Not just a once-a-year party
My spring carnival commenced in August on Lawrence Stakes day at Caulfield. The racecourse was an important recruitment centre during World War II. For two decades, the Melbourne Racing Club and Legacy ‘Back to Caulfield’ commemorations have focused on an aspect of Australia’s Defence Force history; this year the centenary of the battles on the Western Front. It revived childhood memories of the Anzac Day races at Rosedale where my grandfather and father were officials of the race club over four decades. Fascinated by race calling, I aspired to emulate the great broadcasters of the era, Bert Bryant, Bill Collins and Joe Brown. I first called a race as a 15 year old, and spent a decade commentating on horses, cars, speedboats, cycling and athletics.
For many years I have recorded a phantom call of the Melbourne Cup for use in charity and fundraising events. Once the barrier draw has been conducted, I produce a speedmap so I have the horses in the order that could be expected in the actual race. This year, the Australian Hotels Association invited me to deliver a live call at their pre-Cup luncheon. A phantom call is more difficult than an actual race, as I have to remember the horses’ names, imagine the unfolding contest, and then describe it. An actual call involves learning the colours and describing the race as it progresses.
Foresight by racing clubs and state governments has resulted in significant investment in a sport that employs thousands of people and attracts millions to the Victorian economy. It is in stark contrast to states where governments have neglected racing, and even been hostile to some codes. Twenty-five years ago, racing in Victoria was losing its attraction. You could fire a cannon through the grandstand at many meetings. A business syndicate proposed establishing a series of racetracks in Australia with minimal public facilities. The races would be beamed into the lucrative Asian betting market. The idea was rejected, but racing has become the victim of its own success. Even new tracks like the state-of-the-art course at Pakenham attract few spectators to most meetings. Betting supports the sport, but most punters prefer to gamble at the local tote. Today, they use their smartphone.There are exceptions. Two days before the Cup, Margie and I joined a few thousand people at the Kilmore races. Families were enjoying themselves with kids playing on the lawn. The picnic tracks still draw capacity crowds, the spring carnivals have grown bigger, and the country cups attract large numbers.
The decision to internationalise the spring carnival has been a boon to racing. While Bart Cummings would complain each year about the international raiders, his runners often defeated them. Sadly, most Australian horses are bred for speed over distances of less than a mile. Syndication has allowed many more people to part-own a horse, but it has compounded the bias towards short races and quick returns. As Melbourne Cup winning owner Lloyd Williams has shown, producing stayers requires a longer-term outlook. Only one Australian-bred horse started in this year’s Cup. Without the international entries, the Cup would be a second-rate event.
Speaking of Bart Cummings, it was wonderful to see his grandson, James, train the Derby winner, Prized Icon. Four generations of Cummings – commencing with Bart’s father, Jim, who prepared Comic Court for victory in 1948 – have trained a Derby winner. Surely this is a world record for a classic race. The dominant win of the carnival was Winx claiming her second WS Cox Plate. The runaway victory by 100-1 shot Lasqueti Spirit in the Oaks reminded me of my father’s advice: the only certainty on a racetrack is the uncertainty! Another highlight was Lloyd Williams’ fifth Melbourne Cup win with Kerrin McEvoy’s superb ride on Almandin. There was even a Michelle Payne connection after last year’s fairy-tale event as Kerrin is married to Michelle’s sister, Cathy. The sporting moment was Jose Moreira, the rider of Irish-owned, French runner-up, Heartbreak City, congratulating McEvoy after he had been pipped by a nose in the thrilling finish. And who could have imagined that the same German stallion would have sired three of the last four Melbourne Cup winners? Fiorente, Protectionist and Almandin were all sired by Monsun in little known Gestut Schlenderhan near Cologne.
Apart from the racing, the redevelopment plans for Moonee Valley and Flemington were major news. The facilities at the Valley have been looking tired for years. The plans include the redevelopment of the grandstand area for housing and new viewing facilities on the northern straight. The track will retain its amphitheatre effect, but some worry that the special character of racing will be lost. Victory at Moonee Valley often requires a horse to begin its run with 500 – 700 metres to gallop, balance around the tight home turn and accelerate again for the short 175 metre dash to the judge. The track has produced some memorable races including Kingston Town’s three Cox Plates and the great duel between Bonecrusher and Our Waverly Star. The new configuration will involve a much longer home straight. While we lack the novelty of Epsom, where the field races up and down hill and turns both right and left in the English Derby, or the multiple tracks at Ascot and Longchamps, Melbourne is fortunate to have four very different courses: the tight, rectangular Moonee Valley; the open spaces of Flemington; the triangular Caulfield with its climb to the back turn; and the cambered Sandown Park.
The other redevelopment involves replacing the old member’s stand at Flemington. Let’s hope the Club takes the opportunity to attract more visitors to Flemington other than for the races. A national racing museum at the course would be a good start. Racing is cyclical. Future success requires attracting new generations to the sport, not just to a once-a-year party.