National Museum of Australia

Home > Audio on demand > The Heart of Australian Racing: The Melbourne Cup > The Melbourne Cup: Is it all about the gamble? > transcript

The Melbourne Cup: Is it all about the gamble?

Dr Chris McConville, social historian, 13 August 2010

LOUISE DOUGLAS: Let me introduce you to the first speaker in our session which is looking at where does the Melbourne Cup belong in Australian culture and why has it endured. We have three terrific historians or people who have made a speciality of understanding the Melbourne Cup. Dr Chris McConville is going to speak first. He is an expert in the history of gambling in Australia and has always been interested in the underside of Australian life. He was just saying that it seems whenever anyone wants something written about the criminal underside of Australia, he seems to be the one they ask so he obviously has a reputation of some kind, and Melbourne in particular is an area that he is very knowledgeable about.

He was a joint editor of the influential book Outcasts of Melbourne. He has also been researching the life and career of that much-debated figure in Australian sport, politics and gambling, John Wren. He’s a social historian and has written on working life, on labour history in Australia and he has also written on the internationalisation of the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups. Please welcome Chris McConville.

CHRIS McCONVILLE: Thanks, Louise, for that introduction. Distinguished guests and punters one and all, the topic I was given was: Melbourne Cup, is it just a gamble? That’s a bit of a Dorothy Dixer of a question because we know it’s a gamble. But it is not just a gamble. It’s a relief to come to Canberra this week for this gathering to get away from Collingwood supporters driving out the odds on Geelong for the AFL grand final and people driving in the odds of Japanese horses on the Melbourne Cup - to get away from that excitement and come to the lassitude of an even money electoral contest in which what used to be called stable whispers but are now called leaks have meant that the odds have moved around so much you can happily back both major political parties in this election campaign and come out ahead. It is the dream of all punters to do that sort of thing.

I am going to talk about the role of gambling in the Melbourne Cup quickly. To come back to something Andrew Peacock said earlier about if you think four equals four or four adds up to four you are in the wrong place dealing with horse racing and most gamblers have found that out to their cost. You might dream about finding the winner of the Melbourne Cup, as Banjo Paterson said, but the bookmakers know that four equals four. The horses in the Melbourne Cup that have fascinated me since I was young aren’t the pantheon of champions that Les Carlyon talked about, they are horses like The Pearl that won in 1871 at 100:1; Old Rowley in 1940 at 100:1; and Wotan in 1936 at 100:1.

I have always thought that since the Melbourne Cup has been going for 150 years and three horses at 100:1 have actually won the race in 150 years, it ought to be very easy to put money on long shots and come out ahead - until I actually looked at the entire betting markets for the Cup going back to 1861 and you would have come out a long way behind if you had backed every horse that started at 100:1 in every Melbourne Cup. In some years there were about eight horses starting at odds at 100:1 and over. If you had started with The Pearl in 1871 and gone through to Old Rowley in 1940 and been smart enough not to bet when Phar Lap and Peter Pan were running in the Cup and you managed to up your ‘investment’, as punters euphemistically like to call throwing money away, in the early 1980s when the crowds went up at Flemington, you would have been able to get Zulu at 50:1 in 1881; The Assyrian in 1882 at 33:1; Malua at 20:1 in 1884; and then through to Tarcoola at about 40:1 in 1891. If you kept that going - then had a bit of a break in the 1950s - and come back in the 1970s when John Letts was riding Piping Lane, you would have got another winner at 40:1. If you had followed Bart Cummings’ horses and gone easy on some of the short-priced ones, you would have got Viewed at 40:1 a few years ago. I notice that one of his horses is listed at the moment at 200:1 for this year’s Cup so it is probably worth an investment.

So the Melbourne Cup is about gambling; it is about this dreaming of beating the odds and making a fortune from minimal effort; but it is also about participating in what gambling is, in which it’s a collective activity that produces some sort of market on an event that lasts for a few minutes. It’s probably not true though that gambling has always had a central place in the Cup from the 1860s onwards. We know that an enormous amount of money changes hands through corporate bookmakers, the TAB and in on-course bookmakers and various other locations around Australian cities. The Productivity Commission data from last year’s Melbourne Cup is that on Australian TABs on the cup itself $150 million bet, $40 million of that on the Cup Day races - $223 million was invested and $72 million of that in Victoria. So there is a vast amount of money changing hands. Obviously some of it has been bet a couple of times, people laying off bets, et cetera, but it’s a huge amount of money changing hands of which the TABs take out 13, 14 or 15 per cent depending on the bets.

