A nostril in it

Engraving of the finish line at the 1881 Melbo...

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For most of the year I take but a cursory interest in horse racing. Come the Spring Carnival in Melbourne that changes. I’m still very much a mug punter, but I begin to take a keen interest as one big race after rolls on, and the incredible vibe builds. There is nowhere else in the world that can rival the excitement, intrigue and glamour of Melbourne during the Spring racing season.

There are a succession of great races, but the big race is the Melbourne Cup, which may well be the biggest horse race in the world now Everyone has a tip. Everyone’s in a sweep. If you’re not at the race you’re at a barbecue somewhere. Everyone is glued to the screen. Then the race begins, the crowd roars, and for a few minutes everything stops. Being at the course and watching it there is an unusual experience as everyone is transfixed by the race and their chance in it. Every moment or so someone will urge on their horse, and come the turn the urging has become a roar. It’s like riding a wave, magnificent. It’s a race that truly does stop the nation.

After watching the race today I was greatly stirred, as everyone must have been. Big race, great occasion, and a ripping finish. All fantastic ingredients. What makes horse racing different from most sports though is the horses. In most sports we are fiercely partisan, sometimes to the point of hostility to the opposition. That’s impossible with horse racing because the real glory of it is the horses. Your horse may not get up, but it’s hard not be moved all the same by the contest. These are magnificent beasts who know nothing better than to compete. They are beautiful things that command our admiration, but they are also pure instinct. They don’t race for prize money. They race because it is their great joy to do so. To stretch to the line is something innate within them. There are days we might lose our shirt, but regardless we are privileged mostly to have witnessed something so natural and real.

Such was the case today. It was a wonderful race. Come 50 metres out there were perhaps five horses in the running, with two nose to nose out front. Come the finish line there was virtually nothing to separate them. Remarkable to think that after 3,200 metres the winning margin might be as small as the width of my finger. It seems unfair to relegate one horse to second on that margin, but that’s the sport.

Dunaden won it from Red Cadeaux. It was a great win because it led, was headed, then came again. A tough win at the hands of a great riding performance. The jockey, Christophe Lemaire, had flown in yesterday from Japan to ride the horse after it’s normal jockey, Craig Williams, was suspended for the race. There were many expressions of sympathy for Williams after the race, and that’s easy to understand why, however had he ridden Dunaden instead of Lemaire it’s a different race, and more than likely a different result.

For the second year running a French horse won it, from an English horse, and a bunch of international horses close behind. English horses have won it before, and one year Japan took the quinella. Occasionally there is some comment about the ‘international raiders’, but it’s a great thing they come, and their success makes the race greater. It’s a challenge for Australian breeders to come up with a champion stayer. Being parochial does the race no good; it’s a challenge to be grasped. Thing is too, end of the day, they’re just horses, beautiful things who know no allegiance, who care where they come from?

My pick came about 6th I think. I went the trifecta, and had 1st, 3rd and 4th, but that doesn’t pay. Next year. Great race anyway, and a great occasion. Lucky here in Melbourne.



The carnival is over

It's a bright, warm, silent Sunday morning. I opened the blinds of my bedroom earlier and the sun washed in. I lay in bed reading the newspaper and drinking my coffee. It felt so still, so peaceful, that I read only cursorily before casting the paper aside. It was not that I was restless – just the opposite – but that I simply wanted to savour what was for the moment and would, if I could manage it, have halted time for a little while, or at least slowed it down. As it was I had an hour or so of grace.

The last couple of weeks feel unsettled looking back. The flow that comes from following normal routines has been largely absent. In the place of that has been unusual events that one must react to deal with, like a blind man following a familiar route discovering suddenly that in his way are obstacles that were not there before.

These 'obstacles' are hardly obstacles in the real sense, and in fact have been quite fun more often than not. It has been a little interlude in the normal way of things, something many Melburnians would have experienced in a similar way to me.

In large part it is the Spring Carnival that has done this; that and the bright, unusually warm weather for this time of year.

In the first place the Spring Carnival is such a celebrated time on the calendar that it is much more than a number of storied horse races and the excuse to party. There is a festive flavour to life in Melbourne over this period, even for those who have no interest in the racing. For the rest of us there is a certain romance in following the fortunes of trainers and jockeys, and favourite race horses. Almost everyone, including the biggest duffer, has an opinion suddenly, and a vested, but light hearted interest in how the romance unfolds.

At the same time there is a loosening of normal bonds that tie us to the familiar patterns I spoke of earlier. In part it is disrupted by the mere pattern of days – we have a holiday midweek after all, to watch and celebrate a horse race. People glam up to visit the track or else they stay home to watch with a betting ticket in one hand and a drink in the other. A kind of festive and intoxicating spirit permeates the ether. Monday night before the Cup is a good time to party and the few days after the cup feel too light-hearted to take seriously.

This year we are experiencing a spate of fine, quite warm days over the carnival. It looks divine, and for those not heading for the track it's nice to pull on a pair of shorts and feel dressed. While it's not unknown for it to be this warm this early in the season, it is unusual to have so many warm days clumped together. It is a reminder of the summer looming before us, of Christmas, of holidays, of parties and the beach and cricket and cool drinks and everything else summer represents. That's what I think anyway.

In my case I certainly feel interrupted.I have been very busy, in the thick of it really, and on a peaceful morning such as this find myself sighing and yearning for the 'me' time I have put to one side. The period is ending and I am glad because while it was good it was also enough. A little familiar routine is not necessarily a bad thing, and besides, it's nice to return to the other things you need but find neglected in times like this.

I'm afraid I must put that off at least another day unfortunately. The last couple of nights have been very pleasant and quite late, and today I have people coming for lunch. I must be entertaining and social and while I'm sure I'll manage that, I'm wearing thin with the effort. How much nicer to have an old fashioned Sunday doing nothing. Oh to just sit down with a good book and a cool drink and enjoy life as if Monday was eons away. Maybe next week.

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