Australia shuts down for a horse race

The Melbourne Cup

Last year, when we were at a critical juncture in our visa application process, the person in talent (my company’s term for HR) told me, “unfortunately if you need anything tomorrow, the company will be closed because of The Melbourne Cup.”  I asked the most natural question, “What’s the Melbourne Cup?”, and she told me, “It’s a horse race.”  Even after reading about it, it didn’t make sense to me.   And even after experiencing the day of the event in Australia, I think it’s one of the hardest things for an American to understand.

First and foremost, this event is simply tradition, and people don’t really have to work, despite actually going to work.  In Melbourne, it’s actually a holiday.  In most other parts of Australia, apparently people still go to work but don’t really do anything after lunch except eat, drink, and watch the race.  So, I guess for the average worker, a day where you show up to work but basically get to goof around in the afternoon isn’t such a bad thing.  And it’s the tradition that seems to fuel the event – no one can explain why the day is actually this important – it just always has been.

Of course, to a “Yank”, the idea of paying any attention to a horse race, unless you live in Kentucky, North Carolina, or have a serious gambling problem, just doesn’t make any sense to begin with – but racing is actually a big deal here in Australia.   In our first couple of months here, Lisa and I were riding a bus back from the beach, and near one of the racing grounds, bunches of couples dressed in their finest boarded the bus, heading home after being at the track.  Several of our friends here talked about how cool it would be to go to the actual races, which ranks slightly below watching the Occupy Sydney people sit around and protest greed by demonstrating sloth.

In Style

My Melbourne Cup day was actually excellent, largely because my company makes it awesome.  For starters, our general company dress code is a t-shirt, and depending on the weather, jeans or shorts (an hopefully not not jeans shorts, since the Aussies, like myself, are a pale lot).  On Melbourne Cup day, this batch of super bright engineers, some of whom are still working on eye contact, show up at work with a suit, and many with a full windsor.  The ladies (many of whom are also killer developers) are sporting dresses and fascinators (fancy hats – yeah, when I first heard that the women would be wearing fascinators, I pictured what would fascinate me, and it wasn’t a hat).

We took a ferry from work around the harbour, and the weather cooperated nicely.  We ate lunch and watched the races from a dining hall ideally suited for a wedding reception – glass walls on all sides with views of the harbour bridge.  Each person was given a 50 cent tri-fecta racing ticket, and two of the guys had organized “sweeps”, essentially where you put in a couple dollars to get assigned a random horse, and if you win you get a share of the total pot (closest Yank equivalent is buying squares during the Super Bowl).

A lot of the guys visited a TAB to place a bet.  The TAB is essentially a government-controlled-but-now-privatizedmonopoly of where you can place bets – which by the way, no one I talked to could tell me what TAB stands for, which turns out to be the best thing about a TAB.

Our event started at 11 AM, we returned back to the Sydney CBD at 5, and then an after party and after dinner lasted late in to the night (I bailed on the last two to meet Lisa for dinner, and I was already starting to feel sick – thanks to sick co-workers coming to work just to partake in the Melbourne Cup!).   So I tip my hat (though I didn’t wear one, I just accessorized with a favorite pocket watch and my fake glasses.

The Finish

 The race itself and this year’s finish was incredible – the race is a long race (3200 meters, or 2 miles for my mates in the states), so having a photo finish and even some doubts if the actual winner was the winner, made for a great race.  Since I love sports, put any two or more things against each other to cross some line first and I’ll watch.

Despite the 10 other races that day, but no one watched  a single minute of the other races.  Tragedy, I say.  And that during the main race, given how loud it was, you couldn’t actually tell which horse was which, except by the readout of which horses were in the top four, which was constantly changing in the last 200-300 meters.  It felt like we had taken a day off to watch the Olympics and only paid attention during the 200 meters.


Melbourne Cup?  It’s horse-tastic.  Or horse-tascinating.

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