Melbourne Cup

by | Nov 1, 2011 | What's Happening

The 2011 photo-finish we witnessed (above) and legendary Phar Lap winning in 1930 (right).

Coinciding with a conference Hayley had to attend in Melbourne, we grabbed the chance to watch the Melbourne Cup live. The Melbourne Cup is one of the great Thoroughbred horse races of the world and it makes the entire Australian continent stand still to follow on TV and radio. Bets fly high in boots around both Australia and New Zealand and in every work place around the continent. Some of Hayley’s colleagues happen to be heavily involved in the racing scene down under so we had secured the best possible tickets for the event. It’s an all day event, with several races leading up to the big one, and we were seated mid morning in the Panorama restaurant, also having our own personal seats outside – just above the finish line.

I gladly admit that I’m more of a dog man than a horse man but I thoroughly enjoy racing. We also have an excellent race course at Ruakaka, near where we live in New Zealand, with the most stunning views out towards the diving and fishing grounds of the greater Bream Bay and Hen and Chickens Islands.

I had my first experience of Melbourne Cup when I travelled around Australia in 1990. I met a woman who worked at the state of Victoria’s largest sheep farm and she invited me to spend a week on the farm. The farm is located outside Geelong, a couple of hours away from Melbourne. I went there to learn a bit about sheep farming on a massive scale and the running of their sheep dogs. It happened to be when the Melbourne Cup was on and the entire farm stood still while the race was followed via TV, radio and the shepherds walkie-talkies. Everyone having put bets on their horse of choice. The winner back in 1990 was an American horse called Kingston Rule. He still holds the time record of 3 min. 16.3 sec and he is the only Melbourne Cup winner currently at stud in Australia.

Since 1998 I have watched every race in front of the TV screens in New Zealand. My late friends Leon & Joy Mortensen weren’t only great gundog people, they also bred horses from lines created by Leon’s father. Leon’s best known horse bred on his Wingfield farm was Andretti, who had some excellent wins in New Zealand before being exported to Australia. New Zealand horses have been very successful in the Melbourne Cup over the years, most of them coming from the world class stables in Waikato and Cambridge in particular.

The most famous Australasian horse in history was a New Zealand bred horse called Phar Lap, who won the Melbourne Cup in 1930. He was sired by Night Raid who also was the sire of the 1929 Melbourne Cup winner Nightmarch. Foaled in Timaru in the South Island Phar Lap was raised and trained in Australia. In 1932 Phar Lap was shipped to America and immediately entered in the Agua Caliente Handicap near Tijuana, Mexico – which offered the biggest prize winning money in North America. Phar Lap won the race in a new time record. Unfortunately that was to be his last race as he died under suspicious circumstances shortly after. Speculations had it that the horse had been poisoned, possibly by American gangsters.

Phar Lap’s skeleton is displayed at Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand. His heart is in the National Museum in Canberra, Australia and his mounted hide is on display in Melbourne Museum. Of course we had to check out the mounted Phar Lap when we also happened to go to the Melbourne Museum to see the Tutankhamun exhibition.

The 151st Melbourne Cup, these days called the Emirates Melbourne Cup, set off at the Flemington Racecourse at 3pm on Tuesday 1 November 2011. The grounds hold some 110 000 spectators with an atmosphere unique to anything I’ve experienced before. It’s definitely one of Australia’s booziest event. Reportedly women are more likely to get “legless” at the Melbourne Cup than at any other sporting event. The Melbourne Cup is also one big fashion parade and opportunity to dress up, and it’s supposed to be all colours. Other race days dress up in black & white but in the Melbourne Cup you’re expected to go hard with colours, hats and fascinators. The Melbourne Cup was indeed the place where the miniskirt first came into prominence, at the 1965 Cup. This is “The Race That Stops A Nation” on the first Tuesday of November since 1861. The race is over 3200 meters for qualified horses aged over 3 years old. This year it was won by the French horse Dunaden, owned by a young Qatari royal sheikh. It was the closest race in living memory, decided by photo-finish, putting Dunaden ahead of the English horse Red Cadeaux.

As for my winnings on the day… I pretty much ended up in balance so then all was good..

Dunaden (yellow jockey) wins that very close 2011 race.

Phar Lap on display in the Melbourne Museum