A walk round an empty Flemington last Friday was disturbed by some strange sounds emanating from the massive Emirates box. It turned out to be a troupe of lederhosen clad dancers rehearsing their routine. This year the sponsors had a German theme. The German horse Protectionist was the winner we should have backed.
Age does not often enhance things but it sure as hell does with the Melbourne Cup. Twenty eight years since I was down here to watch At Talaq win the Cup, the city is transformed, the race is bigger and better than ever and the Flemington complex a challenge to any track on the racing globe. But whereas the changes to the city have been done by opening up a whole new riverside and dockland complex as well as a completely new overhead freeway system, what has happened at the racecourse has been subtler if no less complete.
For while at first glance there may not, apart from a new grandstand, seem that much difference to the sweeping left handed track and the crowded enclosures backing on to the railway and topped off by the Maribyrnong River, close up everything, even the famous roses, have been brought freshly up to date. There is a new administration block at the head of the straight, a new stable complex on the far side complete with its own swimming pool. Back in 1986 they were still swimming horses from the back of a row boat in the river.
But most of all they have updated their attitude to their customers. From bar coded entrance tickets to the best audio you will hear on any racecourse there is a real sense of harnessing tradition rather than being slowed by it. Back in the 80s they had already mastered things like ladies’ fashion contests and horseback interviews with winning jockeys and they are still way ahead of us on the former and out on their own in the latter where the peerless Ryan Moore was open and easy in his replies as he rode back in triumph.
The result of this modernisation is that young people have have embraced it as a smart day out in a way that makes the celebrity not just the society pages. As many people ignore the racing at the Melbourne Cup as they do at Royal Ascot but if they do want to watch the horses being saddled there is plenty of railed off space to do this and the horses’ names and those of their handlers are automatically displayed above their stalls.
As many people get boozed up as they do at our big festivals but, hard though it is a Brit to say this, the Aussies behave better. A huge security drive in the late 90s has made boorish behaviour unacceptable and the police relate that they throw more people out in the first hour of the Boxing Day Test Match at the MCG than they do in the whole of the Melbourne Cup
How ironic then that the sporting and social highlight of what has been voted the World’s Most Liveable City should have been clouded by the death of the favourite minutes after the Melbourne Cup itself. Australian racing is doing more than it has ever done on equine welfare side and, shattering though these things can be, we should remember that it was exactly 9 years ago last Saturday that Best Mate collapsed at the end of his comeback race at Exeter. We survived that just as the Melbourne Cup will get through the sadness of Admiral Rakti.
Meanwhile partying visitors should be careful with their vowels. Entering the lift with a group of well lubricated racegoers I said, in answer to what floor button to press, “I want six.” A lady with a large hat and a rather hungry look swivelled round and retorted “what did you say?” We think she had put the “e” before the “i”. At floor six, very swiftly, I made my excuses and left.