The early Melbourne Cup though didn’t have this emphasis on gambling. Probably only six to 10 bookmakers fielded in some years, and the bookmakers who did operate on the Melbourne Cup were actually making a book. They were walking around with a pocketbook taking wagers usually on doubles betting so it’s a much more favourable arrangement for the bookmakers, I guess. The Melbourne Cup was first run before the introduction of free and compulsory education in Victoria so the grasp most punters had of the probabilities of a 100:1 horse winning was no doubt a lot less than people who go to some schools nowadays might have.

The massive wins that we saw in the 1880s occurred at the time after the registration of bookmaking in which bookmakers did stand up on stands, headed by Robert Sieviers, call out the odds and put them up on a board so that the betting became more transparent. This occurred after a decade in which bookmakers had had a negative effect on Australian racing and the Melbourne Cup in particular. Corrupt bookies were seen as quite inimical to the success of racing. They weren’t seen as part of any romance of racing in the way that we might see the betting ring nowadays.

There are good reasons for the bookmakers being held in pretty low esteem in the 1870s - apologies to anybody now who is engaged in the industry. There was a boatload of horses coming to one of the Melbourne Cups and the Spring Carnivals in the 1870s on a boat called The City of Melbourne under the command of Captain Paddle when the boat ran aground and, out of the 11 horses, only two survived. The bookmakers of Melbourne immediately donated Captain Paddle a bag of sovereigns for his contribution to their profits over the Spring Carnival.

Another famous horse of the era, Newminister, was found poisoned in its stable and the trainer had previously seen one of the stable boys talking to a bookmaker. There was an incident in which bookmakers are supposed to have paid somebody to block the Geelong train line to prevent horses getting to the Spring Carnival. So the 1870s was a time in which bookmaking seemed to be a semi-criminal activity uncontrolled by racing clubs. It is really only after the VRC [Victoria Racing Club] registered bookmakers in 1882 and then introduced stipendiary stewards in 1912 that some of that chicanery around racing and the manipulation of people who wanted to bet - I am not going to say came to an end but at least was brought under some sort of control.

The other side of gambling that we are probably more familiar nowadays is betting on the TAB, an invention by George Julius who grew up in New Zealand. His father was actually an archbishop in the South Island of New Zealand and was a leading anti-gambling crusader. Julius’s tote - I think a part of his original mechanical tote is in the Powerhouse Museum - was also set up on the first floor in that brick building in Eagle Farm racecourse not so long ago. Julius originally decided he would invent a voting machine, and it turned out that people who ran elections to whom he was trying to promote his invention were probably far less honest than the bookmakers, so it became a gambling device and I think it was used the first time at Flemington in Phar Lap’s 1931 Melbourne Cup.

The TAB has gone on to be the major form of gambling around Australia, introduced as a public benefit in Victoria. When the first TAB opened in Melbourne in 1961, the same weekend as Monash University opened its doors, Henry Bolte [then Premier of Victoria] announced that Victorians would never have to pay money towards public hospitals ever again. Beyond bookmakers and the TAB we have enormous opportunities for gambling. As I say, we can bet on elections. I think I said it was an even money bet. If you equalise all of the corporate betting agencies and reduce their margins to a 100 per cent book, it is about 66 per cent to the Labor Party now and 33 per cent to the Liberal Party. There’s probably still some money to be made on this election.

Each Australian state now has a casino. Poker machines are now in almost all parts of Australia which resisted poker machines in the past. Betting on football matches used to be a sort of on-the-side activity, something that was not spoken about and publicised, but you can’t even see the teams on television now without seeing the betting odds underneath them.

So the notion that horse racing has this monopoly on gambling and the essence of going to the races and participating in horse racing as a spectacle and as a great event is no longer so tied directly to gambling and the opportunities to gamble as it once was. But there is still something about the betting ring and betting on horses as against betting on football players or politicians that does have a certain romance about it. The horses are better looking than most of the politicians, present company excepted.

