I love the Melbourne Cup. And it’s history is fascinating. I reckon that in many ways the Melbourne cup can be seen as a massive marketing campaign. And in that sense, it’s been a massive success, and a massive failure.
The first Melbourne cup was held back in 1861. From the start it was a clever bit of marketing – a way to broaden the appeal of racing.
VRC secretary Robert Bagot had the genius idea of issuing members with two ladies tickets. Like every marketing guru throughout time, he figured that “where ladies went, men would follow.”
It worked. 4,000 people turned up to watch the race. That might not sound like a lot, but it was enough to make it one of the most popular races of the time.
Strong out the gate already, a public holiday from as early as 1865 really gave the race a lift. People will take to anything that gives them a day off work. And from that point on, it’s place in the public imagination and Australian folklore was enshrined.
By 1880, less than twenty years on, they reckon 100,000 people showed up to watch the race. In a town (which Melbourne still was at that time) of 260,000, that’s nothing short of phenomenal.
I think the Melbourne Cup struck a particularly strong chord in a country still learning how to stand on it’s own two feet.
It belonged to Australia. It wasn’t one of the imported festivals or holidays from imperial old England. And horses have a special place in a nation opened up by rugged and romanticised by stockmen, or given an air of daring by bushrangers.
It sat neatly into what new Australia thought new Australia was about.
And the idea of having a day off work to “have a bit of a flutter” – gambling being one of the great vices in Victorian England – probably gave the locals a tickle, and tied into our ‘up-yours guvvna’ larrikinism.
And you’d have to say it’s also perfectly timed, as Melbourne comes out of the caves of winter into the relief of Spring.
What’s not to love about it?
And hats off the VRC – from the late 1880s onwards its been a well-run spectacle. It’s held its place in Australian public life with grace, never over-extending or under-delivering.
I think they recognised that the Melbourne Cup had it’s own momentum. Like a Hollywood celebrity, it was popular because it was popular. Hands-off is the best approach.
So as an event, it’s an incredible success.
But as a marketing campaign? Did it live up to its creators’ ambitions? Has the Melbourne Cup become a gateway into the ‘Sport of Kings’?
Horse racing in Australia continues to struggle. And while the Melbourne Cup lives up to the glitz and glamour promised in a title like ‘Sport of Kings’, most Australians are awake to the gritty realities of horse racing.
Horse racing has an image problem.
Modern online sports betting has capitalised on it by ruthlessly pulling it into their ad campaigns – TAB’s full of bikies, bearded ladies and all manner of weirdo’s wearing out pencils trying to find the next thing to lose money on.
It’s not pretty. Their intention is to attack ‘old world’ gambling options, but it’s a reality that people recognise in horse racing.
And horse racing (which is all about gambling, let’s face it) is also being squeezed by an explosion in other forms of sports betting (having already being laid on the canvas once by pokie machines). These days, pretty much if it’s on Fox Sports, you can bet on it.
But these forms of sports betting are much more novice-friendly. Hawks vs Swans? There’s only two outcomes. And if you’re already following the code, you can get a decent sense of what’s more likely. Even if you’re completely ignorant, there’s a good chance you’ll just ‘get lucky’.
There’s up to 24 horses in the Melbourne Cup. That’s 24 possible outcomes. The completely uniformed has only a 1/24 chance of winning. They’re not enticing odds.
And you can improve your odds by following form and breeding (and then try and figure out how form and breeding are accounted for by the handicap!), but c’mon, that’s a lot of work.
And so while there does seem to be some return to knowledge and experience – the more you know, the better your chances – this is exactly what beginners don’t have.
And so what horse racing does is effectively ask its newbies to subsidise the more experienced gamblers, until they’ve learnt the ropes themselves.
Try selling that to a twenty year old with limited disposable income.
And so horse racing continues to try to capitalise on the hype of the Melbourne Cup, but doesn’t’ seem to be getting anywhere. How many of the punters there on cup day are actually there for the race? Most are there for the spectacle, the party, the pretty ladies.
Horse racing (almost) has nothing to do with it.
But would the slow death of horse racing be bad for the Melbourne Cup? I doubt it.
The Melbourne cup is a force unto itself. Even if the entire racing industry collapsed, the public (and the sponsors!) wouldn’t let the cup die. Worst case scenario, you’d just have amateur horses ridden by amateur jockeys.
That might even be an improvement.
So long live the Melbourne Cup. It’s a race that stops a nation, and then brings them together like nothing else – in a celebration of something uniquely Australian, home-grown and built from the ground up.
And let’s make it a national holiday, hey? Why not? If the banks can have their holiday, let the people have theirs.
It’s one of the most enduring, endearing and authentic connections we have to our past.
So happy Cup day everybody. Hope you get lucky. Hope your horse comes in.
But I know it doesn’t really matter.