Emirates Melbourne Cup is known as ‘the race that stops the nation’. And growing up in Western Australia, I can certainly remember teachers stopping class to turn on TVs or radios, so that we could catch the running of the Melbourne Cup race.
But here in Melbourne, the race takes on a whole new significance – because there’s the opportunity to actually go out to Flemington Racecourse and see the race live. Over the years I’ve lived in Melbourne, I’ve experienced the Melbourne Cup in a number of ways. I’ve been there on the lawn of the General Admission area. I’ve picnicked in the Members’ Nursery carpark with friends. I’ve worked in a corporate marquee. I’ve been to Melbourne Cup luncheons at friends’ homes. And I’ve watched it on TV at my own home.
In that time, I’ve gradually worked out the answers to some of the more perplexing of the frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the Melbourne Cup. In this post, I share what I have learned.
Is it true Australians get a public holiday for a horse race?
Yes…and no. Australians that live in the State of Victoria stand a good chance of it being a public holiday as Melbourne Cup day is a public holiday for everyone working within metropolitan Melbourne and some parts of regional Victoria. In several country Victorian cities and towns that hold their own spring racing carnivals, they don’t observe the public holiday for Melbourne Cup, but have their own ‘Cup Day’ holiday instead (e.g. in Bendigo, they have Bendigo Cup Day, which was October 29 in 2014).
Throughout the rest of Australia, it is a normal working day, although people do often take a short break to watch the race (hence the ‘race that stops the nation’ tag).
Is The Cup always run on a Tuesday?
Nowadays, the Cup is run on the first Tuesday in November. That hasn’t always been the case though. Between 1861 and 1875 it was run on a Thursday. For three years during the Second World War (1942, 1943 and 1944) it was held on a Saturday.
Why do people hang out in the carpark at Flemington?
To the uninitiated, it sounds really strange when people say they are going to be in the carpark at the Melbourne Cup, however The Nursery Enclosure is an area in which VRC (Victorian Racing Club) Members can reserve a car site and can then invite their guests to join them on their patch of grass.
Back in the good ol’ days, the Members would bring their cars in early in the day, loaded up with homemade foods and bottles of champagne, and they would set up some umbrellas and folding tables and chairs for their friends to have a picnic day at The Cup. Nowadays, many choose to have caterers handle all the refreshments, and some of the sites come with a marquee already erected over them. There’s betting facilities in The Nursery, and giant screens to watch the races, so you don’t have to leave The Nursery unless you want to actually see a horse in real life.
What’s The Birdcage?
The Birdcage is the name for the premium marquee enclosure at Flemington Racecourse – the enclosure you usually see on TV where the celebrities and socialites are hanging out. The (mostly corporate) marquees in The Birdcage are completely over-the-top. Styled and furnished, these structures are more like permanent venues than tents.
If you want a really good view of the race itself, there is only one place to be. And that is in front of a TV screen.
What is appropriate attire for Melbourne Cup Day?
Dressing up is really what the Melbourne Cup is all about, whether you’re in a chi-chi corporate marquee in The Birdcage, or mixing it with the general public on the lawn. Cup Day is the day within the Cup Carnival for a bit of eccentric fashion frivolity (Derby Day is classy black and white, Oaks Day is floral and feminine, and Stakes Day tends to have a bit more of a fun, casual racing attire vibe).
There is no formal dress code for the General Admission area, but racegoers are encouraged to dress up. Within the various Members’ areas however, there are strict dress regulations. Men must wear a suit with jacket and tie, and ladies “are expected to maintain a suitable
standard in keeping with the dignity of the Members’ Enclosure”. If you happen to be visiting from overseas and are invited to the Members’, you are welcome to wear the formal national dress of your country. (Get out your kilts, Scotsmen…)
In 1965, British model Jean Shrimpton caused controversy when she arrived at Flemington Racecourse for Derby Day, hat-less and in a mini skirt which was 10 cms above her knees. It may have been cutting-edge fashion, but it did not meet the race wear expectations of the day. Anticipating 2014’s midriff-bearing fashion trends, the VRC has specifically outlawed such wear for ladies in the Members’, as well as denim, playsuits/jumpsuits and thongs (which it defines as any shoe with two straps which connect between the first and second toes).
