I loved the Melbourne Cup until I hated it, and then, later, became ambivalent. My ambivalence was hard-earned. As a child I found there was much to love about the cup. I was a horse-mad girl and for one day the rest of the nation got my passion. The whole country stopped to watch horses. The whole country talked about horses.
I watched the grainy images of horses galloping on the small black and white television at school; we were allowed to watch it. The TV, usually reserved for educational programmes like Behind the News and We Play Recorder, was switched to horse racing on the first Tuesday in November.
I envied kids in Victoria, where Cup Day was a public holiday. But it was a school day in Western Australia, so the whole school – all three classrooms full of us – crammed into the one room and sat cross-legged on the floor, knee to knee, to watch the horses.
It was 1975 and Think Big won for a second time, becoming only the fourth horse to win two cups. A legend. After school I galloped home, my feet hitting the hard pavement, my TAA Airlines school bag thumping against my side.
Mum wasn’t home, so I galloped down the road to the local pub to find her. She was there with her friends, ‘the ladies’ she called them, drinking beer and eating sandwiches and hors d’oeuvres – horses’ doovies Grandma pronounced it, which seemed appropriate on Cup Day.
Mum was bubbly, giggling, and wrapped her arm around me when I was almost close enough, pulling me the last couple of steps.
“I won the hat competition,” she said, grinning at me.
I looked at the hat. We’d made it together the night before, because hats were part of the cup spectacle. It was fashioned as a top hat, made from cardboard and covered with Alfoil to make it shiny and silver.
The brim we had made to be a racetrack, with green tinsel from the box of Christmas decorations serving as turf. We’d put a white fence and horses around it, borrowed from my toy farm set. We’d stuck the horses in place with plasticine, but now, late in the Wheatbelt afternoon, they were drooping. One had fallen off but it no longer mattered. It was on the table next to Mum’s beer glass. I pulled a paper coaster from the centre of the table and put the horse on it.
“It’s got a paddock now,” I said.
Mum laughed. “Are you hungry? Do you want something to eat?”
I nodded and took a sandwich from the table. Egg and lettuce on white bread, cut in small triangles. There were things on sticks. I took three toothpicks each with a square of Kraft cheese and a piece of pineapple stuck on the end. I left the olives but took a piece of Krackerwurst.
“When will you come home?” I asked.
“Later. It’s Cup Day. Do you have any homework to do?”
“Just reading and spelling.”
“Well off you go and do it. Feed the chooks too, and get the eggs.”
I nodded and wandered home, dreaming of the cup. I longed to go to it; to be at Flemington and watch the magnificent horses parade, skittish before the crowd, everyone dressed in their finery.
And hats. Everyone in fancy hats. And fascinators. That was a word and a head-dress that went with the cup; tiny concoctions delicately balanced on perfectly coiffured hair, feathers and flowers part of the show. I wondered if I’d wear one, but perhaps I would be a participant in the cup rather than a spectator. Perhaps I could be a jockey.
There were no women jockeys racing in the cup at that time. That wouldn’t happen for several more decades; in 2007 Clare Lindop and Lisa Cropp would become the first women to ride in the cup. And finally, in 2015, a woman would ride the winner. In that year, Michelle Payne would become the darling of Australia, riding 100 to 1 chance Prince of Penzance across the line ahead the field at Flemington.
In accepting her prize, Payne would point out that there were still chauvinistic elements in the horseracing industry that would have bumped her off her mount and put a man there instead. Payne had a point. She was only the third woman to ride in the Melbourne Cup since the race began in 1861.
In the mid-seventies when I was flirting with the dream of being a jockey, it was a vain hope indeed. Women were not permitted to race against men in Australian horseracing at all until 1979.
“You could be a horse trainer,” Mum suggested back in the seventies, all too aware of the barriers facing a young girl dreaming of finding a place in a man’s world, but, being the mother she was, not wanting to shatter my dreams. “Or a vet. Or just own a racehorse.”
I nodded and dreamed, cut pictures from the paper and collected statistics and facts. The Melbourne Cup is the longest handicap race in the world. It was first run in 1861 and won that year, and the next, by Archer.
Remarkably, Archer was walked the 900 kilometres from the stud where he lived to the Flemington Racetrack to participate in the race.
That endurance feat was perhaps almost as great as his galloping the 3200 metres that make up the Melbourne Cup. In the early days, it was a two-mile race – near enough to the same distance, just a different measurement system.
In the 1980s I had a friend whose father was into horseracing. Two failed racehorses – Bluey and Larry – grazed in the front paddock of their farm. Mr P threw them hay and I patted their soft noses.
“He was a good horse, that Larry,” Mr P told me. “Won three races at Ascot before he retired. And some country races as well. Placed a few times too. I’d like another one like him.”
I went with Mr P to a Thoroughbred stud ahead of the yearling sales and watched the colts and fillies parade, all long legs and tossed heads. Later, Mr P bought a stunning grey colt. He paid a staggering amount of money for him but it was okay, he was going to be a champion.
