Melbourne: Big race never runs out of fizz

By Carroll du Chateau

Since I was a kid in shorts, I've been going to the races. First Dad dragged us to Tauherenikau where we sat on a tartan blanket, only metres, it seemed, from the horses' hooves. Then we graduated to Trentham where we had to wear our best dresses and hats and sat way up in the members' stand. Next came Ellerslie where we bought our way into the members' stand and Rotorua where we feasted on quiche and salad while the horses snorted past inside the nearby rails.

This was different. This was the Melbourne Cup. Or I thought it was the Melbourne Cup. The invitation was to be Moet Hennessy's guest for Oaks Day at the Melbourne Cup Carnival.

"This is seriously flash," advised cup aficionados. "It's ladies' day, fashion in the field."

And next, "What are you going to wear?"

This was followed by nervous emails, followed by the great day when a marvellous package, couriered from London, arrived at my desk. Inside were two dresses I could keep for a week - a violet-blue and white Diane Von Furstenberg wrap-around and a soft chiffon black and white number with a wide cinch belt. "Worth a thousand pounds between them," whispered my daughter. Then Lizzie from Omori came up with a great flying saucer of a hat and I was ready.

Standing in the lobby of the Westin Hotel, Melbourne, in the sheer tights, the black strappy shoes, the amazing hat, the $700 dress, I could have been a flea compared with the Australian girls who floated down in their pillbox hats with veils and short skirts grazing long, tanned thighs.

We climbed rather unceremoniously into a minibus and were off, sailing along, over the river, part of the privileged, past all the officials, and finally there - at the birdcage.

Now this is not a birdcage as we know it, where stable hands lead the horses around for the serious punters to peruse before the jockeys mount and they hit the track. No this is a birdcage where you get in via a swipecard and enter a village of what Aussies call "tents". Although they're all temporary, the tents look seriously permanent with their plasma TV screens, tubs of plants, fairy lights - and most important, booze fridges. Most don't get a glimpse of the racecourse.

But we are at Moet Hennessy's Chapiteau Merveilleux, in the front row, next to the Emirates tent looking into the boots of the people who pay $3000 for a carpark, and there, in the distance, I could see it: a slice of race track itself.

It's all super swish with a man inspecting our wrist transfers and another offering us "bottomless" champagne flutes filled with Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial. These are flutes without bottoms, meaning you can't put them down. Waiters in black suits and white aprons circulate with top-ups. People in less-fashionable tents gaze up at us in awe. It is 11am and we are history.

And then comes the food. The first, breakfast, is served on a special white plate, that works like a small tray, complete with a hole in it so you can put the infernal glass down. The food is exquisite; a tiny, just-set egg which has apparently been cooked at 60C (I think) for three hours, balanced on a slightly bigger brioche and decorated with parsley puree; beef tartare; profiterole with ham; tomato ravioli with buffalo milk. All served morsel-sized. Just enough to keep you sober.

In the middle of wolfing this down there is a thundery rumble and a ripple of commotion. We look up to see a flash of horseflesh disappear towards the finish.

I'd done the unmentionable: missed the first race.

And here I'd like to give the Aussies a new idea.

Why don't they play the bugle like they do at Ellerslie, so fans can hear (if not see) that the race is beginning? But of course, I've missed the whole point of the Melbourne Cup. The carnival is about the experience - frocks, suits, champagne, food and the schmoozing.

After that it is a bit of a blur as we New Zealanders struggle to balance our race books, money, plates, bottomless glasses and make our bets. This involves tottering down the steep Moet steps (always showing our wrist transfers to the doorman), getting to the tote through a throng of beautiful people promenading in baby doll dresses (nearly always a mistake, even here) struggling with their box bets then getting back in time to see our horses for at least a couple of seconds before watching the finish on the big screen.

Loyally, we start by backing New Zealand horses, which is a great idea in race 2 (my first), because I choose a trifecta and my horses came in first and second.

After that I resort to shameless schmoozing with Roy, the head of Moet Australia. Now Roy, who is English, is wearing the most elegant suit/shirt/tie combo I have seen. The suit is supple as silk, the shirt white with a thin green stripe - and that exact shade is reflected in his tie. And then I notice this was de rigueur. Forget the girls in their designer dresses and fascinators.

All the Moet men, and a few others, are wearing the suit/shirt/tie combos with yellow rosebuds in their buttonholes. They were a knockout: the best-dressed men I've seen.

Roy also has the best tips. Take Marjorie, the outsider in, I think, race 4. "I've heard they hope she might do well ... " I am down those steps. She wins and pays almost enough ($2 each way) to bring me even again.

By now we are through the brunch menu (also served on platters, this time with bottomless glasses of Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2000 champagne) and on to the mini wagyu steak sandwich, the chick pea fries (served in a paper cone with Dijon mayonnaise at the bottom), some delectable rabbit and peach melba, served with Moet & Chandon Rose Imperial. And so it goes. All very civilised with Roy seeing to it that I have more collects.

When I insist on visiting the tote and a Portaloo, we miss the bus back to the hotel. There we are, a bunch of forlorn and forgotten Kiwis, out of our pleasure palace. We walk up and down in the sun, begging for lifts but finally get the message: Return to the Chapiteau Merveilleux. We are sending a bus to collect you.

And what was waiting when we arrived? A cool glass of Moet.

Carroll du Chateau flew to Melbourne courtesy of Moet & Chandon.

MELBOURNE CUP
For tickets and carnival information, visit www.flemington.com.au/melbourne-cup-carnival.

GETTING AROUND:
For train timetables, visit www.connexmelbourne.com.au.

For trams, catch the number 57 from the corner of Elizabeth and Flinders streets in the CBD.

For ferries, City River Cruises will take groups along the Yarra River.

FURTHER INFORMATION:
For general information on Melbourne, see Tourism Victoria's website at www.visitmelbourne.com.

- NZ Herald

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