The bookmakers themselves, once they became registered, were part of the carnival of the racecourse and part of the theatre of going to the races. Bookmakers like Sol Green who had come to Australia as a Jewish boy from the East End of London would stand up dressed in the dark blue and light blue of Oxford and Cambridge on his betting stand; other bookmakers stood up dressed in sailors’ costumes. The betting ring initially was not this sort of hard-nosed on the spot calculation about odds and percentages; it was much more a theatrical event. The character of racing and the race itself are part of the attraction. But many of us go to participate in the theatre of the besting ring with its whole range of characters from wealthy owners, tight-mouth trainers down to the coat tuggers and - well not semi-criminal - fully criminal element who participate in the betting ring and their connection with this vast sort of hidden - not really hidden but unknown - economy that existed in Australia until quite recently of SP betting.

There have been a number of inquiries into SP betting in Australia all of which come up with vastly different amounts of how much money went through the SP market in pubs and then in flats and down back lanes of Australian cities and country towns. I think it was Tommy Smith who said, ‘You could put 10,000 [pounds] on an SP in Sydney on a Saturday morning and the odds wouldn’t move,’ so that is some indication of the enormity of the amount of money that went through off-track SP betting until the introduction of TABs and something that was generally accepted as a normal part of Australian life. One of those famous Sydney colourful characters who appeared in Underbelly wrote an autobiography in which he said, ‘Taking up SP betting rescued me from a life of crime,’ which is probably a fairly accurate indication of how Australians thought about SP betting.

So betting itself is much more than just this mechanical, percentage based, hard-nosed, numerical calculation of horses’ odds. Despite the fact that in the long run that is what it’s about, we all see betting on horses and especially on the Melbourne Cup as something to do with chasing the dream. If we chase it too hard, we start to get obsessed, as I have done many years, with these 100:1 shots. But if we focus on the favourites we don’t do all that well out of the Melbourne Cup either in the long term, with much lower percentages of favourites winning than in a lot of other major races. But then again because of the size of the fields and the amount of money put on the horses, the odds on the favourite are generally quite a bit longer than they are on most other feature races.

One of the things about the role of gambling in the Melbourne Cup is that some of that drama, colour and excitement of the betting ring has been lost as people have turned to the TAB. It’s probably been lost from the other side as well in that punters themselves have turned to computerised analysis of form rather than looking at the horses, talking to the stables, following rumours, following the market and understanding what went on on the training track, as did some of those legendary punters of the inter-war years or in the 1950s. ‘Professionals’ such as Eric Connolly, Frank Duval, known as the Hong Kong tiger because of Asian steel investments by the sporting press. But his Asian steel investments were in Japan not Hong Kong. The sporting press didn’t worry too much about the distinction.

A lot of that mythology of the betting ring has been lost. From the point of view of the people providing the opportunity to bet it has become a much more technical activity and from the point of view of the gambler or the punter a much more technical computer-based activity. When computers started being used first in gambling, a British historian wrote a book The computer: the revenge of the punter, but I don’t think it has turned out like that. It has actually provided more information and spread out the knowledge on horse racing to people who otherwise wouldn’t have the knowledge and it has taken away our opportunity to get ahead of the pack and identify the 100:1 chance that really should be 20:1 - at least that is what we like to think we thought to do. It is probably a 100:1 chance that should have been an 80:1 chance.

Gambling is part of the Cup. It has produced these colourful interchanges in the betting ring but, increasingly, that side of horse racing is becoming less central to the experience of the Cup. The betting ring itself and investments on horse races through the betting ring and even through the TAB are perhaps less significant than some critics of gambling might like to think. Keith Dunstan, a Melbourne commentator, historian and journalist and great interpreter of Melbourne life, argued in his book on sport in Australia that gambling on horse racing had peaked in Australia in 1949 if you equalled it out on the value of the money. He did point out the fact that in the 1970s gambling on horses had started to go up again, but in the overall turnover and the contribution of the Melbourne Cup carnival to the Victorian and then the Australian economy, it is easy to exaggerate the importance of the gambling dollar.

