Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Melbourne Cup

This October has been the coldest in 64 years. It felt like it.

Today is Melbourne Cup Day. It’s a strange occasion in that people who never take an interest in horse-racing make this event an exception. For years I’ve watched it on TV alongside colleagues in workplaces or at home. It didn’t pay to win the sweep-stake. You spent more shouting fellow workers than you won from the pool.

The legendary Phar Lap formed part of my childhood mythology. Everyone knew he was the greatest racehorse this country had bred. I have never been to Flemington though I did see the Sydney Cup race in that city the year that Battle Heights won. The horse was trained at Morrinsville and our next door neighbour in Hamilton was his daughter. So I’ve drunk from the Sydney Cup.

Three particular Melbourne Cups stand out for me. In the 1980s I was in Perth, West Australia while I was researching for my school textbook Australia Nearby. On the day I was visiting the Department of Education. The office shut down for the running of the cup. Because of time zones this was in the late morning – bizarre to me in that the Cup in New Zealand was always shown around 5 p.m.

Along the back straight the New Zealand horse Kiwi was last. Beside me a big-paunched Aussie man said ‘as usual Kiwi dragging the chain.’ To my delight Kiwi started to move forward and he mowed them all down in the home straight – a magnificent win. I didn’t need to crow. The horse had done it for me.

Then in 1988 a group of us gathered in the Prime Minister's private back room in the Beehive. David Lange was pouring me a beer as Empire Rose won the race.

The Catholic Education Office in Wellington holds an annual Melbourne Cup party, the kick–off of the Christmas festive round. In 2001 I was standing between Cardinal Tom Williams and Donna Awatere, ACT MP (later to be imprisoned for fraud) as Ethereal (a New Zealand mare) romped home. Donna had invested heavily on the horse. In her glee she slopped much of her wine onto the carpet. The Cardinal did not look impressed.

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