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What if they had a Cup and nobody came?

November 2, 2020 — 6.06pm Gay Alcorn

It was American author Mark Twain, visiting the Melbourne Cup in 1895, who wrote: "The grand-stands make a brilliant and wonderful spectacle, a delirium of colour, a vision of beauty. The champagne flows, everybody is vivacious, excited, happy."

From the very first Cup in 1861, with 4000 onlookers watching on, it has been a race that has attracted a large crowd. The pandemic has put that tradition to rest, for now. Despite Melbourne's newfound freedoms, Flemington's stands, expansive lawns, and Birdcage will stay deserted.

But that is not to say it cannot be enjoyed. If anything, this year has taught Melburnians how to adapt to the once implausible. Local parks have become the new hub for those wanting to reconnect, and will surely play host to many a socially-distanced Cup party.

It has been a challenging time for the racing industry. Last year's spring racing carnival was rocked by graphic footage of racehorses being killed at abattoirs and knackeries, and revelations of alleged animal cruelty and doping linked to trainer Darren Weir and his assistant. Racing bodies across Australia promised change. In Victoria, there are promising signs.

The Age reported on Saturday a racehorse retraining and rehoming centre on the outskirts of Geelong that would normally retrain about 100 horses annually had tripled that number. And once this year's carnival comes to an end Racing Victoria will launch its euthanasia assistance scheme, which encourages thoroughbred owners to put horses down at their own properties, avoiding the knackeries.

But there's been slow progress on establishing a national horse traceability register. Despite the scheme having widespread support, a working group formed in February to develop the register had its first meeting last week.

Another shortfall has been the lack of progress in introducing better oversight of breeders. Licences are issued to trainers, jockeys, stable hands and veterinarians but not breeders, who produce about 14,000 foals a year for the industry. With most horses racing for only a few years at most but living for up to 30, there is little chance that all could be housed and cared for properly their whole life.

One unexpected benefit this year for the horses will be the silence. With only essential race-day personnel – trainers, strappers, jockeys and the like – allowed onto the track, the horses get to do their day's work without the usual rowdy urgings of the crowd.

And the horses should also gain some further reprieve this year, with every jockey in this year's Melbourne Cup carnival being warned by Racing Victoria of the harsh sanctions for breaking whip rules. The Cup has been embroiled in controversy the past two years after a quarter of the riders flouted the rules in 2018 and last year the second-placed jockey was hit with a $10,000 fine, one of the largest in the race's history.

Controversy has been a feature of the Cup since its inception. In 1861, The Age reported that the first Cup was treated to a beautiful sunny day with large crowds and "along the racecourse...a more than an average attendance of carriages and other vehicles". But in a "lamentable accident" two horses had to be put down after falling soon after the race. It must have been a terrible sight.

This year's Cup will also be bathed in sunshine, a perfect day for picnics in the park. For the horses, let us hope after a day of adulation from distant crowds, they return to their stalls safe and sound.


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