'It's like a miniature Melbourne Cup, albeit a slightly more earthy version'
Nicholas Godfrey visits Bendigo in Victoria, Australia
First published on Sunday, November 4, 2012
If the Melbourne Cup is the race that stops a nation, then the Bendigo Cup six days beforehand is the race that stops the second largest inland city in the state of Victoria, about 150 kilometres north west of Melbourne (thanks for that, Wiki).
In fact, while the Melbourne Cup doesn't necessarily stop the nation quite as much as it once did – the official bank holiday extends only to metropolitan Melbourne – the Bendigo Cup really does stop Bendigo, where they are given the day off to coincide with the races.
Maybe there isn't much else to do in an old mining town dating back to the goldrush era in the 1850s. Yet while the mines are long since dry, Bendigo remains a thriving community, has a population of about 90,000, with a cathedral, tourist trolley bus and a celebrated hotel (okay, pub), the Shamrock.
It is easy enough to get to: just follow the straight M76 motorway past the turn-off to Hanging Rock, where they also host picnic races. Or, it would be more accurate to say, they schedule racecards twice a year in January in the hope of staging picnic races. As the track surrounds a waterhole much favoured by kangaroos, a couple of years ago a meeting had to be abandoned because they couldn't drive off the marsupials.
Bendigo, where they race 25 times a year, is a rather more conventional, fit-for-purpose venue with its own training centre and facilities to match any second-tier British venue.
Cup day is much the most eagerly awaited meeting, attracting a 10,000-plus crowd of paying customers to an all-ages picnic party, general admission A$25 (about £16).
Families and keen form students arrive early, spreading blankets around the 'eskies' (cooling boxes) on the lawn adjacent to the running rail or trying to find a square foot of space beneath the abundant parasols. Others head straight for the Oasis VIP enclosure, a fenced-off section of the track operated by a local nightclub where, for A$110 (£70), you can mingle with stars of X Factor while a local DJ pumps up the volume before, during and after races. The noise doesn't hamper concentration on the horses since there is no view of the track here, the enclosure being located behind the Bendigo Bank Corporate Village, where the fizz is being liberally sparkled under the palm trees.
Better views of the action can be found in three small stands clustered along the two-furlong straight, the most distinctive an ancient red-brick affair with a charming yellow-and-green wooden facade that may not have changed since Victorian times. Everything you could possibly need is within easy walking distance: two rows of bookies under cover from the sun, various tote outlets, several portable toilets, mobile ATMs and an abundant supply of alcohol. It is a small slice of heaven in northern Victoria.
Bendigo's age demographic is nothing short of startling, with a huge proportion of under-30s in all enclosures. The vast majority have made a serious effort on the clothing front: shirt and tie at least for the boys, with strappy dresses and flowery frocks the norm for their female counterparts, who are offered sartorial advice from an expert brought in to judge the Bendigo version of the Flemington fashion parade.
"The dress has to be the correct length," he opines from the 'Fashion in the Field' catwalk. "It mustn't show off too much flesh either at top or bottom." By the way, they need to be careful in the fashion stakes, where sexism is rife. While the ladies can win a fortnight for two in Bali, the winning gent gets $500 in power tools and a gym membership.
Also present are a handful of celebrities headed by Olympic cycling gold medallist Anna Meares. "It's great to be able to take a couple of days off and enjoy this, and dress up for a change," says Victoria Pendleton's nemesis. "It makes a change for me to get out of the helmet and lycra and I love the vibe on the racecourse here. It's just groups of friends having a good time."
With all the glitz and glamour, the Bendigo Cup resembles a mini-Melbourne Cup, albeit a slightly more earthy version. Whereas there's a royal procession at Ascot and occasionally a pack of hounds at Cheltenham, here they have a magnificent team of drays hauling Carlton Draught beer barrels in front of the stands. Which is fair enough, as gallons of the stuff is being drunk.
"This is a big party for everybody in central Victoria, bringing in people from all around, and it's a public holiday in Bendigo," confirms Ash Hartwell, a 19-year-old events management student. "It's a great day for the oldies but it's also a social occasion for young people as well, but we all like the horses as well. We're all having a bet on the Bendigo Cup."
Ah yes, the horses. Nearly forgot about them. Bendigo is part of the country racing circuit, a vital component of Australian racing, where there are more than 350 racetracks (including trotting). In 2010, there were just short of 19,000 races – 18,802 Flat and 86 jumping. Is it any wonder jumps professionals feel like a dying species? Nearly all Australia's top jockeys and the majority of trainers start out on the country circuit, where most horses also begin their careers as there are no maidens scheduled on city tracks in Melbourne. If you want to start at Flemington, Caulfield or Moonee Valley, you may well have to race against winners first time out.
The state of Victoria alone has 54 individual country racecourses, plus 14 picnic clubs (run by volunteers), at places like Yarra Glen in the wine country or at Dunkeld, with a dramatic mountain backdrop, or bush settings like Balnarring and Woolamai. While such venues fulfil a significant social function, it isn't all beer and skittles. Estimates suggest country racing injected more than a billion dollars into the state economy on an annual basis.
"The clubs are important in terms of employment and injections of funds into the town," says Darren Galley, marketing manager at Country Racing Victoria (slogan: 'It's a great day out'). "It's a day for people to dress up and have a bit of fun and see some high-quality racing at the same time."
Bendigo is the epitome of the country racing scene, albeit very much at the upper end of the scale. The fun element is obvious, but the quality is here too, at a meeting not far short of a minor Saturday meeting at a city track. This is just one step short of Geelong, a designated country meeting whose showpiece event, the Group 3 Geelong Cup, has been won by subsequent Melbourne Cup winners Americain and Dunaden in the last two years (and Gatewood two weeks ago).
While Bendigo's organisers would like to play at that level, they have some way to go. Nevertheless, the Bendigo Cup carries a purse of A$250,000 (£160,000) – and a number of the big Melbourne yards are represented on a card featuring a host of top jockeys, which possibly accounts for the helicopters on the centre of the track. If the grass is a sun-baked brown there, the racetrack itself, a nine-furlong side-on triangle, is positively verdant.
Among those on hand is Kerrin McEvoy, who rides a winner in Sheikh Mohammed's famous maroon-and-white silks. Black Caviar's jockey Luke Nolen also rides a couple of winners, including one for none other than Bart Cummings.
"I started out as a country boy out in the bush," says Nolen, sweating and smoking outside the weighing room. "I guess I would never have imagined where I've ended up but it is nice to come back to places like this – though it isn't as relaxed as you might think."
There speaks a man riding in nearly every race on a ten-race card starting at 12 noon and ending more than five hours later.
Comparisons between Bendigo Cup day and its big brother at Flemington even extend as far as the big race, a 2400-metre Listed event won by a horse ridden by Glen Boss, who four days earlier had won the Cox Plate on New Zealand's Ocean Park.
Boss is known as 'Group 1 Glen' for his fondness for snaring the top prizes, among them a Melbourne Cup hat-trick with Makybe Diva. Obviously he's not above claiming the odd race at a lower level either as he partners Puissance De Lune to a runaway eight-length victory for leading owner Gerry Ryan, who also owns Americain.
Although the winning trainer is Ballarat-based Darren Weir, the winning horse started his career racing in the French provinces. That's a bit like the Melbourne Cup as well.
It seems they can't even win country cups with their own horses these days.
Nicholas Godfrey's new book, Postcards from the World of Horse Racing is available at racingpost.com/shop
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