What you can expect at the Melbourne Cup
Tuesday, November 5. Emirates Melbourne Cup Day.
It was so-hot degrees. Women stepped out into the street and all but melted on the footpath. A man dumped his jacket in the bin. Fascinators clawed up to the sky, but refused to shelter. Sunglasses slid down noses and makeup just slid off. It was straight to the bar and extra ice, and by the end of the day it was heels in hands, hats off, straight to the bar downtown, extra ice.
It was the kind of heat where you can't be hot and not bothered. It was the kind of day where you've spent good money on your look and too much time deliberating to swap it for something practical. On goes the fascinator and voila! - instant headache. Fascinators are like saying a word too many times. The more you think about them, the weirder they look.
If you don't have an eye for detail, everyone looks equal on the way to the racecourse - in the tram, on the train, in the queue on arrival. Everyone is Daaarling, you look amaaazing - all glossy lipped and fascinatored and hanging off the arm of a suited man. One step through the gates and there's a determination to separate. It's get to the VIP area, fast. Or get through the crowds, find a patch of grass, get the rug down and get those effing heels off. They are already starting to pinch. God help you.
In general admission, a good day means finding shade and a place to perch and proximity to beers and bets. But if you've come for the horses, forget it. You'll be lucky to see the top of their ears as they gallop past, and by race two you'll be too hot to care. Save your dollars and watch the people instead. The Melbourne Cup is the ultimate event for people who like to stare at people. Where in New Zealand are there 104,169 of them crammed into a racecourse?
Over 1100 women lined up to get picked over by a team of judges for the Fashions on the Field competition, but more divas than that walk past you on the grass. Today there are an estimated 65,000 variations of hat. About 50,000 of them must be the simple headband with a feather or flower - boring! - others have been magnificently millinered and there are a few that are just plain wrong.
WINNERS'S PARADE: The crowd salutes the winner of last year’s Melbourne Cup, Fiorente, ridden by Damien Oliver. Photo: Fairfax Media
A girl walks past in yellow, with a medium sized hatinator that slopes down one side of her face. She looks miserable. "How's my hat," she asks her boyfriend. He frowns as if to say how-many-freakin-times and replies with a sigh. "Same as it was."
Lesson one: If you can't own the look, don't own the hat.
Every kind of dress parades past in a day. It's hard to pin down a trend. Maybe polka dots, maybe floral, maybe pastel. Maybe short, maybe short-short. There were predictions pre-race day that men would be wearing blue suits, but the vast majority wore black pants and shirts with the sleeves rolled up. As the day slides on, women's legs kick about like horses at the start line. They lift one up for relief, then the other. They start to take small steps. Men get used to stopping every 10 seconds. Those same women who arrived on their arm are now using it as a kind of crutch to lessen the pain.
You can tell the women who have been before by the size of heel they are wearing. Surely no one would make this mistake twice.
By late afternoon, general admission has the vibe of a great party that's turning messy. No more trips to the loo to touch up the makeup - hell, no more shoes. The switch to bare feet is an instant mood changer. Women relax. They take their fascinators off and fix them on to men, who pose for photos and shout, Do I look like a girl? There's a collective movement to the hot chip queue and tomato sauce spills induce laughter, not tears. People make friends with their neighbours and rugs shimmy close together. And then everyone stops for the big race.
You might not be able to see it, but it doesn't matter because there's colour all round. The man clutching his bet so tight he has white knuckles. The woman under the FLEMINGTON sign quietly scolding her husband for the crap picture he took on her iPhone. The woman in her 50s dressed in an angel costume, holding a whip and flicking it at passers-by, yelling "You've been naughty, you've been verrrry naughty."
And just minutes before kickoff, you'll hear what sounds just like the racing commentator, only it's a young guy huddled among his friends, freestyling, and everyone in the Melbourne Cup mosh pit turns to watch him. "AND he's going for it! Hannah and Tom! If they were any closer they'd probably get a room. Two hundred metres left to go and they are about to win the cup, THE MELBOURNE CUP! He's sticking his tongue down her throat! He's done it! The Emirates Melbourne Cup, and it's Tom's!" And the crowd cheers and you forget the heat and think how happy you are with this crowd of friendly strangers, all crazy over horses we can't see.
Melbourne shops are heaving with raceday dresses/fascinators/shoes, so don't panic if you haven't found anything before you leave. Take a rug, food, sunblock. Go as high as the sky with your headwear, but think of your poor feet and opt for sandals over heels. Take the train. Melbourne public transport is brilliant and wait times are nonexistent. Don't count on being able to connect with friends throughout the day – cellphone coverage is poor. Bet cautiously – save your pennies for the Melbourne shops and eateries.
Thursday, November 7. Crown Oaks Day
DRESSED TO IMPRESS: Myer Fashions on the Field National Winner, Chloe Moo poses with Jennifer Hawkins, Whitney Port and Nerida Winter during Crown Oaks Day at Flemington Racecourse. Photo: Getty Images
Billed as the "ladies day" of spring carnival ("an occasion for the ladies to express their own signature style, amid a spectacular racing backdrop" says melbournecup.com) and "blokes day" for the guys who come to perve. Of course, there's horseracing, too.
Fashion is much as it was two days prior. Fascinators, hatinators, hats, feathers and bows. Every kind of coloured dress. Wins and oh-my-god-what-was-she-thinkings. Today you have the determined look of someone heading to VIP and you haven't got a moment to lose.
Enter the Rose Room: a "multi-tiered marquee that combines first class hospitality with magnificent views of the racecourse". To the left, a man on his knees shining already shiny shoes. To the right, betting booths and no queues. In the toilet, a makeup artist giving free touch-ups. Views of the track and bubbly, bubbly, bubbly. You look out at your friends, the general admissioners, with a mixture of longing and relief. It's a cold day and you have shelter. There's no long walk or wait, so heels stay on.
Wait staff hawk the bubbly. You can't quite calculate how many glasses you've had because you never get to empty. It's the type of affair that involves a side plate and bread rolls and all types of cutlery and when lunch is served, people scoff to soak up the booze. But here in the VIP lounge, people actually talk about the horses and bets are more than a dollar a place. Strangers want to know what you've got on your ticket.
Your routine has always been to scan through the list of horses and go with the name that stands out for no reason whatsoever. Like, Tear Gas in race 10.
"What are its odds?" People want to know these details.
Umm, you just chose the damn thing because it got you thinking about violence. It's not enough to have a ticket with one horse on it. People, everywhere, are talking trifectas and quinellas and perfectas and really labouring over their racebooks. Writing notes in the margin.
When the race is on, they watch and yell like they are about to win or lose big. There are horses on screens, but you can see them out front. There they go. And you cheer for your dollar-a-place like you've put the house on it - "GO TEAR GAS!" - and think how happy you are with this crowd of friendly strangers, all crazy over a bunch of horses and an endless fountain of bubbly.
ADVICE TO VIPers
Wear heels. The bigger the better. You don't have to walk once you're in your possie and you'll be rubbing shoulders with some very well dressed ladies. Don't, for God's sake, take them off. Match every bubbly with a glass of water. Wear a hatinator. At least do a quick google of betting terms so you can hold a conversation about horse racing. Know who the favourites are. If all else fails, keep your head in the racebook and scribble notes down the margin as if your next bet is very serious and important.
Aimie Cronin flew to Melbourne thanks to Emirates. Emirates flies a daily A380 service to Melbourne from Auckland.