Novice's guide to the Melbourne Cup

Novice's guide to the Melbourne Cup

10 tips for surviving the horse race that stops a nation
For better or worse, the race is becoming as famous for its off-course antics and fashion.

First run in 1861, Australia’s $6 million Melbourne Cup is "the race that stops a nation.” The capacity crowd of 110,000 would be enough to make a racing novice tremble.

But it is possible to enjoy the spectacle at Flemington Racecourse on the first Tuesday in November and maybe even prosper. Just follow our survival guide.

1. How to be in the know before you go

The locals will be at work on Monday, or at home doing the form, but the tourists will be in Swanston Street at noon to see the Melbourne Cup Parade.

Shop nearby and sneak a look at the jockeys in their racing silks and past champion thoroughbreds. Prepare for the atmosphere.

Don't worry that everyone will know more about the Cup than you -- they’ll be here for the socializing. You should, however, know who won last year’s Cup -- that will immediately give you a conversational advantage over more than half the crowd.

In 2012, Green Moon won.

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2. How to get to the track

melbourne cup flemington racecourseFor gambling, drinking and other upscale debaucheries, please alight here.
Think you’ll drive and park the car? This is a rookie error that will only stress you out before the day starts.

How about a taxi? This will mean losing half your cash before you've even placed a bet as the taxi meter ticks over in the traffic gridlock before you get there. At day’s end the queue at the racecourse taxi rank will be at least an hour too.

Go like the locals -- take the train. There’s a station right at Flemington Racecourse. Just get a valid Metcard first.

3. How to get into the racecourse

A ticket is the obvious answer. But don’t be the one asking, “Can I buy a ticket, sir?” 

“No tickets here mate!” will be the retort.

The Cup is a fully ticketed event. Pre-purchase through and be sure to avoid the illegal scalpers trying to sell tickets at inflated prices.

No ticket means go directly to the pub.

4. How to do the form

melbourne cup bettingTime to see if your studying paid off.
While there are plenty of “expert” guides, studying the horses’ form too intently can lead to undesirable conditions: “too serious” (unattractive to the opposite sex), “know-it-all” (unattractive to everyone) and “scapegoat” -- blamed for the one that lost: “You said it would win!”

Using the racebook for a relaxed discussion of jockey fashions and unusual horse monikers might be more interesting. 

Whatever you do, don’t ask if the legendary Black Caviar is running -- she’s a sprinter resting in a paddock. This lot run three times as far as she does.

5. How to understand the jargon

The official online guide has a thorough glossary of racing terms but there’s no need to learn it -- there is no test.

Plus, there's nothing quite as aggravating as a jargon-fueled know-it-all. Just don’t discuss “filly” and “stallion” in mixed company and you’ll be right.

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6. How to talk about the race

Checking out the form.
If you’re talking to Australians remember to complain about the overseas horses plundering “our” riches.

Complaining is a popular pastime in Australia. It’s why the expression “aorta” was coined. 

The word, a contraction of “they ought to,” is used like this: “Aorta build some decent roads,” or in the case of the foreign horses coming to contest the Melbourne Cup, “Aorta send ‘em back where they came from.”

However, if you hear a French or English accent nearby, stay "shtum." No point having an argument when one of their horses will probably win the race.

Don’t worry about the Kiwis as they’ve given up. The last time a Kiwi horse won the Cup was back in 2001.

7. How to place a bet

melbourne cup bettingHere goes nothing. Hopefully not everything.
The key terms any punter needs to know are these: "Win" -- you bet on which horse comes first. "Place" -- it has to finish first, second or third. "Each way" -- you’re having a win and a place bet so saying “$5 each way” is a $10 bet.

The second thing to know -- be quick.

With $140 million wagered on the Cup around Australia last year, people in line behind don’t want you fiddling.

But remember the age-old advice to gamblers: “Only bet what you can afford to lose.”

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8. How to be entertained

melbourne cupNo way they're as loud as their suits.
There’s plenty of official entertainment. People will be singing for you a lot, including some gorgeous 20-something female belting out the Australian National Anthem, and unofficial, pop-up jazz bands.

But by far the most fun is to be had watching the slow-mo deterioration of all the besuited gents and ladies as the day wears on, and their trips to the numerous bars and beer tents around the ground take effect.

9. How to get something to eat and drink

melbourne cupIf you find a table, in a bar, with a view of the racing, stay put.
You don’t really need to eat or drink, do you?

Considering the mammoth queues that comprise the unfortunate, or badly organized, patrons who forgot to ingest anything before arriving, it's best to grab brunch in the city before getting on the train, then grab a snack at the races once the lunch rush subsides. 

That way you’ll only have to worry about the drinking.

This you are advised to do in moderation. Wine should be selected over beer because you won’t need to visit the toilets as often -- another way to avoid the snaking, hour-long queues that are as much a part of Cup day as flamboyant hats.

10. How to watch the horses 

melbourne cupThe moment all the training pays off. For one horse, anyway.
The Parade Ring is the place people go to marvel at the beauty of the equine creature. So novices like yourself should avoid it at all costs.

Your time will be far better spent finding a decent vantage point to watch the race.

The real romance of the racetrack lies in seeing the thoroughbred racehorse call upon all of his breeding, speed and stamina to win the race -- so long as he's the one you’ve backed, of course.

Feel free to loudly cheer your winner home. Expressions used most are “Go (horse’s name)” or “Go you little beauty,” for when you have ignored my advice, had too many drinks and can't remember who you backed.

For the Cup itself, get to a vantage point early if you want to see anything.

And good luck!

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Bruce Holmes is an Australian freelance travel writer and photographer who lives in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales.

Read more about Bruce Holmes