Melbourne. November. Saturday. Today I’m off to the races. Scenes from television crime serials and Bugs Bunny cartoons fill my head. I’ve seen not even a micro-second of racing footage in 2013. And that’s fine with me. The whole frenzy of the Spring carnival mystifies me. It’s not part of me, nor I of it. Why? What is this horse racing? What is it? So many irrational decisions, it seems, made consistently, by so many people.
The day is a thousand shades of grey. Perfect conditions in which to read Henry Miller and wander around; drink some Guinness from a tin. On the streetcar downtown, I’m reacquainting myself with Sam Pickles; that brilliant loser character living beneath the shifty shadow of luck, alternately striding and slinking around the pages of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. On the tram, only one lady wears a hat. Another with fluffy earrings is on the phone: “The gallery opens at one… Alright. …I’ll just get a coffee…”
Southern Cross station. The bright young things are out in force. It’s 11:09am and the cleavage on platform 14 would be more understandable in a nightclub. Jerry Seinfeld’s solar eclipse analogy befitting the moment(s) again. Fake tans glowing orange. Fake flowers pinned jauntily to dyed hair. Men in suits, ties. Children wearing stylish headgear. I’m underdressed.
The races are multi-dimensional. The Sam Pickles folk, the Baron von Portsea folk, crikey even the Sheikh Mohammed folk. A veneer of the childhood dress-up games sprayed over the top, attempting to lend everything an air of… what? glamour? excitement? possibility? fiction? Whatever – it’s working. I’m away.
Flemington racecourse. A tapestry of marquees, shade structures. I’m underdressed. Packs of young men wearing ties drink beer from plastic cups. It’s 11:30am. Showery rain. Women of colour totter.
I’ve missed the first race. Sandy Roberts drones somewhere and I’m following a woman who looks like she’s off to her own wedding. I follow at a safe distance. She takes me into a sea of umbrellas. Emirates logo on every one. Fashions on the field. Your man on the audio says they’re judging style and grace and deportment. Of children. It’s bad enough that women are routinely objectified like this, but children? It’s freezing. It’s a real Southern Ocean wind.
I’m in the stable area. Great. Horses. Giaan Rooney is interviewing someone in an industry I don’t know in front of a TV camera. A project of some urgency is born to find a collective noun for many young women sprayed orange, wearing extremely short dresses.
Out on the public lawn, a lone example of such a woman holds a 750ml bottle of wine and takes a sip. Big grey clouds overhead.
Greg Miles starts up. Race 2 1600m. I’ve got a great spot on the fence. A pod of blokes in fluoro tops lean with garden rakes against the track side of the fence.
The galloping. It’s felt. It’s great.
- Woo-hoo says bearded man. – 600 bucks!
That appeared to feel good.
I’m off to the grandstand. I’ve found everyone. Jeepers. It’s very close and male under here. Grab a hotdog and I’m swiftly out to the betting ring. Race 3 is coming up and it’s time to get involved. 2000m. $20 on the nose on Hioctdane. Got him at 4.60. Why? It’s not the favourite. It’s not the worst. Craig Williams is the jockey. But then, you can’t rationalise this crap. It just feels right. The shifty shadow is upon me. My luck’s in. Isn’t it?
Over to the mounting yard now. So much colour. So much movement. There’s my horse. The lawn is filling. I’ve scored a spot in front of the lads wearing Davo’s Bucks Day singlets. I’m not nervous. More expectant of a win.
Soon Greg Miles again fills the air. And here they come. What colours should I be looking for, again? Ah. It’s over. Who won? Is it my number 4 or number 6? It’s 6. Bel Thor, or something. I’ve lost my $20. Gone. Like I never had it. I’ve now got to win it back.
Sam Pickles had his winning steaks but he also had his losing streaks. Immediately back to the betting ring. Handing over another Dr John Flynn, I ask for it on Barbed to win.
- You what?
- Barbed to win.
- How much?
- All of it.
Half turning to his man working the laptop, he yells:
- 20 on 1!!
I’m back in the game.
The cold wind whistles under the grandstand.
- Well I don’t even have a bra on! This is a flat dress!
Horses filing onto the track for Race 4 1400m. Number 4 throws his jockey and takes off. Brilliant spectacle. Disappointing obviously for the connections, but still.
They’re racing. Barbed has a great start, but others finish stronger. $20 more thrown away. I’m a father and provider, am I not? A new tactic is needed. I’ll base my tips on the horses’ names.
The sun has an unimpeded view of Royal Flemington now. Jackets are packed away, though the breeze is nipply. Flesh appears. Based on name alone, I’m backing Zoomania in race 5.
- $20 the place on 17.
I’m a pro.
Unforgettably, I learned this week that increasingly obese patients are presenting to Royal Melbourne Hospital increasingly often. Surgeons are lashing operating tables together to accommodate such people. But when they require medical imaging (x-rays, MRIs), these obese patients are sent to the zoo.
Zoomania it is. Carn 17.
Heading back around to the mounting yard. Bare skin by the hectare. And I’ve got the collective noun. Sent in via text from Bada Boom: tramp.
A tramp of young ones stand together, balancing, all of them, on impossibly high heels. They waver in the southerly. Today I’ve now seen three women wearing necklaces in their hair. Like Bollywood.
