Tue 1 Nov 2005
There are very few events in any given country that will literally stop the nation. In order for a country to come to a stand-still (barring a catastrophe), a certain shared history and culture must be coalescing in a single moment that most of the population can find some way to relate to it and participate within it. Back home the only thing I can think of would be a gold medal hockey game. But even that I don’t think compares to what happened yesterday here in Australia.
I had not heard of the Melbourne Cup until last week when some traveling friends of mine from Canada announced that they would be leaving Sydney early in order to go to “the Cup” in Melbourne. I had no idea what they were talking about, but when I mentioned it to that Aussie I live with, she got a bit excited. I quickly learned that the Melbourne Cup is quite a big deal here. To say the least. And what is it?
A horse race. It lasts all of a minute. And you cannot escape it.
The television coverage started sometime early last week. News updates, news articles, sports updates, weather…you name it, somehow it was related to the Melbourne Cup. Bombs in India took a backseat to the health of the favourite, Makybe Diva. When the track at Flemington (where the race took place) was watered, it made the news. I was shocked. Not so much that a sporting event was such a big deal here (it must be said that Australia is one sporty nation), but that I had never even heard of the Melbourne Cup before. And I consider myself to be a fairly with it person when it comes to world events and sports. Hell, I even grew up in an equestrian family and my father is an agricultural vet who works with animals being transported abroad! Yet this massive event had escaped me until yesterday.
I watched the race yesterday from the staff room of a school where teachers had gathered to watch, gamble, and drink champagne. At 3pm! The final bell had just gone! And I am sure this happened in schools, offices, hospitals, fire halls, and shops all around Australia. Before making it to the school, a friend and I stopped off at a TAB. TABs are little places you can place bets on horse races, and I presume, other events. An hour before the race this place was packed. I didn’t place a bet as all the coloured numbers, flickering televisions, and frantic punters intimidated me. Plus I had little cash on me.
In Canada, gambling is not very common. People buy their lottery tickets, maybe play SportsAction, or test their luck with Keno at the bar. Most Canadians would have no idea how to gamble like the average Australian can. On the 6 O’Clock news the night before the race the anchor was spewing out numbers and odds (“Makybe Diva paying three sixty, Leica Falcon at blah blah blah”) and I gather a good number of Austrlians knew what this meant. She may as well have been speaking in tongues to me.
In addition to the race itself, the parties that surround it are just as important it seems. Traditionally women dress up in fancy dresses and hats, some of which are ridiculously large. The fashion portion of the Melbourne Cup continues tomorrow with Oakes Day. I don’t even know what that is yet. I think some sort of fashion show. Then, I think, the Melbourne Cup will be over for another year and I will begin waiting for the next cultural suprise this country has waiting for me around the corner.
The Melbourne Cup: The Kentucky Derby of horse races
In unrelated news, Amanda was attacked by a cockroach last night while we watched a movie. Much poison gassing ensued. A peace treaty may be required.