The colt was sent to a trainer and months later we went to Bunbury to watch him trial. I envied the strapper who led him out. “He’s a fabulous horse,” she told me. Standing next to him he was intimidatingly big and boisterous.
“But he’s getting a bit big for his boots,” the trainer added. “We might need to geld him, get him focused on running instead of flirting with the fillies.”
I envied the strapper and the trainer, as much for their skill and knowledge as for their proximity to horses. (Perhaps I could be a strapper, then later progress to being a trainer, I thought, holding my secret dreams close.)
The colt won that trial and Mr P was ecstatic, jumping around red-faced in the members’ bar. We drove home with the certain knowledge that this horse was going to pave the road with gold.
I didn’t go to his next trial, and afterwards was glad. The colt was leading but broke down lame just before the finishing post. He’d broken a foreleg. He stood forlorn on the track, balancing on his three good legs. The injury was catastrophic. There was no way such an injury could be healed, even if time and money were no barriers. Even now, with advanced veterinary procedures, many such injuries are irrecoverable and necessitate instant euthanasia.
For Mr P’s young horse, this was the only option. The vet went out with the bolt gun and the colt’s carcase was taken away for dog meat.
Mr P was distraught. He’d genuinely liked the horse, and it wasn’t just about money for him, although undoubtedly the thrill of potential riches was part of it. I pitied the vet who’d had to put the colt down, and the strapper and trainer who’d worked with him. Perhaps I didn’t want to be involved in the racing industry.
Years later, I rode at a riding school where half of the horses were ex-racehorses, stunning animals given a second career as showjumpers and school horses. Big, powerful, and well-trained, they were a joy to ride.A big chestnut called Wizard was my favourite. On him I learnt basic dressage and confidence at the canter. He taught me to jump and we popped over small jumps in the arena together.
I thought perhaps I would buy an Off-Track Thoroughbred. They go cheap. There’s a surplus of them. Over 13,000 Thoroughbred foals are born in Australia every year. Of those, 74 per cent start training to be racehorses; of those 93 percent progress to trials and racing.1
A proportion of them enjoy success; a small minority become champions. Thoroughbred racing is a numbers game as much as anything. Despite all the breeding and training and science and folklore invested in trying to produce champions, it seems there is still an inordinate amount of luck.
Buying a yearling racehorse in Australia is likely to cost somewhere between $50,000 and a million dollars. The new owners of the 4932 yearlings sold in Australia in 2013-14 paid $342 million for them. The total paid for all horses sold at public auction, including broodmares, was $469 million.2 Of course, there are the legends about horses bought for a pittance that go on to become champions.
Once the racehorse has been bought, it needs to be kept and trained. This will cost around $40-50,000 a year depending on where it is located, perhaps more if it goes to a high-end trainer, and that’s without unexpected vet bills or setbacks. But the lure of prize money draws people in.
The total annual prize pool up for grabs in Australia is $308 million at an average of $14,535 per race.3 The Thoroughbred owners’ association suggests that winning one Saturday city race a year is enough to pay for a racehorse’s annual keep.4
But 63 per cent of horses that race will earn less than $10,000 each year, and fewer than three per cent will make $100,000 a year.5
Some of those that don’t make it end up like Mr P’s colt, destroyed after a catastrophic accident; some end up like Bluey and Larry, living lives of leisure in large paddocks, doted upon as pets and asked to do nothing more. Some end up like Wizard, given second chances as riding horses.
And this is perhaps an undervalued side of the Thoroughbred racing industry; all those failed racehorses that give leisure riders and weekend equestrians a chance to own fabulous horses, fast and athletic, at a fraction of the cost that it really takes to breed them.
But not all find their way to loving homes and second careers. It is estimated that 6.3 per cent end up at the knackery.6
It was my realisation of this harsh reality, the reality of magnificent beasts slaughtered for pet meat, that first raised doubts in my mind about horseracing.
I became a horse-owner in mid-life and found myself drawn to people and trainers seeking an approach to horsemanship loosely referred to as natural; an approach that, simplistically explained, seeks to enable horses to express their natural behaviours.
Most people taking this approach ride horses and many compete in different horse sports. But it was in these circles that I first came across people vehemently opposed to horseracing. Thoroughbred horseracing is a favoured target among animal rights activists and the ‘wastage’ – that euphemistic term used to describe the Thoroughbreds killed when they don’t make the grade – is a rallying point.
The efforts of the industry to clean up its act often fall on deaf ears and the Melbourne Cup is a prime target, with its emphasis on fashion and festivities, with images of drunken women tottering on high heels, skimpy dresses and hats askew, fascinators no longer fascinating; of men in suit jackets and board shorts sculling beer; all this as much a part of the scene as magnificent horses galloping. The murk that lurks behind the glamour.
So I came to hate the cup. I saw only this dark side. The ‘wastage’, the drunkenness, the corruption, the chauvinism, the sexism, the cruelty. I didn’t want any part of it. I denied I’d ever been held in the cup’s thrall. And yet.
