The late Australian historian Ken Inglis once wrote that “by studying a people’s ceremonies of leisure, one may get closer to understanding them”.
Many have tried to make sense of the ongoing fervour for the Melbourne Cup, not least among them Mark Twain, whose famous lines about the Cup are oft-trotted out for the occasion, especially his description of Melbourne as the “mitred Metropolitan of the Horse-Racing Cult”.
But Melbourne has always been an insecure city that adores its flatterers.
It’s why we tend to forget those like the German Jewish socialist writer Egon Kisch, who described 1930s Melbourne as a place besotted with gambling; one that would happily evict workers and war invalids from their homes, but which would baulk at collecting the peppercorn rent from those occupying the Flemington Racecourse.
It’s easy to get cynical about the Melbourne Cup, not least because the race has become another victim to conformist and clichéd marketing spin. Even if it’s true that it’s the “race that stops a nation” – and apparently, also New Zealand – it doesn’t make the cliché any less hackneyed.
The media and those who love horse racing have to try and convince us to care about oil baron and casino magnate thoroughbred owners, the trainers and jockeys thrust by necessity into the limelight, as well as whichever hopeless overseas celebrity has been brought out for the occasion by the host broadcaster.
Paradoxically for a city that thrusts its self-conscious cosmopolitanism at whoever’s within listening range, our media also try and make us feel small by constant references to foreign raiders as if the horses are aware of their roles as hoofed representatives of distinct nation-states.
But how much do any of us know about horses, let alone have anything to do with them? Once upon a time in Melbourne, as in most cities, even if you didn’t own one, horses were a part of everyday life.
They were an indispensable part of transport, agriculture and trade. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how horse racing could hold an identifiable attraction, even for those who could not afford to own a luxury item in the form of a racehorse.
But all that seems a very long time ago now. Nowadays how many Cup winners could you name? Archer, because he was first and thus a good get at a trivia night. Makybe Diva, for her rarest of feats. Carbine, maybe, or some horse who won you a sweep years ago?
Oh, and of course Phar Lap, the tragic Depression hero, whose taxidermied hide every schoolchild in Melbourne gets to see as part of an excursion to the museum.
Despite this cultural distance, along with the cruelty required to make horse racing function, as a society, we’re still enamoured with the day.
Perhaps despite our day-to-day lives expended in crusades against sports gambling, binge drinking and environmental destruction, there remains a culturally genetic reminder of our decrepit origins as a convict colony, as we throw off the shackles of our respectability and revel in a bacchanal befitting not a sophisticated metropolis, but rather that of an overgrown country town.
Young men and women use the day as a rite of passage, dressing up in their best for an “event” for perhaps the first time in their lives, a prelude to their first public spew after a long day’s drinking.
It’s the day where everyone, including primary school children, are put into a cup sweep, embedding the gambling gene in our young ones in a manner a shonky bank executive would be proud of.
And even if our gambling habits have changed over the years – SP bookies, old winos in a suburban TAB, and the form guide as a necessary part of any daily paper slowly giving way to gambling apps and pokies – our hard-earned still ends up in more or less the same hands.
If the horses are the only actors on Melbourne Cup day who emerge with any dignity from their exertions, the day maintains its relevance to Melbourne in other, more subtle ways.
Everyone’s glad for the day off, with the preceding Monday becoming a half-day, or even part of a four-day long weekend, a silent and accidental act of resistance against Jeff Kennett taking away the Easter Tuesday holiday in 1994.
The public holiday for a horse race bewilders even the locals, most of whom aren’t aware that its origins lie in an attempt by 19th-century racing barons to attach their big event to a bank holiday for the Prince of Wales’ birthday.
For me, the cup marks the turning point in the flat spot between the end of winter and the football season, and the beginning of summer, school holidays, Christmas and cricket, themselves tedious activities filling in the gap until the next football season, the secular religion whose importance Melburnians need much less convincing of.