Horses for courses
Victoria’s fabled Spring Racing Carnival is off to a flying start, reports Judith Elen
WHO among us doesn’t know of the Melbourne Cup, the race for which Australia stands still on that first Tuesday in November? The centrepiece of the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival, the Cup is flanked by other big-name race days — the Derby, the Caulfield Cup — but how many realise the racing carnival runs a full 50 days, opening on October 1 and not ending until November 19?
In festive mood, all race meetings across Victoria are part of the seasonal carnival and behind it all is a colourful archive of racing culture and history. I am set for a whirlwind tour through some of that history here in Melbourne, but the Country Racing Spring Carnival, in towns across Victoria, is yet another world waiting to be discovered.
Arriving at Flemington racecourse, 6km northwest of the city, we drive past a length of track leading from the side of the road as if it were the trail of a shot aimed at the distance. That’s the famous straight six,’’ one of our party says (someone who knows a lot more about racing than I do). It’s the track’s 1200m home stretch, six furlongs.’’
I am about to learn a few more Flemington figures. The racecourse covers 60ha: the course, nine training tracks (grass, sand, Viscoride and dirt) and 600 stables. Victoria Racing Club’s Stephen Silk, general manager of Flemington, is taking us on a tour. He tells us the club spent $15 million last year upgrading the track and parade ring. The building infrastructure for the Melbourne Cup accommodates 30,000 people, the capacity of a small city’’, he says.
Corporate marquees erected for the cup vie with each other from year to year to be more fabulous and decadent. But the 700m-long lawn is the public domain that runs in front of the grand members’ stands. Raised and on a single level with its central rose gardens, which are pruned late to encourage peak blooming in November, the lawn is a great trackside viewing point, and for being seen.
Since Eliza Doolittle hijacked the home run at Ascot in MyFairLady, race days, especially carnival days, have been inseparable from the fashion stakes. Flemington’s spacious heritage setting makes a distinguished backdrop for the fashions in the stands and on the lawn, not to mention as a context for the races and the magnificent horses that pace the parade ground before and after a race.
The course has an art and heritage curator, Penny Tripp. The 1890s Carbines Stable, refuge of a famous 19th-century horse, has been moved, lock, stock and wooden walls, to a central trackside spot and turned into a small museum.
Bronze statues of Phar Lap, more recent legend Makybe Diva and equally famous trainer and racehorse owner Bart Cummings make appropriate landmarks among the gardens, one of which is the Diana Princess of Wales Rose Garden, planted for her visit in 1996 and recently moved from its original site in the centre of the track. Heritage buildings are painted white and glass-panelled, and all of them, even the eco-designed modern stables, seem to maintain a leisurely distance, as if waiting for a colonial governor to come and inspect them.
It is Flemington’s 148th year and planning has already begun, as you might imagine, for the 150th celebrations. As well as books and DVDs, Silk says, there will be something major’’ in the area of equine art and history.
Last year, Silk says, there were about 400,000 visitors during Flemington’s four high-attendance days: the Derby, the Melbourne Cup, Oaks Day and Stakes Day. People management is part of the task. Silk says the club wants everything to work and be comfortable; the aim is not to pack in as many as possible. Prepaid entry tickets were introduced last year (from Ticketek and main Melbourne railway stations such as Flinders Street).
Water has to be managed at least as much as people, and Silk says various strategies are being looked at: sewer mining (tapping into the main sewer line and purifying the water), water harvesting and water tanks.
Back in the city, the Australian Racing Museum and Hall of Fame at Federation Square is a small but fascinating snapshot of Melbourne racing culture. Chief executive Doug Cross tells us that, after the introduction of the TAB, community contact with racing was lost, a situation Racing Victoria wants to reverse. There are certainly plenty of things here to fascinate children, including boxes of jockeys’ outfits for them to dress up in, curiosities to look at and binoculars to look through.
