‘There are other things that I could do, but there’s really nothing that I love as much as horse racing’ – Chantal Sutherland
*A guest blog from my Dad!*
When planning our once in a lifetime trip to Singapore, Melbourne, Canberra and Hong Kong Siobhan and I had two aims really – to see our great friends Greg and Elaine in Canberra and to sample the cultural, culinary and alcoholic delights of the far east and Australia. It was only when booking accommodation in Melbourne that we realised that our visit coincided with one of the great global sporting events – the Melbourne Cup! Not only that, there was racing in Happy Valley Hong Kong while we were there. Being big racing fans, this gave us a unique opportunity to see how these things that we love doing at home are presented on the other side of the world.
The big sporting event of the year for us is the Northumberland Plate, the richest two mile handicap in the northern hemisphere. The Melbourne Cup is the richest in the world. I love the staying races, A five furlong sprint you can see your money disappear in a very short time, at least over two miles you can hope for a bit longer. We had heard about ‘the race that stops a nation’ and this was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. Tickets were booked online for $A70 each (about £45, very comparable to UK for this type of event).
We arrived in Melbourne the Friday before the race on the Tuesday. Cup fever was already in full swing, there was racing on the Saturday – Derby day, and then the build up to the big day really started. The hotel we were staying in had a healthy number of racegoers staying and we saw them gathering in the bar area on Saturday morning. A short stroll from the hotel and Flinders Street station was teeming with immaculately dressed people of all ages.
A days racing in Australia starts much earlier that in the UK, first race being 10.40 and everything was really well organised, almost as if they had done this before! So we were at Flemington in time for the first race. Crowds were manageable at this time and a seat could generally be found so it was ideal for us to look around, soak up the building atmosphere and see something of the racecourse with the stunning backdrop of the city. The food and drink at Flemington was no more expensive than in downtown Melbourne and in fact very reasonable for an event like this although it doesn’t appear so to locals and it is the fact that the pound has been in steady decline against the Australian dollar for many years now that makes it appear so to us.
Not being familiar with the majority of horses in the race I had decided to concentrate on jockeys that I know. Kerrin McEvoy and Hugh Bowman are Aussies who have both ridden in UK so I short listed them. James MacDonald had won the Northumberland Plate and was riding the favourite, so he went on the list and how could I now overlook Heartbreak City after meeting the traner in the hotel bar a few nights before, so he completed my betting slip. Siobhan, much more conservative, chose Qewy, widely tipped to go well at a big price.
Wins in races 2 and 3 set me up nicely, so I was in confident mood for the big race. As is often the case with these events you seem to be waiting for ever when all of a sudden they’re off and running. The race is very difficult to read until about two furlongs out and a horse makes a break for the line. “It’s Heartbreak City” I said to Siobhan, “COME ON MY SON”, but hang on, there’s another horse gone with him, who is it? I couldn’t make out what the commentator was saying above the din. Agonisingly, Heartbreak City is caught with 50 yards to go and goes down by a neck. Now I like to win a bet, but I confess that I was not totally perked up even when the winner was announced as Almandin – ridden by Kerrin McEvoy. James MacDonald came in third and Qewy fourth so Siobhan and I headed off to the TAB (Tote) with thoughts of champagne. To say that Siobhan took the news that the TAB only pays three places in a 24 horse race well would not be true. I explained to the TAB lady that in UK the Tote would always pay at least four places and she gave me a look of genuine concern and empathy – or perhaps I misread that. Undaunted, we had had a great day and won enough for it not to be termed expensive.
One week later, it’s Tuesday morning and Siobhan and I are in the Hong Kong Jockey Club Museum. I asked the young man about Wednesday’s racing. “You just turn up and pay $HK10” (about £1!). With a tram fare of about 25p we decided we could just about stretch the budget. Turning up about 20 minutes before the first race the crowds were comfortable. There were food and drink concessions all along the rail and with the lights and the towering city blocks overlooking the course the scene was stunning. We found a seat, had a couple of bets and won a little bit. The public areas were now very crowded. Notwithstanding I went under the stands to make a bet (Race 4 – Sharp Hunter – 13/1). The bedlam that was the betting area was the worst I have ever seen – and I’ve been to Cheltenham on St Patrick’s Day! I couldn’t get my bet on. Never mind it won’t win. Five minutes later and not even the best hot dog I have ever had in my life made up for the fact that Sharp Hunter got up on the line and cost me $HK320!
So that was it, two very different racing experiences. The Melbourne Cup was wonderful and in many ways the same as the experience Siobhan and I have each year at the Northumberland Plate. People recreating scenes that have been seen since the middle of the 19th century, dressing up, having a drink and revelling in a sport which is a wonderful spectacle. Happy Valley I’m not so sure about. It’s not the lost bet, it was only £30, but after initially being very struck with the visual wonder of it all it became obvious that there was very little – if any – genuine love of the sport or the horses. The track is obscured by the concessions so that anyone at ground level or the first few rows of the seats has to follow the race on the screen. I’m not saying I wouldn’t go again but it wouldn’t bother me if I didn’t.
I certainly would make sure I got my bet on in time.