Horses for cour­ses

Vic­to­ria’s fa­bled Spring Racing Car­ni­val is off to a fly­ing start, re­ports Ju­dith Elen

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.caulfiel­d­rac­ www.coun­tryrac­ www.rac­ingvic­to­ www.springrac­ing­car­ni­

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

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