Melbourne: The Cup runneth over

By Janetta Mackay

Party time in Melbourne will be bigger than ever for a special 150th birthday bash, writes Janetta Mackay.

The skeleton of Australasia's most famous horse, Phar Lap, is on display at the Melbourne Museum to help mark the 150th running of the Melbourne Cup, which the horse won in 1930. Photo / Supplied
The skeleton of Australasia's most famous horse, Phar Lap, is on display at the Melbourne Museum to help mark the 150th running of the Melbourne Cup, which the horse won in 1930. Photo / Supplied

They call it the race that stops a nation, we call it the race that stops two nations. They claim Phar Lap as their own, we say he's ours.

But leaving aside tedious transtasman rivalries that fall as flat as an oft-poked pavlova, there's no doubting the Melbourne Cup is one of the world's great sporting contests and that the champion horse is justly lauded as one of its mightiest winners.

This year, come the first Tuesday of November, Melbourne will celebrate the Cup's 150th running, making this by far the most venerable big annual event on our doorstep. The countdown has started already both on and off the track, with bookies quoting early odds, milliners taking orders, hotels filling up and the city mounting a fresh salute to Phar Lap.

It's 80 years since Big Red delighted Depression-era punters by coming home the clear race favourite in 1930. By living fast, dying young and leaving a pretty corpse his enduring legacy was assured.

The Phar Lap exhibition opened in 1933, the year after his sudden death from arsenic poisoning. It remains the Melbourne Museum's most popular permanent display. From mid-September until the end of January his stuffed hide has been joined by his skeleton - on loan from Te Papa in Wellington - and 350,000 viewers are expected.

What strikes the visitor, horse fan or no, is how handsome the finely chiselled chestnut is. Film footage of his races and news reports of his shocking death bring home what a folk hero he was.

A trip up the main entrance to Flemington takes racegoers past a bronze statue of the mighty gelding, one of just a handful of racing identities honoured this way.

There's also a cast of trainer Bart Cummings, accurate down to the bushy eyebrows. This year, at age 82, he's pushing for a 13th Cup win.

Trackside stands magic mare Makybe Diva, the Cup's only three-time winner (in 2003, 2004 and 2005). She's ringed in the roses that, come spring carnival, transform this racecourse into one of the prettiest around and with 30,000 bushes the Southern Hemisphere's biggest rose garden.

Once it was swamp land on the edge of the Victorian city made rich by the gold rush, now it's a short train ride from town, with a stunning backdrop of skyscrapers.

Around 17,000 of the 400,000 who attend the week-long carnival come from New Zealand and a trip to the Cup is on many a bucket list. It's now also a truly international event, with the A$6.17 million stakes in the Emirates-sponsored race pulling in the world's best horses.

But the Cup is also about people watching par excellence, from colourfully dressed locals to a host of celebrities, many flown in by attention-seeking companies ringing the track with their lavish marquees.

The Victoria Racing Club mostly holds itself above the fray, but admits this year to trying to tempt Jean Shrimpton back to make her welcome after the world's first supermodel was all but run out of town in 1965. She turned up to Derby Day in what now looks like a not-so-short mini, causing a scandal, for she also wore no hat, no gloves and no stockings.

Three days later, the chastened 22-year-old, who had been invited over from Swinging London, appeared at the Cup in a modest accessorised suit: but her quote, "I think you should dress to please yourself," inspired a generation to unbutton and helped make fashion and racing synonymous.

The Shrimp, who now lives reclusively in Cornwall, seems determined to lie low, but a later supermodel is coming along with a budding mini-me in tow. That's Jerry Hall and daughter Georgia Jagger, who will judge Fashion in the Fields on Oaks Day, an event as hotly contested as the Cup.

Melbourne's gossip pages are already abuzz with who else might show and what they will wear, with the races sparking a multi-million dollar shopping and dining out spree.

New Zealanders who can't make it to the spring carnival get a chance to see the Cup itself next month, when it goes on tour to Auckland, Timaru, Hawke's Bay and Cambridge. (For details see melbournecuptour.com.au).

Those who do join the giant party are in for an even bigger excuse to kick up their heels this year and shouldn't miss the Cup eve Parade of Champions along city streets. To mark the 150th, the VRC is spending up large on a host of legacy projects at Flemington, including a just-opened visitor's centre to turn the track into an attraction on non-racing days.

A book (see melbournecupstory.com) and DVD have been brought out recording the history of the Cup, a Walk of Fame recounts all the winners, and a guided tour shows off the vast new stabling area, complete with air-conditioned stalls for the horses and an underground walkway that whisks them beneath the punters to the starting post.

One of the stopping-off points on the new heritage trail is Carbine's shed. This old wooden building was relocated from nearby training grounds when they were swallowed up by suburbia.

The Auckland-born stallion, a colourful Cup winner in 1890, didn't like the rain so was walked eccentric celebrity-style beneath an umbrella.

Five years after Carbine's popular win, the American author Mark Twain took in the Melbourne Cup. His impressions still ring true today: "Nowhere have I encountered a festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation."

Or should that be two nations?


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