Of course it is critical to racing and to the ability of clubs to give prize money and to the interests of people who own horses and like to back them as well, but economically it is perhaps not as central as it may have been in certain eras in the past. So there is a sense in which the Melbourne Cup is perhaps recapturing some of the other appeals it may have had before gambling became so central to the race. I guess gambling probably became central to the activity in the inter-war years when you got race broadcasts, telephones and the dissemination of information through sporting. In losing the centrality of betting, racing and the Melbourne Cup carnival and the Melbourne Cup perhaps return to some of the character they may have had earlier in their history.

So if we said that gambling is critical to it, important to it, perhaps losing an element of its centrality, what else is there that makes the Melbourne Cup significant beyond the gamble or the punt? Other people will take up this later in this session. We use this word ‘gambling’ about the Melbourne Cup and I have reduced it to the notion of betting, but I think there is bit more to it than that. The whole event has an element of a big gamble: going out for the big day out and talking to other people who might know about horses. Even from this moment onwards with the Liston Stakes tomorrow - and I think Shocking is starting at 60:1, which might be an opportunity - following that meandering route of these races through to the Melbourne Cup trying to track the form of international horses. As the odds change in favouritism in the couple of months leading up to the Cup we see the significance of gambling - trying to track that story, I think that’s where betting on the Melbourne Cup becomes a dream rather than a pure financial transaction. Wandering past the bookies’ boards and seeing these fantastic odds for cup doubles for horses that will actually never get a run in either the Caulfield Cup or the Melbourne Cup - I am sure that has a lot to do with it.

Beyond that, in talking about the Melbourne Cup and the way it’s continued to be this central event particularly in Melbourne life but again in Australian life - a lot of people have used the phrase ‘integral to Australian culture’ - maybe we could turn to the comments of a couple of historians and the notions that are ingrained in students of social and cultural history nowadays that it is about the invention of a tradition. It’s a tradition that always has to keep re-inventing itself as society changes and has to match that reconstruction of society.

I have always wondered about the Melbourne Cup and why it’s important, especially when you look at the racing people and then the people who go to marquees and the party-goers, and you wonder how these two strands of Australian society come together at the Melbourne Cup when about the only time they would ever pass one another would be at 4.30 a.m. when the party-goers are coming out of the nightclubs and the racing people are going off to work. I think those two notions of an imagined community, a sense of people being a community at the track or at all of these parties all around Australia, dressing up to the nines, trying to bet and running sweeps, this sort of connection through betting is something that is really critical to its importance and the sense that it’s a tradition that can always be changing.

Coming back to what other people have said about the Melbourne Cup being integral to Australian culture, in a sense that is a wonderful thing and an opportunity for horse racing but it also makes it a prisoner of social forces that horse racing and racing people themselves can’t control. Andrew [Peacock] and others have mentioned this notion of egalitarianism in the handicapping of the cup. Les Carlyon’s writings tend to come back to this notion that every now and then in an event like the Melbourne Cup the battler downs the lord, the person who is struggling is able to beat the wealthiest investor in horse racing. And the classic battler winning of the Cup is Bamber and his horse Rivette [1939].

It is obviously much harder for these sorts of people to win the Melbourne Cup now. Internationalisation is a great thing and adds a lot of interest and excitement to it, it is perhaps making it more difficult for the Cup to retain that sense of egalitarianism, despite the use of weights. I think the interest shared by European trainers in having the track watered on the morning of the Melbourne Cup whenever they get here might take the race a little bit further away from the battling owner and trainer.

The Melbourne Cup has managed to keep surviving and altering with changing interests as gambling becomes more important and as gambling becomes less important - it has always managed to be part of this invention or alteration of tradition. It has always been central to this notion of an imagined community, and that community is expressed and is linked together and created largely through the process of gambling.

To my mind one of the great things about the Melbourne Cup is that it’s the ordinary person who makes the favourite; it’s not a professional better or owner who makes a horse the favourite; it’s the ordinary person who bets who makes a particular horse the favourite. A lot of the debate about the Cup and interest in it is this changing level of favouritism.

So yes, it is about chasing this dream, and that dream is part of Australian culture. The challenge is for the Cup to keep transforming itself in line with changes in Australian culture. But if people are interested in betting and winning money on the Cup, I come back to somebody who was quoted this morning, Damon Runyon, who said, ‘The race doesn’t always go to the fleetest of foot nor the struggle to the strongest, but that’s sure as hell is the way to bet.’ Thank you.

Date published: 2 September 2010