More tramps of young ones on the public lawn. I’m thinking that I need the equivalent collective noun for the male variety, when:
That’s a young guy, one of a group, calling to members of a tramp close by here. But he looks deliberately away, precisely when he has their attention. Sideways glance to the other fellas. Smirks all round. And I’ve got it. A quiver.
And I’m on the public lawn for Race 5 2000m. Crap view of the finish line. Tramps and quivers galore. And families. With folding chairs and eskies. Zoomania leads them out. She’s in the top 3 passing me here, but she is well overrun. $60 down.
Sam Pickles came home a week after the wedding with grass on his sleeve, blood on his collar, and a tooth in his pocket. His hat looked abused. One eye was oystered up with swelling. There was bark off his nose.
My Gawd, murmured Dolly who was still in her dressing gown. That’s what I call a day’s work. What the Christ have you been into?
Me luck’s runnin uphill.
Runnin out yer arse by the look.
“Cloudstreet”, Tim Winton.
But I’m here now. So what else does one do? My options, at 2:25pm, appear to be to place another bet, to objectify myself entering fashions on the field or volunteer to take photos of tramps and quivers with their mobiles. All would keep me busy.
I’d planned a $100 limit on my expenditure today. But with $55 spent just on entry, I’m calling off the spending here.
I’ll check out the occasion, instead. Heading back to the stables, I fall in behind a tramp of three, who are crying out for the introduction of high heel L plates. They walk on grass as if wearing ski boots on snow.
The next race is at 3pm. It’s a Group 1 race. I’m going to watch this to see what sets it apart from the other races today. Navigate past a quiver singing Sloop John B loudly and proudly into the teeth of the southerly. And I climb the stairs into the Hill Stand. I have elevation, and a seat, for the first time today.
The VRC Sprint Classic. Race 6 1200m. I understand that a horse must meet certain criteria before bring eligible to enter a Group 1 race. I understand that this should be the best versus the best. But what does that really matter? I enjoy watching top level footy and cricket, sure, much moreso than park footy and cricket. But that’s for the skills on display. And the execution of those skills.
Here they come. It’s a straight sprint. Who knows what’s happening half way down? A horse called Buffering wins it. The course commentators are raving about “deserved” and “did it easily.” Please. The only thing that separated that race in my mind, was the knowledge that there could be no better horses possible in the field. I guess that’s important.
But still, as a race, as a spectacle, it gave a very good impression of every other race I’ve ever seen (admittedly not a large sample size). A clutch of horses. A close finish.
Before me here there are undoubtedly tactics and subtlety about which I haven’t a clue, unfolding. But that’s the point. I haven’t a clue.
We can all rationalise why a horse won or lost after the event. But there are too many variables and too many people with vested interests to allow accurate forecasts to be made. As Nothofagus cunninghamii (missus E.regnans,) says, if you can bet on it, it’s rigged. Banjo was writing about this in 1894.
…”I said to the jockey, ‘Now, listen, my cocky,
You watch as you’re cantering down by the stand,
I’ll wait where that toff is and give you the office,
You’re only to win if I lift up my hand.’…”
“How the favourite beat us”, A.B. Paterson (1894).
The entire industry is built around punting, of course. And there are plenty of young punters here. Not so many old ones. I wonder why. Do mortgage repayments and responsibility curtail the punt as we age? Is the desire to punt, and the desire to be seen punting, part of the indestructibility complex of youth? Melbourne’s economy seems strong enough.
But I can’t support this. Financially, anyway. I’ll have a virtual bet. I’ll put a virtual $1million on Number 2 Boban in the feature race. Race 6: the Stakes. 1600m. Decision based on the speculatively written form guide.
And now the feature race is on. Fanfare. I’m still in the grandstand. Terrific view. Brilliant seat.
Greg Miles again. And guess what? It’s another clutch of horses in another close finish. And it’s Boban the winner. Hooray. I’ll go home a virtual winner. Not that a man can feed his kids virtual food. I’ll have myself a non-virtual Boag’s from a tin to celebrate.
And there’s a lot to celebrate.
“In spring Sam Pickles went back to the September races and started winning. All through October, and into November he bet on a gelding called Blackbutt and saw him place or win every time. Sam knew it didn’t make any sense at all that this horse should keep winning. But luck came from some other place, bringing weirdness and aid into the world and he didn’t question it.”
“Cloudstreet”, Tim Winton.
It’s 4:06pm and I’m warm. I’m under the glassed in Lawn stand. Queuing at the bar. I’ve found the older punters. Here they are. It’s the warmth not of heating but of other people. Body heat. And the absence of wind. No southerly can touch us in here.
I’m distracted though, and away. And then, passing the “proof of age wrist banding booth” one more time, I’ve abruptly had enough.
I’m on the train. It’s 4:35 and I’m amid tramps of young ones. Quivers of young ones left behind with their tinnies. It’s been a colourful moving feast of a day. A day of people playing dress-ups and handing over their money. Racing is not for everyone. And while the racing was kind of interesting, kind of not, and the expense of the day bordered on daylight robbery, the whole rosy circus was certainly a sight to behold.