The Race that Unites

“I’m so jealous,” said an Australian expatriate in Suzhou in jest upon learning that I was going to the Melbourne Cup Luncheon in Shanghai. She herself could not make it because the removers were coming to pack her belongings to be sent back home. However, she intended to watch the race live on Star Sports. Coming from Melbourne, the lady said she would not miss the event for anything in the world.

No doubt, many of her compatriots must have shared the same sentiment. That’s why the Australian Women’s Shanghai Group and Lion Nathan have made the Tooheys Melbourne Cup Luncheon a yearly event. Judy Vessey, the SEA President introduced this writer to the Cup during our Mongolian tour. The 2002 luncheon was held at the newly opened Westin on the Bund on Tuesday, November 5. Spring Festival was to be the dress code of this year.

The Grand Ballroom on the third floor was transformed into a racecourse – with a difference. Two giant screens lined the walls to enable every one in the room to have a better view of the race. On each of the round table that was covered with white tablecloths were placed three rectangular vases, holding purple flowers and various kinds of soft drinks. Bottles of alcoholic beverages were placed on a long table in each corner of the room. Champagne bottles lay nice and cool in the ice buckets ready to be consumed by thirsty participants.

At 11.00 a.m. guests began to arrive. Most of the gentlemen came in business attires – some wore hats of elaborate decorations. Unfortunately, there were not many gentlemen who dressed themselves up for the occasion. However, one was spotted, wearing a Chinese robe made of silk brocade that has become popular ever since the APEC meeting last year. Nearly all of the lady guests came in beautiful and colorful costumes. Their matching hats were in variety of shapes, sizes and designs. Judges must have had an unenviable task of trying to decide which one was the best because everyone looked so lovely. They all took great pains in planning, designing and producing costumes and hats, especially for the occasion. Chattering and laughing gaily, they made a grand entrance and took their seats in the room.

Against one wall was a long rectangular table where sweeps were sold before the race. After the money had been paid, a horse could be drawn at random. The atmosphere was charged with expectation, senses tingled and the excitement palpable. Finally, the time that everyone was waiting for arrived. The two screens came alive. Amidst the thundering of hoofs, cheering, shouting and whistle blowing, the no. 4 “Sandmason” was leading the pack. However, just as the rider was approaching the finishing line, the no. 14 horse by the name of Media Puzzle from U.S.A. overtook him and won the race. Its jockey was Damien Oliver whose brother had been killed in an accident in the previous week. He told the media very touchingly that although winning was important and had made him very happy, he would rather have lost the race and had his brother alive and well.

It is not so much a horse race that is significant but rather a national institution – an immense gala occasion that generates more interest and activity than any other race has been or could ever be.

The Melbourne Cup has a long and colorful history, dating back to 1861, which was the date of the first running. However, racing in Melbourne dates from 1838 when the first meeting was held. To quote the Melbourne Cup Gazette by Maurice Cavanough: In those days “Bets were laid and paid in bottles of rum, with the unfortunate sequel that one successful punter imbibed so freely that he blundered into the Yarra River and was drowned. Nevertheless the meeting was voted a great success.”

Melbourne Cup is the race that stops a nation on the first Tuesday in November. It is not only the whole of Australia that stops but most of New Zealand stops as well. Over one hundred thousand sweeps are held in virtually every office, hotel and meeting place in both countries. One of the Australian participants told this writer that the Melbourne Cup is held not only as a tradition but also as a desire to bring people of all walks of life together. In the present world where individuals are judged by achievement, success and wealth, they no longer have time for friends and neighbors. Many have become cocoons, living in their own protective shells they have built around themselves. The Melbourne Cup provides a good opportunity for the people to unite and come closer together. It is also a way of reminding people to join in the fun that they may have forgotten exists, in the race for material gains.

The Australian Women’s Shanghai Group’s President, Diane Fielding, gave an opening speech, followed by the awarding of various prizes to the lucky winners. After the lady with the best hat and costume had been announced, the buffet luncheon was served, accompanied by endless flow of Champagne, white and red wine, beer as well as non-alcoholic drinks. During lunch some ladies could not resist but got up to dance in tune to the irresistible disco music.

For every successful event, there are always people behind the scene. Besides the generous sponsors from various organizations and all the helping hands, I was told that three ladies had been very involved and worked very hard. I would do them an injustice, if I did not mention their names when writing this article. They were Tracy Brito, Kate Goode and Rita Bezdicek. Thank you for bringing us together and for giving us a wonderful day. I am already looking forward to the Melbourne Cup next year.