the occasion… or else
The Melbourne Cup Carnival lasts over a week, with the races starting on the Saturday prior to the main race with the Victoria Derby, the Crown Oaks on the following Thursday, and the Stakes on the final Saturday.
At the racecourse there are prizes not just for the best dressed lady attending but also for the best dressed children and families. It is a day when everyone dresses up and the milliners do a roaring trade. If you’re lucky enough to get into the Members Enclosure you’ll have had to meet some seriously strict rules on what can and cannot be worn.
Visitors are ‘expected to maintain a suitable standard in keeping with the dignity of the Members Enclosure’. That means (amongst many other things), no “playsuits (!), gumboots or thongs (the flip-flop kind – we’re not sure if they check for the other sort) for ladies; and no “cravats, safari suits, duffle coats or shoes without socks” for men. Crikey. You can find the full Melbourne Cup Members Enclosure regulations here.
The flowers of Flemington
Each race day has its own official flower: Victoria Derby day: cornflower; The Melbourne Cup: yellow rose; the Oaks has the pink rose and the Victoria Derby Day is represented by the red rose.
The floral theme is particularly appropriate as Flemington has the largest public rose garden in the southern hemisphere. Its grounds are home to some 12,000 roses and has National Heritage listed status.
This 4th November, wherever you’re travelling in Australia, you’ll find all eyes on Melbourne – so find a pub, hotel or public event that’s televising the event and join the celebration.