And yet there is still a little girl inside of me that feels a sense of pride that a horse race can stop our nation and I want that to happen. I want that pause, that unification. It has long been part of the Melbourne Cup. As early as the 1880s, the American writer Mark Twain noticed it. He wrote: “Nowhere in my travels have I encountered a festival of the people that has such a magnetic appeal to a whole nation.”7
I walked down the street with friends after dinner in late October. In the lead up to the cup, all the restaurants were advertising their cup luncheons. “Book now,” the billboards screamed as we searched for after-dinner coffee and cake.
“We don’t have a cup luncheon at work anymore,” my friend D said. “One of our team is vegan and she’s anti-horseracing. She finds the whole thing too upsetting.”
“Bloody wowser,” D’s husband said. “Why should one person destroy everyone else’s fun?”
“Well, she doesn’t say we can’t have a luncheon, just that she wouldn’t go,” D said. “But she gets very stressed and upset when anyone mentions anything about it, so we find it easier to just say nothing. She says it’s bad for the horses. She says they don’t want to race. Maybe she’s got a point.”
Her husband shrugged. “What do you think?” he asked me. “You have horses. What do you think of the cup?”
I ran his question through my head: What do I think? I honestly don’t know. “Some horses like to race,” I said, hedging my bets. And I told them a story about my little old Quarter Horse-Arab mare Floss. She’s not a racehorse, never was, doesn’t have the breeding or the athleticism. But like many horses, she loves to run.
Out riding with H once we came to a long gentle hill. We were cantering up it. Floss tossed her head, wanting to run. I let her. I didn’t do anything to make her. I don’t carry a whip. I don’t wear spurs. I don’t even kick her. I just shifted my body so she knew she was allowed to run. She galloped. Her hooves pounded as they ate up the ground. She stretched out and put everything she had into it. We flew up the hill. H, galloping along just behind us on her bigger, younger, stronger, fitter horse, laughed.
“Flossie is really going for it,” she called out. “Come on Cruiser, you’re not going to let that old girl beat you, are you?” H stood up in her stirrups, freeing Cruiser’s back from her weight and allowing him to move more easily. Cruiser took the cue and cranked up his speed. He drew level with Floss.
I was up out of my saddle, leaning forward, my hands at the side of Floss’s neck, her mane whipping back at my face. I was allowing her to run but not demanding it. She was entirely self-motivated. I could feel every muscle in her body straining to keep her nose in front of Cruiser’s, but she didn’t have it. The second Cruiser’s head got in front of Floss’s, she slowed down. She gave up the race.
All the fight and determination went out of her. We slowed to a canter and came back to a walk. I got off and loosened Floss’s girth, let her blow. She was drenched in sweat, her sides heaving. I led her for a while letting her cool down and catch her breath.
“You didn’t have to run that fast,” I told her. “I wasn’t making you.”
“If she was a racehorse, she’d either come first or last,” we decided later when I told my daughter about it.
“Once Cruiser put his nose in front, she just gave up,” I told her. “She wanted to win, but when she couldn’t, she lost all interest.”
I wonder if some racehorses are like that. A friend had a failed racehorse – an Off-The-Track Thoroughbred – who never made it past trials because she would just suck in behind another horse and run second at best, or further down the field if the horse she chose to flank was running slower. Unlike my Floss, she had no desire at all to put her nose in front.
“So will you watch the cup?” D asked me, as we pulled up chairs and ordered coffee.
“I’ll probably put the TV on,” I said. “I take a passing interest, but I don’t bet on it. I used to crave to go, to be there to watch the spectacle, but I’m not so sure now. There’s something I love about it and something I hate.”
And on Cup Day that’s what I do. I put the flat-screen TV on and watch the full-colour spectacle of Flemington on the second Tuesday in November.
I don’t go out to a cup lunch, I don’t place a bet, but I do watch. I bear witness to this race that captures the heart of a nation. I cringe when I watch the whips, padded though they are, whacking the horses as they pour their hearts out on the home straight.
I like it when the winning horse’s connections seem to genuinely care about the horse. I feel ill when there is a track-side tragedy and a horse is euthanised.
I love it when there is a rags-to-riches story of horse, trainer, owner or jockey. I surged with feminist pride when I listened to Michelle Payne’s winning speech.
I feel annoyed on behalf of the women who totter across the train tracks in their high heels because the train is blocked by protesters lying on the track.
Yet, like the protesters lying on the track I too am saddened by the too-many horses that don’t make it, by those almost-magnificent Thoroughbred foals born each year that end up as dog meat. Unlike the protesters, I don’t think the answer is in stopping horseracing entirely.
All in all, I suppose I can only be described as a fence-sitter in this complicated, multi-factored discussion. It’s taken a long time and a lot of soul-searching, but I guess I have become ambivalent.
- Figures from Racing Victoria. https://rv.racing.com/welfare
- Quoted in The Great Book of Australian Horses, 1976, Rigby Australia.
- Author’s note: Names (including of most horses) have been changed to protect identities.