Ed#444 Racing Back in Time

25 October 2013 Alan Attwood

Ed#444 Racing Back in Time

One of the strange things about working as a journalist is reporting on subjects that you really don’t know a lot about. I have never cared much for horseracing, for example, and would never present myself as any kind of expert. Yet I attended, and wrote about, many Melbourne Cups. I can’t even recall exactly how many: the first would have been in the early 1980s; the last, more than 20 years later. My general ignorance of form and fancies was not a crippling handicap: the Cup itself is a race that purists deride; Cup Day is an event, a social occasion, invested with a great deal of history (all the way back to 1861). The weather is part of it, even more important than hats: I attended hot Cups, cold Cups, windy Cups, dry and dusty Cups, soggy and squelchy Cups. In Melbourne, of course, it can be hot and then cold, dry and wet, on the same day.

It used to intrigue me how many people would take the trouble to go to Flemington Racecourse and then show little interest in the horses. They were there for the sense of occasion, for the fashions and/or refreshments. But my favourite part of the course was always the stables, where it was possible to wander around and get quite close to Cup runners (and also those in other events) before and after the races. You could spot lovely quiet scenes starring a horse and its strapper, alone in a stall; these were islands of calm in a crowded, noisy place. Of the races themselves I recall little, mainly because I could never see much. If you really want an uninterrupted view of any big sporting event, stay home and watch TV. On site, there are invariably things getting in the way or sun in your eyes. But I do remember being stuck in a vast crowd alongside the home straight in 2005, when the mighty mare Makybe Diva won an unprecedented third successive Cup. I saw very little, but what I sensed and heard was an almighty buzz and then a massed cry: “Here she comes!” Later, we all realised we had seen (or just heard) the great horse for the last time: she was retired after that race.

The Cup, which comes after the Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate, is the high point of the Spring Racing Carnival – a Melbourne happening with national interest. If Federal Parliament is sitting, business is juggled so the race call can be heard. Now, with another carnival underway, we have a horse on a Big Issue cover for the first time. What a horse, too – Phar Lap, right up there with ‘The Don’ (Bradman) and ‘Dawnie’ (Fraser) in the pantheon of Australian sporting icons. As a child, I remember gazing at his stuffed bulk within a glass case in the old Victorian Museum. But Big Red’s heft doesn’t explain his success; much of that should be credited to his remarkably large heart. So says Kevin Summers, who wrote our cover story. I should stress that Kevin, unlike myself, is a racing devotee. He comes from a racing family and has spent many, many hours trackside at different courses. To borrow some terms from our last edition, which had a cooking theme, this latest cover story has a handful of history, a generous sprinkling of tall tales, and has been steeped in a rich sauce of celebrities and spring sunshine.

The Cup, of course, is a huge day for betting in Australia – something we should acknowledge, given that gambling is a problem for many of our own vendors. It has caused difficulties they are trying to address by selling The Big Issue. Go ahead – have a ‘flutter’ on the Cup. But, like Makybe Diva’s connections, you need to know when to stop.

Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue