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					                                        e-Postcard from Victoria
                                          12th November 2003

Picture the scene. Elegantly dressed ladies sporting exclusive designer summer hats from Dior,
gentlemen exuding an air of debonair superiority. Champagne corks pop, canapés circulate. Polite
small talk abounds about our new Mercedes and daughter Daphne‟s ever-so-exclusive fee-paying
school. The unwashed lower orders are kept well at bay unless they‟re pouring our drinks or cleaning
out the stables. Welcome, maybe, to Henley-on-Thames or Wimbledon; to Royal Ascot or to Cricket at
Lords? Think again. We‟re now in what were once the British Colonies but who still maintain that
chimera of sophistication long gone from an England despoiled by laddism, crack cocaine and euro-
harmonised monotony. Welcome to the Melbourne Cup.

I couldn‟t resist a trip to Australia‟s second city for such a highlight. Later in the week I was to see the
Great Ocean Road with its rugged Apostle-laden coastline, and Ballarat which was the centre of
Victoria‟s mid 19th Century gold rush, but it was the 143rd Melbourne Cup which most captured my
imagination. It is far and away Australia‟s most popular sporting fixture, an iconic event, a kind of
Opera House on hooves. The prize money for the Cup is a staggering $4.6m making it the richest race
in the world. The first Melbourne Cup attracted 4,000 people, but within 20 years there were 100,000
flocking to see the race and this year an all-time record of 122,636. Transported effortlessly by trains
running every four minutes throughout the day, and with only nine people arrested for drunkenness, it
was a model of efficient organisation. In Britain you would be lucky to have a train every four hours
and there would be nine arrests if only a dozen people turned up. Today the vast Flemington
Racecourse is Crown land. So just in case Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is reading this e-mail (ok, I
know its unlikely, but I do have a large distribution list), then Maam you own Australia‟s most famous
racetrack and if those colonists don‟t behave I‟d call in the lease and set it up as a cricket ground. A
much more fitting venue for your national team to be trounced.

Flemington Race Course has constructed a bewildering hierarchy of segregated areas and ticketing
systems. It reminded me of the Ancien Régime under Louis XVI, with the ladies competing to be the
next Marie Antoinette. As in France there are three Estates, top of which are the horsey people who
know their fetlocks and racing form. Members of the exclusive Victorian Racing Club are an
aristocratic élite, passing their privileges on from generation to generation and showing more than the
occasional sign of in-breeding. The Second Estate are the party people and corporate guests who have
money but no status, who go to the Melbourne Cup for a jolly good knees up and for a spot of celebrity
spotting (though these days the people to look out for are from reality TV shows such as Big Brother
and Pop Idol, basking in their 15 seconds of fame). I became an honorary member of the Second Estate
by being invited to a party in the Nursery Car Park, which may not sound like a glamorous location but
was bedecked with marquees and echoed with the clink of champagne flutes. They know how to
arrange an event at Flemington. Given that nobody in the Second Estate has any interest in racing you
are kept a safe distance from the track and it is impossible to see any horse racing whatsoever. Brilliant:
horse racing without horses! The poor Third Estate are herded into massive enclosures and kept at a
safe distance from their betters – one day they may rise and seek power but on Cup Day they are kept
happy with warm beer and meat pies.

Oh what fun! Special dress requirements must be strictly followed when entering the exclusive
Members‟ Enclosure at Flemington, and all this in Australia which is about the most down-to-earth
blokey country on Earth. I can imagine a committee of worthy fuddy-duddies having endless meetings
over dress code. Gentlemen and boys over 14 must wear a suit, sports coat or blazer plus tie. Ladies,
according to the published rules, are “expected to maintain a suitable standard in keeping with the
dignity of the Members‟ Enclosure” whatever that means but it sounds like the eagle-eyed officials at
the entrances can reject anyone they don‟t like the look of. This year a young lady was initially rejected
for not wearing a hat but she was none other than Zara Phillips, the only member of British Royal to
attend, and she was ignominiously forced to borrow a hat from racing officials. The Ladies‟ hats looked
like they were lampshades stolen from a suburban lounge, though many chose to wear „fascinators‟
which are nothing like as kinky as they sound, more of a delicate spray of feathers from a dead bird.
There is a fascinating list of forbidden clothing which reads like a directive from the Fashion Police:
YOU MUST ABSOLUTELY NOT ON PUNISHMENT OF SOCIAL DEATH wear sports shoes,
sandals, thongs (before non-Australians get too excited this refers to footwear not to a bulging posing
pouch), scruffy footwear, slippers, jeans, jodhpurs, shorts, non-tailored slacks, parkas, windbreakers,
denim jackets, safari suits, tracksuits, peaked caps, rugby tops or cardigans. I just wonder who on earth
would turn up at the Melbourne Cup wearing tracksuit bottoms, a cardigan and slippers? Ok, the
answer is half the population of the North of England or just about anyone flying from Manchester
Airport. And just how strict are the Fashion Police? Now you must promise not to tell the authorities -
or my visa will be terminated and I‟ll be set adrift in some tiny boat off the coast of Australia – but I
am GUILTY of grave offences against Fashion. Unbeknown to the Fashionistas I entered Flemington
race course wearing non-tailored slacks made by, of all people, Calvin Klein Jeans.

