SI Vault
Alwyn Lee
October 31, 1960
Australia's Melbourne Cup has an entire horse-crazed continent in a frenzy of betting, imbibing and ballyhoo
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October 31, 1960

Hippomaniacs Take Over Down Under

Australia's Melbourne Cup has an entire horse-crazed continent in a frenzy of betting, imbibing and ballyhoo

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After Anzac Day itself, the most sacred day in the Australian civic calendar is the first Tuesday in November when—for three and a half minutes over two miles of green turf—two dozen or more Thoroughbreds of all ages gallop for glory, �A25,000 ($56,000) and a big gold bauble called the Melbourne Cup.

More than 100,000 bellowing Aussies (1% of the Commonwealth's population) will be at Melbourne's Flemington race course next week, and they will bet $10 million on this one race. Incalculable sums—a sizable chunk of the national budget—will be laid with bookies off track.

On Cup Day, surface transportation mysteriously ceases all over the continent. A hush descends on Sydney's raucous streets. Demand for electric power drops 165,000 kilowatts as machines are switched off in factories. In the sun-blistered townships of the lonely outback, men jeep or ride scores of miles to be with their fellows at the pub for last-minute bets and the communal Cup broadcast. Citizens visible in the streets of the great cities stand entranced before store-front TV and radio as if immobilized by nerve gas.

All this lends credence to the cautious declaration of the Encyclopaedia Britannica that the Cup "is often termed the greatest all-aged race in the world." Aussies would reject the caution with contempt. They are not mere horseplayers or horse lovers; they are a devout and demented race of hippomaniacs, and the Cup—their annual saturnalia, festival, carnival and finest hour—is the greatest. It has been that way for 100 years. Melbourne itself, until 1834 the hunting ground of the Yarra blacks in kangaroo robes, is but 26 years older. The Cup had been running for 36 years when a Missouri gentleman who called himself Mark Twain was moved to the awe of an innocent abroad: "I can call to mind no specific annual day in any country whose approach fires the whole land with a conflagration of conversation, of preparation and jubilation."

In 1960, the centenary year, the conflagration is blazing like one of the better bush fires, and Melbourne, a normally prim, well-corseted city of 2 million, is beginning to behave with the floppy abandon of a matron on her seventh Martini.

Colored lights are strung amid the trees along the pompous facades of banks and Victorian counting houses on Collins Street. From Carlyon's in the west and gilded Menzies in the middle to the Windsor in the east, hotels are jammed with free-spending sports. (No one in Melbourne for the '56 Olympics will be surprised to learn that pub keepers do not lower prices in Cup Week.) Men with bronzed faces and the bashed-in, soft Borsalino hats that are the badge of the Australian sheepman—men with thin, hard faces and fat wallets—jostle at the long bars, and strong drink flows like the swift green Yarra under floodlit Princes Bridge.

Early in the week ceremonious men in aprons will reverently bear a taxidermist's version of the martyr horse Phar Lap from his place of eternal rest in Melbourne's Museum of Natural History to his dais in the baroque marble hall of the public library. There a file of pilgrim punters will again wonder at his musculature, his height and conformation and the mystical appearance of a constellation of black dapples on his chestnut rump—stigmata said to resemble the Southern Cross. Once again the myth of the prodigal son who fell among thieves will be heard, and a punter will mutter, "The Yanks killed him all right. You can't tell me otherwise." (Actually, Phar Lap died of a surfeit of foreign foodstuffs that perhaps were tainted with insecticide spray, after winning the $50,000-added Agua Caliente Handicap in 1932. It took General MacArthur and World War II to heal the saddle-sore suspicions left in the Aussie punters' hides by " Big Red's" death on U.S. soil.)

But Cup Week is a feast, not a funeral. In Yarra-side Toorak and Kooyong, where the "pure Merino" Melbournians have built their great Italianate town houses, the lights blaze nightlong for 50 Cup balls. At an official banquet 1,100 sportsmen sit at dinner. Once again the supreme judicial body of the Commonwealth—the High Court—finds its most pressing litigation in Melbourne and adjourns for Cup Week. In Canberra, too, the House of Representatives will go into brief recess. It is 10 years since a legislator (presumably in a safe seat) objected to the practice.

The focus of all this remote but giant jazz is Flemington—to American Johnny Longden "one of the finest, greenest courses in the world." It sprawls over 320 acres of reclaimed swamp and natural hill on the tree-padded banks of the Maribyrnong. The track itself, a figure-9-shaped run, is a wide (it has handled a cavalry charge of 39 starters) green ribbon of specially bred grasses designed to withstand hoof and heat. It is thoughtfully banked at the turns from and into the straight. Things being the way they are down under, the Cup falls in spring, and horticultural trainers have their flower show timed to the day. A mile or so of blossoms line the rails; the winner's return is a lane of golden roses, and a forced growth of iris splashes the lawns.

The carnival lasts eight days, from Saturday to Saturday. On Cup Day the gray-toppered men and orchidaceous, bright-plumaged women in the Members' Enclosure look down on a scene about as exclusive as Times Square on V-J night. It is a democracy of chicken and champagne or beer and hot meat pies, with no bets too small for the poor man's end of the 243 pari-mutuel windows or too big to be laid with one of the 284 licensed Joe Cooks (rhyming slang for "books") barking the odds like cattle dogs under big blue umbrellas.

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