My Melbourne Cup Story
Every Australian wants a Melbourne Cup story. If you are somehow Canadian, or at least uninitiated, the Melbourne Cup is an annual horse race run over 2 miles, or 3200 metres. They call it the ‘race that stops a nation’ and it is something that must be experienced to be believed. Not necessarily on the green slopes of the Flemington race course, Melbourne, where this tradition takes place – that is but for the select, heaving few. In Australian life, on the first Tuesday of November, something is very different. An iron curtain falls over the country – no news comes in or out because nothing else really matters. The air becomes thin – people wander, light-headed on the streets at lunchtime, searching for meaning, and a hot tip. Like any shift in reality, there are those that pretend nothing has changed – that nothing important is going on. But by 4pm, even the detractors know the name of the winner. By 4pm, a new trivia question has been born. More the $175 million is gambled on the Melbourne Cup. This is not just sheikhs and media barons – this is the imagination of a culture.
Rightly or wrongly, for 5 minutes a nation holds its breath.And they’re off…
The morning of the first Tuesday of the November of 2004 was not an especially bright time for me. I was wading through the fifth year of a four year software engineering degree – stretching it out in an attempt to have it paid for – working four days out of five for a large company. I was not exactly a model worker. My designated university days were typically anything but, and I managed to wing my way through an education courtesy of quick talking and a quicker Internet connection. But on this particular day I was staring failure in the face and was to be tied to a circuit board for the day.
This may be a galloping surprise, considering the questionable nature of this writing, but I hate cliches. Every time a nerd with a chip on their shoulder has a Red Bull for breakfast, a small part of me dies. So when I walked into that Electronics Lab on the first Tuesday of the November of 2004, my heart broke a little. It was 9am and already there was a queue for the benches. I surveyed the room – looked into the caffeine ridden, twitching eyes of my peers and wondered if they knew what day it was. I realised that at 3:20pm these boys would still be here and – more importantly – they wouldn’t care. These were the uncommon few – the Melbourne Cup Deniers. I fled – the image of that room burned into my soul – and drove from the campus as quickly as a 1.6 litre Ford Laser could travel, which is still comfortably within the speed limit. I knew what I must do.
The first stop was a newsagent where I picked up Best Bets and some flowers. My girlfriend was manning the reception desk of an empty orthodontic clinic – in order to deal with any sort of rubber band emergencies involving Melbourne Cup deniers, Canadians or perhaps chocolate fuelled software engineers. Recently, she had commented that I rarely displayed spontaneous acts of affection. I was about to be as spontaneous as a closed circuit camera monitored office allowed. Presenting her with the flowers, I gripped her shoulders and laid it all on the line.
“I’ve just failed Uni, so I’m going to the pub. I’m taking what little money I have and I’m going to get shit-faced and gamble like a maniac and watch the Cup. I’ll see you tonight.” My car safely stowed, I trekked with purpose to the local club.
Gambling is a lot like alcohol or military coups. They all cost lives, and instinctively we should be hesitant about introducing them into a society. Done properly, however, and by putting on the line only what you are willing to lose (twenty bucks here or there, your self-respect, or your current head-of-state), they can all be a lot of fun. Personally, I made a disastrous, future-bearing mistake when I first gambled, as a young man – I won.
The wrongs and problems of gambling are obvious and impossible to argue against. In an ideal world, it would be the realm solely of idiots with a disposable income, where any losses are deserved and affect only one person. I hope I fall into this category – the mug punter. Me, my family, my friends and countless others. In an ideal world… well, we all know the end of that sentence.
By 3pm on the first Tuesday of the November of 2004, I was wearing a tuxedo t-shirt (formal, yet says ‘I’m ready to party’) and was – in gambling parlance – close to $500 in the hole. In the big race, I had pinned my hopes on a 200 to 1 outsider named Zazzman in an each-way bet. As they rounded the final, sodden turn at a miserable Royal Flemington, Zazzman was in front by three lengths and the only person who seemed impressed with this was me. But two miles can sort the men from the boys, and it became clear that Zazzman was currently the Mayor of Struggle City. And here came the Diva…
Between 2003 and 2005, a horse named Makybe Diva won three consecutive Melbourne Cups – the first horse ever to do so. It was an incredible feat and an amazing story – the horse seemed to know where the winning post was, and knew how to win. She chalked up her second in the mud of 2004, in front of her Melbourne Cup nemesis Vinnie Roe, and a thoroughly spent Zazzman.
As the commotion died down and the pundits began the inevitable post-Cup analysis, the familiar feeling of disappointment and guilt began to kick in. I had lost, and lost too much. I glanced up at a screen, blinked and turned to my brother Daniel, who had been with me throughout the day.
“I think I have the Melbourne Cup trifecta.” I said quietly.
I removed a ticket from my back pocket. In truth, I probably removed five, but flicked through them until I found the right one. And there it was. An after-thought bet, which had netted me close to three thousand dollars. Dan rang Kenny. “Dad,” he said. “Remember how you always say you’d like to speak to someone who has picked a Melbourne Cup trifecta?”
And he handed the phone to me.
Though the club was full well before the big race started, a new crowd began to gather. School teachers (notorious mug punters) began to filter in to check their tickets and try to reclaim their losses, or ride the vibe into the last race. The story was already starting to get better. Pitty – a recent, sober arrival – drove me to a nearby T.A.B. to collect my winnings “in a safe location”. Three grand – it was like I was carrying nuclear launch codes. T.A.B. offices late on the afternoon of the first Tuesday of November are an incredible sight. Completely empty – bar the shaken, gaunt staff – it resembles a 1980’s stock exchange floor, moments after closing. I waded through discarded tickets, stepping on the odd broken dream as I walked to the counter. The ticket scanner beeped approvingly. A slight glance up from the clerk was met with a wink as I lent cockily on the counter.
Though the staff were drawn and tired, there was plenty of cash to cover the bet. Nobody would lose any sleep over me and the Zazzman.
We drove from the T.A.B. to my flat where the winnings were stashed safely under my mattress, and then back to the club. Some family and friends had arrived – pulled from Melbourne Cup parties on the promise of free drinks. My girlfriend turned up – still happy with her flowers but perhaps with her eyes now on a bigger prize. The crowd began to move into the restaurant for some Zazzman-sponsored Chinese food when it happened…
I ran out of money. Down my daily bank limit before the race, and with my winnings secure in a few pairs of socks back home, I found myself suddenly skint.
It’s a unique moment – to borrow money from a friend an hour after a big win. The look on their face is superb. I’m good for it, I promised.
The money paid for a two-week trip to America. A couple of months later, I received my grades for that University semester. I passed with a mark of 53. Fell over the line… just like the Zazzman.