Are hats compulsory for women?
Hats are not actually compulsory, even in the Members’ areas, but nothing says ‘race wear’ like a head accessory to finish off an outfit. Back in the 1990s it was all full-on brimmed hats, the type that made all but the most perfunctory of air-kissing impossible. More recently, the trend has been for ‘fascinators’ which range from beautiful pieces hand-crafted by milliners which perch on the edge of your head, through to a flower on a headband. They certainly make for easier air-kissing…and don’t result in hat-hair.
If you’re out at the track for The Cup, it’s a long, loooooong day on your feet. By all means, you can wear your high heels and look fabulous, but take a pair of flats for later on in the day. It’s a major breach of etiquette to be staggering around in your bare feet with your shoes in hand.
As far as I’m concerned, the best and fastest way to get to and from Flemington Racecourse is by train. Trains depart from Flinders Street Station (platform 8 & 9), stopping at Southern Cross Station (platform 14) and North Melbourne Station (platform 6), then are express to Flemington.
When we were young and foolish, we would often get just a one-way train ticket to Flemington, thinking that if we won big on the races, we would get a taxi home. We always came home by train.
How do I bet?
If you’re out at the track, there are a couple of ways you can place a bet. You can do it with a bookmaker, or through the TAB (‘The Tote’) either on-course or on-line via a phone app. Those not at the track often visit their local TAB, where the queues form early in the morning as everyone heads in to get their bet on. But there’s also the on-line or phone betting option to avoid the queues.
I hardly ever bet with a bookmaker. It all seems too much effort for my huge $1 each-way bets. I prefer to bet on The Tote and I like to bet small amounts in creative ways. For instance, I will box my favourite four horses into a boxed Quinella but only put 50c or $1 on it. To win a Quinella you need to pick the two horses finishing first and second in either order.
What does Each Way mean?
If you bet on a horse ‘Each Way’, you collect if your horse wins or runs a place. So a $1 Each Way bet costs $2, and is a $1 bet on that horse for a win, and a $1 bet for a place.
What’s a Melbourne Cup sweep?
At many workplaces, Melbourne Cup luncheons, or even out at the track itself in a group of friends, there will be a Melbourne Cup Sweep, which is a competition where people purchase a ticket, each representing a horse in the race. The tickets are drawn out randomly. Entry to a sweep is set at a dollar amount (say, $5) which then forms a prize pool, to be distributed to the holders of the first and placed horse ticket holders. Usually the first place winner takes half of the pool, then decreasing amounts for second, third and sometimes fourth, horse ticket holders. Often the holder of the horse that comes last gets their entry money back. Most newspapers on Cup Day have a pull-out page with a sweep format to make it easy to organise.
Why are the winner and place-getters in The Cup never obvious?
The Melbourne Cup race is a handicap race over 3,200 metres for horses three years of age or older. In a handicap race, more successful horses carry more weight than less successful horses. The ‘weight’ is the jockey’s body weight plus extra lead weights in a saddlebag if the jockey weighs less than the handicap.
So in theory, all things being equal, all the horses could cross the line together. What you’re really wanting to bet on, is which horses are going to go that extra effort and better their previous performances to get over the line first.
What’s your tip for The Cup?
This is the question on everyone’s lips. And everyone from the Prime Minister to the guy at the corner shop has an opinion on it. Does anyone get it right? Sometimes. But mostly only through the law of averages. Someone has to be right eventually.
For what it’s worth, my tip for the 2014 Cup is Fawkner. For no reason other than when I first moved to Melbourne back in the early 1990s, I used to walk through Fawkner Park on my way to work on St Kilda Road.
It’s a scientific process, picking horses.
Tell me, what’s YOUR tip for The Cup?
* The photos in this post were not taken on a Cup Day, but on Black Caviar Lightning Day, 2013.