Almanac Flashback – The Melbourne Cup: Matt Zurbo

To coincide with the time and spirit of the year here is a Melbourne Cup related story from 2014 by one of the Almanac’s favourite writers Matt Zurbo.


This footy book I’m working on needs fuel. It’s already eaten up all my savings, and work in the bush doesn’t cover it. I take on whatever I can to afford one month at a time stints, without pay, chasing legends and dreams on the mainland.


Today it finds me in one of thirty large concrete bays, no shelter, filling bag after bag of garden mulch, a mixture of dirt and horse manure, using a twenty litre bucket and my hands. The fact it’s Melbourne Cup day is not lost on me.


The shit grinds into my clothes, under my nails, all over my face and in my skin. I am the horse’s rear end. Unwiped, happy flies in love with me.


Whippet, a kid who works here, stops to talk every time. About women and girls and football mostly. But today he just flicks through Facebook.


“Why are you going so hard?” he says, head buried in his phone.


I don’t bother to reply. The only way to do jobs like this is attack, or be trapped in them. He’s a good worker and will learn that.


Whippet shows me a photo or two of girls at the cup, dressed to the nines. I think too much about them. I wish I was there, surrounded by all that beauty, but don’t. If I really wanted I’d find a way.
“Man! Next year, I’m going!” he says.


“What do you think about horse racing?” I ask.


“Who cares!” he beams at the images.


I’m insanely jealous of anyone obsessed with the ponies. The sort that live it and breath it and get up at 3am in winter to nurse their horses and run them and smell the smells and feel the heartache and rare, sweet victory. The punters, who have their own language and unspoken etiquettes. That spend their lives giving the smallest nods and gestures.


That understand the beauty of a prime horse in full flight. That know the difference in muscle tone and stride and weight and coat sheen. Who can read its staying ability, its strength and explosion.


That feel the beauty of its power.


That ride, heart in mouth, on every race, and its outcome. I’m jealous of their sweat. The way it breaks people.


I’m jealous of the track, it’s routines. The people who know them and walk with them in their skin, that take in every sound without even realising it. Of their character.


I’m jealous of them like I am of working class mugs in the 50s who would break their backs each long day in unregulated, unsafe industries, on building sights, on train tracks, docks, at markets, and come home to melt to jazz on the radio. The love of the working class, back then, for jazz baffles me. I listen and just can’t hear it. But I understand obsession. It must have simplified their lives. Every note, ever gesture, would have given them such strength, like the horses. Something more. Something brilliant.
Both, I suspect, would make you feel timeless.


These days the Cup is a circus. A chance for scrubbers to tart up into something stunning, take 100 smiling photos, then get pissed as wobbly donkeys. It’s a chance for the boys to go to an ‘event’ dressed like gentlemen, so they can be absolute yobbos. It, in the lower tiers, is as classless as it pretends to be otherwise.


If I could go to the races I’d want it to be to a big country meet, back in the 30s. When the community went and everybody wore hats and smoked and racing was more than a thing for TABs and phone betting. Where bookies spruiked on soap boxes.
When the crowd breathed it like jazz at the end of a hard day, and everybody spoke its language.


Whippet pulls the work ute up and puts the race on. I’m not sure why. Neither of us know a single horse running.
“Midgets whipping giant rats,” Whippet smiles, then settles in to listen.
I like him. 17 and no rush to be going on anything.


“Stop working for a minute,” he insists.
I’m no hero, it’s just that if I do I might inhale flies. If the sweat cools, the day’s rooted.
“Do you have a bet on?” I ask.
“No, but it seems right to listen,” he tells me.
Maybe he’s right. I’m sure he is, the smart young bugger. Without even thinking about it, like reflex. Listening to the Melbourne Cup is an Australian thing to do. Even if you don’t speak the language.


I stop for the call.
We lounge in our concrete bay as they take off to the roar of the crowd, hell for leather. I watch Whippet slapping his side, pushing his invisible horse on, rising with the call, having fun with it.


When the race is won we hear a babbling Irishman, part owner of the winner, so delirious he can’t get his words out. He mentions how long he’s lived in this country, and how all he ever wanted to do was have a horse in the Cup. “But to win…”
I smile so broadly for him horse shit and dirt kick up, causing my eye to water. You can hear not just his love, but his obsession.


Would that he were the world, and I had time, in this strange life, to be that consumed by jazz and horse racing.
Whippet leaves, taking all noise with him. I go back to work as jealous as all hell of the Irishman, and all the lifers and the yobbos and scrubbers.


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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  1. Keiran Croker says

    Obsession…. Shoving shit so you can afford to write for nothing?!
    Great article Matt. Good luck with the book.

  2. Tom Martin says

    Shovelling horseshit has a grand tradition. Hercules went on to some decent adventures and with Whippett at your side you may as well.

    Jazz is a state of mind as much as a musical genre. Open to sensation, looking for patterns, vessels to convey emotion. A world away from the grind and clunk of industrial life. I guess that’s why it proves such sweet relief.

    Play on.

  3. Shovelling horse-shit on Melbourne Cup day.
    Brilliant stuff, Matt.

  4. Hopefully the next book will shoo the flies away Matt.
    In 1987 I worked bagging steaming horse, sheep & cow manure for 6 months. Though I certainly enjoyed being a suited up bogan a lot more at the cup.

  5. Great yarn Matt. There’s art to making the mundane into something to ponder. You’ve done it, and your piece reminds me of the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney and his celebrated poem “Digging.”

    Hope the book is progressing; looking forward to its publication!

  6. Matt Zurbo says

    Herc, Tom? Bloody Nora! Haha. Cheers.

    Thanks all. Keeps me writing for he Nackery, for sure.

  7. Andrew Starkie says

    Zurbs, the old fella, retired farmer, who lives beside my parents in the bool, spends his days, all day, every day, carving, shaping, finessing wood in his back shed. The sound of his grinder whirring away is one the sounds of home in my head. I always visit him when I’m home and feed off his wisdom and calm. He’s intoxicating. As he says, ‘You have to have a passion.’

  8. Top yarn, Stark! Spot on.

  9. Nice one, great read

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