Australians love to win, it is a country where there is a driving ambition to be the best in the world. Just
look at all the excitement over sporting events, the crowning glory being Sydney‟s hosting of the 2000
Olympic Games. Well there is one field in which Australia is top, winning the ubiquitous gold medal
well ahead of the field … gambling. A staggering 82% of adults gamble, the highest rate in the world
with just over 40% having a flutter at least once a week. From around $1 billion in 1975, the amount
thrown away by punters is estimated to be around $16 billion today. The traditional forms of gambling
in Australia - horse racing and lotteries - have recorded relatively modest increases over the past 25
years with the real change being the expansion of casinos and gaming machines. Now the Australians
love to shorten their words, anything to save energy and give more time on the beach: service stations
becomes servos, afternoon changes to arvo and poker machines pokies. That‟s right: if someone in
Australia asks you if you fancy some fun with a pokie you have not been offered an intimate encounter
but have been invited to throw your cash into a gaming machine. In every pub and club, up and down
the country, you can‟t escape the ping-ping-pinging, flashing lights and sad punters spending hours
feeding these infernal machines. Now I‟m not normally one to stereotype people, and there are the
occasional exceptions, but most people you see at the pokies are over-weight middle aged women with
a fag in one hand and a glass of lager in the other. Every item of clothing they wear would get them
banned from Flemington Racecourse. According to a report by the Productivity Commission in 1999,
Australia has 180,000 poker machines which represents 21% of all the gambling machines in the
world. Local punters squander a massive $74 billion which in my books is an awful lot of coins going
into an awful lot slots. Here we are in a remote country with a tiny population and ONE FIFTH of all
gaming machines on the planet are here. Australia: stand up and be presented with yet another Gold
Medal. Australia: hang your head in shame.

It‟s no surprise that the issue of gambling addiction, disguised euphemistically as "problem gambling",
is a major public issue directly affecting 10% of the population. The statistics are frightening: 42% of
problem gamblers had gone without food as a result of their habit; more than 90% see themselves
depressed as a result of their betting; 37% have considered suicide, while 11% have actually tried to
kill themselves. A 1999 study presented the controversial estimate that the social cost of betting was
between $1 billion and $5 billion a year. This is such an importnat issue you would imagine searching
political debates in the Australian Parliament, official sponsored initiatives and howls of anguish in the
press. Wrong! Money talks: State Governments harvest $4.4 billion from all forms of gambling so
basically if all Australians took the pledge and gave up a flutter the country would be bankrupt and
have the economic power of a banana republic (without many bananas). Let‟s face it, there‟s not much
industry over here: I read recently that amongst developed OECD countries only Greece has a smaller
manufacturing sector than Australia. TAB Victoria, a private company, own the State‟s gaming
licences which amount to a guaranteed monopoly until 2012 of a vast cash cow. The Government has
just started to think about who to appoint when the licence expires and TAB are considering making a
$687m payment to prop up the State‟s beleaguered finances. This is nothing more than a blatant bribe
so we now know how swanky Federation square will be paid for. It comes as no surprise that the
explosion of gambling in Australia has been vigorously promoted by State Governments. What will
they think of next? Government initiatives to increase cigarette sales including the banning of smoke-
free zones? A health warning on bottles of alcohol saying that drink is really rather good for you and
especially recommended as a tipple for pregnant women?

Betting on horse racing used to be such a difficult affair. Without a pocket calculator or Mensa
accredited brain it was impossible to work out whether to back a horse at „3/1 against‟ or „evens‟ or
„5/4 on‟. And what on earth is a „Quinella‟ or a „Trifactor‟ – they sound more like medical terms that
expressions to use on a race track. This olde worlde system inherited from the Brits was outrageously
slowing down the rate that Australians could throw their cash away so, to make it easy for the simplest
of simpletons, a new metric system was introduced in Victoria in 2000. Well I suppose making it easier
for people to turn to a life of gambling is no more bizarre a way of ushering in the new millennium than
building a huge tent in London Docklands and filling it with piles of tat. From that day forward odds
were simplified, so if „$5‟ appears next to Black Beauty and the horse comes in first then for each
dollar you bet you will receive $5 if the lame mare finishes front of the field. What could be simpler:
even my mental arithmetic skills can follow that though the three bets I placed were all on donkeys and
my chances of retiring in style receded further into the distance. Introduction of the easier betting
system was seen as tremendously successful by Bookmakers, the State Government and the Racing
Industry as – surprise, surprise – even more hapless citizens were encouraged to throw their money
away. The next step will just be a big box in which you shove your Dollars, wave them goodbye, and
then the proceeds are split up at the end of each day by the greedy Bookies and the Government.

The Melbourne Cup is proudly described as the „race that stops the nation‟. In Victoria so many people
are glued to their TV screens watching the horse racing and skiving off work that the Government had
to declare Cup day a public holiday. Some nations celebrate the date they became independent, others
religious festivals but where else would they set their calendar around a three minute dash of over-
pampered animals ridden by midgets? Prime Minister‟s Question Time in Canberra Parliament had to
be halted because of the race and political leaders were judged by which horse they backed. I bet the
Treasurer was in his element as in the annual orgy of gambling, Cup day is the climax and betting tax
revenues flow in like a win on the pokies. Melbourne Cup isn‟t the race that stops the nation, it‟s the
race that finances the nation.

				
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