The race that stops a nation

by Julia Robinson

The Spring Racing Carnival is upon us again. It’s the time of the year when we dust off the fascinator, order the chicken and champagne lunch, and get out the form guide. The roses are blooming at Flemington, the TAB has been urging the punters amongst us to place our bets ahead of Cup Day to avoid the queues, and most of us will be taking part in the office sweep for the race that stops a nation.

Americain, winner of the 2010 Melbourne Cup. Image source: Geelong Advertiser

Even Parliament is prone to Cup fever. In question time last week Greg Combet, Minister for Climate Change (who allegedly picked the quinella in the Cox Plate), saddled up. ‘I want to reassure racing fans that there is no cause for alarm… carbon pricing will not stop the Victoria Derby on Saturday and it will not stop the Melbourne Cup’, he said.  He referred to the Opposition Leader’s anti-carbon tax campaign as the biggest shakedown since the Fine Cotton affair: ‘The ring-in that day was called Bold Personality and that is all we’ve had from the Opposition Leader’. He was out of the barrier and racing, leaving various members of the Opposition standing.

On Malcolm Turnbull: ‘a classy thoroughbred if ever there’s been one… badly checked by [Mr Abbott] in the 2009 race’.

On Joe Hockey: ‘hungry for a win, but he has demonstrated yet again today that he is not up to group one racing level’.

On Scott Morrison: ‘a promising weight-for-ager, but spooked by foreign horses every time’.

On Bronwen Bishop: ‘a favourite in 1994 and what a stayer’.

On Julie Bishop: ‘three times runner up, surely a chance this time’.

Greg Combet delivering his form guide on the Opposition. Image source: Alex Ellinghausen / Canberra Times

Members on the Government benches kicked up their hooves. Melbourne’s Herald Sun subsequently commented that Minister Combet himself was considered a roughie to take over the Labor leadership. See the glossary below for an explanation of the words in bold above.

chicken and champagne lunch – whether you and your colleagues watch the race in the office with the TV perched on a filing cabinet, or you go out to watch it on the big screen in a pub, club, or restaurant, the traditional fare for Cup Day is a chicken and champagne lunch. A longer and more ruinous affair in recent times since the Cup has been run later, at 3pm. The notion of chicken as a celebratory food hails from the time when chicken was still an expensive meat. First recorded in the context of the Melbourne Cup in 1960.

Cox Plate – part of the Spring Racing Carnival, the Cox Plate is a Weight-for-Age race over 2,040 metres for horses three years old and over. It is held in October at the Moonee Valley Racecourse, Melbourne, and carries a purse of three million dollars. It is named after William Cox, founder of the Moonee Valley Racing Club. First held in 1922.

Cup Day – the first Tuesday in November, the day the Melbourne Cup is run at Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne. First recorded 1862.

fascinator – more than a feather, less than a hat. Not an Australianism, but popularised by the Australian TV comedy Kath and Kim (in a 2004 episode in which Kath and Kim go to the Melbourne Cup). Originally a US term from the late nineteenth century, meaning ‘a shawl worn on the head by a woman’. First recorded 1878.

Fine Cotton affair – the most famous racing scam in recent Australian history. In 1984 Bold Personality was substituted for a poorer performer, Fine Cotton, in a 1500-metre race at Eagle Farm in Brisbane. The substitution was discovered after suspicions were raised by a late betting plunge on ‘Fine Cotton’; as well, it was noticed after the race that the markings on the horse’s legs (applied with white paint) were beginning to run. Two people were sent to jail, and a number of people were banned from racecourses for life in the wake of the scam.

ring-in – in horse racing, ‘to substitute fraudulently (a horse) for another entered in a race’. First recorded 1898.

roughie ­– 1. ‘a horse who is a rank outsider’; 2. ‘a horse who is an outsider with some chance of winning’. First recorded 1910.

TAB – ‘Totalisator Agency Board’, the name of the government agency which controls off-course betting. First recorded 1961.

the race that stops a nation – the Melbourne Cup. It is a 3,200 metre handicap race for horses three years old and over. Held since 1861, it is the most famous horse race in Australia with total prize money of more than six million dollars. Traditionally most Australians stop work to watch the Cup, although only in Melbourne is Cup Day a public holiday. Most workplaces run an office sweep, and for many people it is the only day of the year on which they gamble on a horse. First recorded 1981.

weight-for-ager – a horse running in a Weight for Age race, such as the Cox Plate. Each horse is ranked on the Weight for Age Scale (developed in England in the 1860s), which determines what weight a horse must carry for the race. The scale takes into account such things as age, sex, and race distance, and broadly speaking means that younger, less physically mature horses do not race at a disadvantage. ‘Weight for Age’ is not an Australian term, but it is possible that weight-for-ager is used chiefly in Australia, and recorded earliest here. First recorded 1872.