Horseplay in Melbourne

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MEI's Rachael Church–Sanders goes behind the scenes at the 2009 Melbourne Cup.

Before being invited to attend the 2009 Melbourne Cup, I must confess that my experience of horseracing had only ever included a few regular race meetings at the likes of Epsom, Sandown and Bath in the UK, plus an annual flutter on the Aintree Grand National. I nearly bought part of a racehorse in 2006 (its leg if I recall correctly), but it was toss up between that and a trip to South Africa, so I chose the latter. Which was fortunate because a subsequent injury to the poor horse meant it never made it to the turf and ended up costing a fortune in veterinary bills for those who haplessly invested. But I digress. The Melbourne Cup, although a standalone event, is actually part of the Australian state of Victoria's Spring Racing Carnival, and is one of Melbourne's crown jewel annual events that include the Australian Open in tennis, the Australian Grand Prix, Boxing Day international cricket and the Australian Rules Grand Final. It is often described as the race that halts the nation, and one that unites all levels of Australian society. As one devotee puts it: "In Australia, on the first Tuesday of every November since 1861, the mass mind focuses on The Melbourne Cup: the race that sees 20m of us down tools and bet on horses whose pedigrees could be as mysterious as a random wildebeest. "In the UK, the Grand National certainly slows things up for an hour or so, but once the race is over, betting slips are torn up or cashed in usually without too much fanfare (or perhaps that's just my slips). Royal Ascot meanwhile is still largely considered a 'nice–to–attend' rather than 'must attend' event, usually the preserve of the rich and the famous. Neither the Grand National or Royal Ascot are official public holidays as is the case with the Melbourne Cup for Victorians. Between 1 October and 19 November each year, 79 race meetings take place across Victoria. Country racing makes up more than 20 of these races in places such as Dunkeld and Avoca. In Melbourne itself, racing runs until 7 November and includes the Caulfield Cup, the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley and–part of the Melbourne Cup Carnival at Flemington–Derby Day, Cup Day, Oaks Day and Stakes Day. For Derby Day, (which features black and white dress for the women and practically compulsory headwear–hats or fascinators), I was in the highly hospitable International Lounge as a guest of the lovely Victoria Major Events Company, marvelling how Australian women in the thronging crowds of over 100, 000 below were able to totter around for hours in near 40 degree heat without losing their high heels or hats. (Fast forward several hours however and this was not necessarily still the case!)For Cup Day itself (which was another chance to dress up with all Derby Day winnings cancelled out by the need to purchase more headwear–one couldn't wear the Derby Day hat again after all), I found myself in the salubrious 'Birdcage' as a guest of the Herald & Weekly Times, hanging with Australia (and beyond's) media alumni and various celebrities. At one point Boyzone's Ronan Keating was apparently standing next to me but of course I was unable to wear normal glasses that day so didn't see him. As is de rigueur, my sunglasses covered most of my face and only came off when it was time for me to squint at the actual races. So, what exactly is The Birdcage, you may ask? "It's the most sought–after spot at Flemington, " said one Melbourne Cup regular. "It's accessible to a limited number of people: guests of race sponsors and Victoria Racing Club [VRC] Full Members. There are rows of marquees, all elaborately decorated, built and designed with no expense spared. " The Emirates Marquee was one of the most lavish at the 2009 event–decorated in a Bollywood theme complete with henna tattoo artists as a nod to its Indian airline destinations–although I did also spot a fine–looking fully–functional waterfall in a rival marquee. As another attendee said: "Entering the rarefied world that is Flemington's Birdcage is like turning left at the pointy end of the plane. The air is different. The champagne comes in flutes and the food comes on china plates. The only plastic is from the credit cards at the tote. "Despite the kind of overt sumptuousness that reminded me of corporate entertainment on a level with the NFL's SuperBowl in the US, marquee numbers in the exclusive Birdcage were in fact slightly down in 2009 on 2008 (which itself suffered lower numbers than in 2007), whilst corporate marquee numbers overall were also lower, showing that the economic downturn takes no prisoners. There were 53 marquees in the Birdcage in 2007 – its peak year to date. Recession aside however, during the four days of the 2008 Carnival (as 2009 consumption figures were not yet available at the time of writing), race attendees still managed to trough their way through: * 3 tons of chicken* 2 tons of eye fillet steak* 2 tons of lamb* 1 ton of salmon* 8, 400 oysters* 25, 000 scones* 310, 000 bottles of beer and* 95, 000 bottles of champagne Highlighting the scale of the Carnival, on each raceday in 2009, according to Tracey Tau, executive assistant at the VRC (who kindly showed me around the Flemington Course and Members' Areas on Derby Day), the VRC engaged 1, 023 event staff who performed the following raceday functions: * Turnstile attendants* Car Park attendants* Members' area attendants* Information personnel* Restaurant and Marquee hosts* Starting stall attendants* Cash facility handlers Together with 58 full time staff (employed on contracts of up to five months), the VRC also engaged personnel to boost normal staff levels in the following areas:* Administration* Event Operations & Management* Media Liaison* Promotions And in addition to 150 members of Victoria Police on duty, some 1, 150 security personnel were engaged in the roles of General Guards, Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) officers; Liquor Licensing Compliance and Horse Protection. Peter Rowland Catering engaged in excess of 2, 000 additional catering staff who acted in the following capacities:* Chefs* Kitchen Hands* Dish washers* Maitre D* Waiters* Bar staff* Baristas Other VRC Contractors included approximately:490 – Cleaning staff600 – Tote Operators80 – Bookmakers (operating 120 stands) Then of course there were the many contractors who worked on the build of all the temporary facilities prior to the event that covered the following skills: • Electricians• Carpenters• Cabinet makers• Painters• Carpet Layers• Landscape Gardeners• Interior designers• Florists• Scaffolding• Waste management• Glass recycling• . . . and the list goes on an on. Phew!Small fry it certainly isn't, but what does the Melbourne Cup actually mean to Melbourne and Victoria, apart from the nice, juicy economic impact of A$700m? Who better to ask than Melbourne's Lord Mayor, The Right Honourable, Robert Doyle, whose great–great–grandfather was Lord Mayor at the time of the first Melbourne Cup in 1861. "There are several sounds that characterise Melbourne and one of the most compelling is the roar of the crowd at the moment when 24 gates clang open at the start of the Melbourne Cup race. The event will be 150 years old next year and we are planning on marking the milestone in many special ways, " Doyle explained. The Minister for Tourism and Major Events, The Hon Tim Holding MP, added: "The Melbourne Cup is an unbelievable event for Melbourne in terms of economic impact. The fact that everyone is dressed to the hilt and has bought something to wear at the event is a plus. And the amazing thing is that other tracks around the country host Melbourne Cup events too on Cup Day, which attracts even more attention to the city of Melbourne. "The fact that the Melbourne Cup is an event celebrated by all was highlighted by a Melbournian parking attendant I met a few days before the Cup. He said he was looking forward to the event–which he was celebrating at home – with gusto: "It's a chance for all my friends to come over, crack open a few bottles of beer and light up the barbie. It's one of the social highlights of my year. And a great opportunity to place a wager or three. "The last word goes to Brendan McClements, chief executive of Victorian Major Events Company: "The Melbourne Cup is perhaps not just Victoria's but Australia's most important culturally, social, and sports event. I would hope that everyone at some time in their life has the opportunity to experience the Melbourne Cup carnival just once in their life. In 1895, American author Mark Twain said of the Melbourne Cup: 'Nowhere in the world have I encountered a festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation. The Cup astonishes me. ' It has only got better since then. " Hear Hear!

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