- Cup Day is a public holiday in Victoria and falls on the first Tuesday in November
- The Melbourne Cup is rich in tradition but also divides public opinion
- The Cup has increasingly attracted criticism over animal welfare and the ethics of horseracing for profit
- Cup Day is Australia's biggest one-day gambling event
On the first Tuesday in November, Australia stops to watch a horse race.
The Melbourne Cup is the highlight of the Australian racing calendar and one of the most prestigious events in the world. In Victoria, Cup Day is even a public holiday.
“It’s actually part of the culture and the fabric of Australia,” Neil Wilson, Chair of the Victoria Racing Club says.
“The running of the Cup in its early days endured world wars, it endured through the depression period in Australia and also, more recently, it continued through the COVID pandemic,” he adds.
Mr Wilson says over its 162-year history, the race has grown to become comparable to major international sporting events, such as the Grand Prix or tennis grand slams.
“We have an audience across 160 countries with a reach of close to 750 million people.”
But while many Australians celebrate the Cup, many also strongly oppose it.
Kristin Leigh is the Communications Director for the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, an organisation that has held a protest event called ‘Nup to the Cup’ for more than a decade.
Racegoers cheering during Melbourne Cup Day, at Flemington Racecourse. Source: AAP / JAMES ROSS/AAPIMAGE
She says horse racing needs to be questioned over their treatment and exploitation of animals for financial gain.
Melbourne Cup is often seen as a day where we get together and celebrate, but what we’re celebrating is wrong.Kristin Leigh, Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses Communications Director
Animal rights activists regularly protest Melbourne Cup Day. Source: AAP / SCOTT BARBOUR/AAPIMAGE
What is the significance of the Melbourne Cup?
The Melbourne Cup is the seventh race of Cup Day at Flemington Racecourse. It is the centrepiece of the week-long Melbourne Cup Carnival and a highlight of the Spring Racing Carnival.
And at 3pm on the first Tuesday in November, millions stop to fixate on the race.
“It’s called ‘the race that stops a nation’ because effectively it stops everyone in Australia at that time,” Mr Wilson says.
In fact, every second adult will stop and listen to or watch the race.Neil Wilson, Victoria Racing Club Chair
Cup Day draws crowds of 300,000 people to Flemington track that spend the day soaking in a colourful atmosphere.
“Fashion is also a very big part of the event, so people look forward to dressing up in their hats, their suits and their beautiful dresses,” Ms Wilson says.
Jockey Kerrin McEvoy (left) rides Quantico to victory in race 10, MSS Security Sprint during Melbourne Cup Day, at Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne, Tuesday, November 2, 2021. Source: AAP / JAMES ROSS/AAPIMAGE
The Cup dollar and gambling
The Cup is one of the world’s richest races. In 2022 it’s worth $8 million, and the winner receives $4 million and a $250,000 trophy.
Cup Day is also Australia’s biggest one-day gambling event. Once-a-year punters place bets, and workplaces often organise sweep-stakes.
The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses argues although the Melbourne Cup boosts the Victorian economy, it does so at the expense of gambling, which is a serious issue in Australia.
“In the past 10 years thoroughbred wagering turnover has doubled. $29 billion is now gambled on thoroughbred racing alone each year. So, horse racing isn’t only bad for horses, it’s bad for humans,” Ms Leigh says.
MORE FROM THE SETTLEMENT GUIDE
Worried about a loved one’s problem gambling? Here’s how to support them
Why do people object?
For years, the horse racing industry has faced increasing scrutiny regarding animal welfare, breeding processes and cruel training practices.
Also, there are ethical considerations regarding how racing and whipping techniques impact the animals and the frequent euthanising of injured racehorses.
“In the past 10 years, eight horses have been killed at Flemington on Melbourne Cup Day from injuries they sustain,” Ms Leigh explains.
Because recovery is expensive, time consuming and really difficult for a horse, they will just euthanise them on the track.
Ms Leigh says the public is unaware of the full scale of the death toll of horse racing.
“A horse is killed on Australian racetracks on average every 2.5 days. Thousands more are taken away from the track injured and killed behind the scenes, and they’re the ones we never learn about,” she laments.
However, Mr Wilson defends the Cup saying issues around animal welfare are becoming a growing focus.
“[The horses] are increasingly looked after to a level that people may not really appreciate,” he says.
“They have vets on hand, they have dentistry work, chiropractic work, and they’re so well prepared.”
Racing Victoria's Veterinary Service General Manager, Dr Grace Forbes says her team has put in novel veterinary protocols in place to reduce injury rates.
Animal activists stage protests with mock fashion and fake races during Melbourne Cup Day. Source: AAP / DAVID CROSLING/AAPIMAGE
Even though we do have the best safety record in thoroughbred horse racing globally, that doesn’t stop us from trying to better that.Dr Grace Forbes, Racing Victoria Veterinary Service General Manager
Racing Victoria and the Victorian Government recently purchased a state-of-the-art full body CT scanner to detect stress fractures in horses before they run in the Spring Racing Carnival.
“With this new machine we’re able to perform very detailed scans while they’re standing and awake,” Dr Forbes explains.
Thoroughbreds are a type of horse breed known for their fast running speed. They can maintain speeds between 60 to 70 km/hr. Source: Getty / Getty Images AsiaPac
Which horses can race?
Twenty-four thoroughbreds qualify to run the 3200-metre course. Thoroughbred is a horse breed known for being prone to running.
Horses must be at least three years old and meet strict weight criteria.
The Melbourne Cup is a ‘handicap’ race. Horses carry extra weight depending on their starting weight, age and previous performance. This way each horse has an equal chance of winning.
The most famous Cup horse is 1930 winner Phar Lap. So enduring is his legacy that he is exhibited at the Melbourne Museum, and his heart is preserved in Canberra.
HELP FOR GAMBLING ADDICTION
Getting help when your loved one has gambling problems