The race that stops a nation
2.55 pm, Australia, first Tuesday of November, 6 million Aussies of any range of age, sex, and social class are all gathered in the bar downtown, anxiously awaiting for the big event. A large television sits upright on a wooden side table, meticulously dusted off for that very occasion, and indistinct conversations come from all over the place. One more minute goes by, and the tension is more and more palpable. An old man, in the background, tries to relax drinking another sip of his fine whiskey, aged in barrel for 12 years. Next to him stands an upper-class, good-looking, and well-dressed young lady; she is sipping bubbles, and her gracious smile is now attracting the attention of two strapping laborers intent on slurping their cold ales. Clock's ticking, tick-tock, tick-tock and the usual latecomers, rushed out the betting center, are, now, taking their place around the screen, carefully double-checking their winning tickets. 2.59 pm all jockeys are on the starting line as people eagerly wash down their last drink, silence falls on the room, tick-tock goes the clock again, and the nation is about to stop. The wind calmly blows outside and a fresh breeze comes in from the open door as the clock struck 3.00 pm and, at last, the long-awaited moment has come. The race director raises his gun to the sky, awaits one more second and...bang, firmly pulls the trigger! The sound of the gunshot magically awakes everybody from their trance as shouting and tugging take over in the already frantic main room of the bar. All the excitement goes on and on for about 3:15 minutes as the spirit of the Melbourne Cup remains unchanged over the centuries.
The history of the Melbourne Cup
The concept was conceived by Frederick Standish, a member of the Victorian Turf Club, in 1861. The idea was to have 17 horses racing for the mere price of £700 cash and a gold watch, the winner was to take all. The first race took place in the same year at the Flemington Racecourse under the eyes of few fans and was a complete disaster. Three riders fell during the race, two died, and one horse ran away before the race could even begin. Not a great start for the newborn Melbourne Cup and amidst the dismay of the audience Archer, the underdog that day took the lead of the race and defeated by six lengths the Victorian Champion Mormon, against all the odds. «Late drama at the Flemington!» yelled local commentators. This tragic, but at the same time entertaining event put a spotlight on the Melbourne Cup, its audience grew bigger and so did the economic interest over the following years. Today, millions of dollars are invested in the competition to ensure success, and mass media helped increase its visibility internationally which contributes to making the Melbourne Cup THE not-to-be-missed event of the year Down Under.
The Melbourne Cup today
Nowadays, the "Melbourne Cup day" is an actual social event with "fashions on the field", gambling, and binge drinking being the major focus for the audience which is, therefore, diminishing the importance of the sporting aspect of the competition. Despite today's blaze of irrefutable shallowness around the event, the predominant Art Deco fashion is, factually, nice to look at, reviving some forgotten flavors typical of the 20s with its old-fashioned atmosphere worthy of the Great Gatsby. Eccentric hats or feather headbands if you like, floral dresses, small beaded purses, long pearl necklaces, and Mary Jane heels draw as much attention as the race itself and there is even a prize awarded for the best-dressed man and woman. In the background then, flowers play a fundamental role in the grand kermesse as hundreds of different varieties (roses amongst all) sprout from all over the racecourse, just as the intense fragrance unleashed in the air enchants the audience with its harmony and freshness. But all that glitters is not gold and, in recent years, more and more people are standing against the kitschy logic of this event as, in the public's eye, this has become just another way for people to vent their frustration and desire for escape everyday routine by finding relief in unhealthy pursuits like compulsive gambling and binge drinking.
To give an idea of how big this phenomenon has become, just think that the race day is officially public holiday since 1877 in the Melbourne metropolitan area, and in the rest of the nation, most people are usually given a break during the event which allows them to watch the race, imbibe alcohol, place bets or even participate in workplace cup sweeps.
The Melbourne Cup is undoubtedly not what it used to be back in the day, it adapts to the inexorable passage of time and holds a mirror to our modern world. Nevertheless, this whole thing can give us something to think about and, perhaps, this society we live in really is based only on froth, frivolity, and fashion. Aren't we losing touch with reality or shifting our focus to the wrong purposes? Shouldn't we have a more idiosyncratic attitude towards the ephemeral? And if so, are we still in time to take a turn for the better? Thus another question arises: as the spirit of the Melbourne Cup keeps evolving in our own image and likeness, what will become of it in the future? We shall all meditate people, it's time now!