The museum has an impressive collec- tion of early Melbourne cups and trophies, including plated cups each carrying about $20,000 worth of gold. The present three-handled cup was introduced in 1917. The trophy, won by Glenloth in 1892, was bought for $165,000 by the breeder’s great grand-daughter and given on permanent loan to the museum.
Carbine — known to us now from Carbine’s Stable at Flemington, and known then as Old Jack — won the cup in 1890. Nearby is the 2006 Cox Plate — cup, plate, trophy and banner — won by a new name to remember, Fields of Omagh, a horse our group met earlier at David Hayes’s Flemington stables.
The trophies are intriguing, but the exhibits are wonderfully diverse. The first film shot in Australia was of the 1896 Melbourne Cup, and a film of Phar Lap’s victory in 1930 runs on continuous loop.
There is the 1890s skeleton of a famous winner, archival photographs and soundtracks, cigarette cards of jockeys, and Tulloch’s gigantic heart, suspended in formaldehyde.
And, of course, there is fabulous fashion: an 1872 satin dress of watered blue, stitched with black lace and beads and with a copious train a la Eliza Doolittle (no jumping up and down in this). Outfits, ladylike and loony, span the eras. And hats, including a stylish toffee-brown stitched-leather flying saucer of a hat, with matching bag and gloves, made by Melbourne designer Peter Jago in 1993.
The collection is moving in about 18 months to the National Sports Museum at the MCG, where more treasures from the archives will be added to the display. Only about 7 per cent of what the museum owns finds space here. Among storage items are every one of Melbourne socialite Lillian Frank’s hats, Silk tells us.
Having fallen in love with one of millinery maestro Jago’s 15-year-old creations at the museum, we visit his studio in West Melbourne and climb a flight of stairs to a loft-like dress-up studio above the workshop. Jago trained with the Australian Opera and he has the eye. He shows us small toys (little straw, feather or net numbers) and big handsome hats for investment dressing. He confesses he buys pheasant feathers and bleaches them to make an elusive background, to under-story’’, as he calls it, for the eyecatching main game.
Jago knows when pea fronds (peacock feathers) are at their best (seven to nine years old). Turbans are in. And red has a lot of orange in it: pimento. He dyes things: materials, straw bases, feathers.
This is why I never sleep,’’ he says. I go home and get out the dye vat.’’
Jago says he makes about 80 important pieces for the season, plus frivolities, going 80 to the dozen’’. I ask about the museum hat and he says it’s of emu leather, and was a homage to Yves St Laurent. Now I am in the mood for serious dress-ups. I could get a little toy for about $600. And Caulfield would be the place to wear it.
Tobi Bonifant, of Melbourne Racing Club, takes us around the quintessentially Melbourne Caulfield course, 8km southeast of the city. There are three big meetings here during the spring carnival and three in autumn, and two tracks: Sandown on Wednesdays and Caulfield, usually on Saturdays, for the elite racing.
Fashion stakes here, Bonifant says, are about appropriateness, classic style, and include hats and accessories’’. At Sandown Classic Day on November 15, there are fashion prizes for children five to 14 and lots of sample products for all entrants. At this weekend’s Caulfield Cup, experts such as Jago are giving talks. There is a Caulfield Classic Style Award, a People’s Choice Fashion Award and the progressive Chadstone Fashion Stakes, which culminates this weekend with $52,000 worth of prizes.
Race meetings in Melbourne sizzle with style, but country racing has something they can’t replicate. Of the dozens of courses across the state, including Yarra Valley, which has a special Food and Wine race day on October 25, little Dunkeld catches my eye, as I have recently visited the memorable restaurant at its Royal Mail Hotel.
Brad Thomas at Country Racing Victoria tells us about the close sense of community, people coming from far afield for special home-town race days, the great fun for children. Judith Elen was a guest of Racing Victoria and Crown Melbourne. www.vrc.net.au www.caulfieldracing.com.au www.countryracing.com.au www.racingvictoria.net.au www.springracingcarnival.com.au
Hats off to the races: From above left, they’re racing at Flemington;
a tipple in the members stand; eager entrants for the Fashions on
the Field competition