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Welcome to ‘The Heart of Australian Racing: the Melbourne Cup’ symposium

Bryan Martin, racing broadcaster and Andrew Sayers, National Museum of Australia, 13 August 2010

LOUISE DOUGLAS: Good morning everybody. Welcome to the National Museum of Australia. I am going to do some brief housekeeping announcements. We are recording the symposium so it will be available on our website in a couple of weeks for you to hear again if there are parts of it you particularly liked or for you to tell your friends about. When it comes to the question and answer sessions, which I know will be terrifically dynamic, there will be a microphone going around and we need you to use the microphone because we are recording the whole symposium.

Just a sad note: we had developed this symposium with John Harms, who might be known to you as a prolific sports historian and journalist and who has been Director of Manning Clark House here in Canberra for a year or so but, unfortunately, family circumstances meant he couldn’t be here today. We have been very lucky to have Professor James Warden, who is Director of the Donald Horne Institute for Cultural Heritage at the University of Canberra, step in and chair one of the sessions that John was going to do for us this afternoon.

That is really all I need to do, except introduce Bryan Martin, who is going to be our MC [Master of Ceremonies] for the day. I think you all know that he is renowned for his efforts with the exacting art of race calling, having been a familiar voice to Australians for some 36 years. He worked with Bill Collins at 3DB and Melbourne radio station 3UZ. Although he’s described some 20 Melbourne Cups, he doubtless remembers best as a co-owner the wins of Fields of Omagh in the Cox Plate. Bryan has been a director of the Australian Racing Museum and of the thoroughbred retirement farm Living Legends, and in 2000 he was a recipient of the Federal Government’s Australian Sport Medal. He is chairman of the Australian Racing Hall of Fame, and we are delighted he has agreed to be the MC of today’s symposium. Welcome Bryan.

BRYAN MARTIN: Thank you very much, Louise. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Rod Fitzroy, VRC chairman, Andrew Sayers, Director of the National Museum of Australia, and distinguished guests - a big welcome here this morning. It is only fitting that we are gathered here in this space renowned for its cultural significance to discuss our key topic today and that of course is the Melbourne Cup. There is no disputing the Melbourne Cup is a cultural icon.

I have been involved in racing basically all my life as a broadcaster for some 35 years, having called the cup 20 times. But I tasted a little success on Melbourne Cup Day back in 2001 when our horse Fields of Omagh took out the Hong Kong Plate, which was the race that followed Ethereal. So that’s the closest I have been to a Melbourne Cup. Our horse actually followed Ethereal’s hoof prints out wide on the track on that day on a soft track and followed the path of the great mare Ethereal. It is pretty hard to imagine what it would be like to own a Melbourne Cup winner. We have 149 Melbourne Cups go by. What a momentous time it is for us in racing and for all Australians to be celebrating the 150th Melbourne Cup.

The Cup emerged from a low-key event to one which is now Australia’s most esteemed and internationally recognised sporting event. The first Melbourne Cup was run in 1861 and was attended by 4000 racegoers. Within 20 years 100,000 people attended the event, which is remarkable given the population of Victoria at the time. The first 14 Melbourne Cups were run on a Thursday, but it was changed in 1875 and the race was run on the first Tuesday of November - a tradition that remains right up until this day. Significantly, this iconic event holds the richest prize of any sport here in Australia with prize money at a staggering $6.175 million.

There is no denying the significance of the Melbourne Cup in Australian history and its culture, from Phar Lap through to Makybe Diva and the three Melbourne Cups to Bart Cummings. And think about Bart Cummings: on 14 November, ten days after the Melbourne Cup this year, he celebrates his 83rd birthday. Here is a man approaching 83 at the top of his game. It was in 1950 that he strapped his father’s horse Comic Court. It is 60 years ago this year that Bart Cummings first came into prominence, and he has won 12 Melbourne Cups. It is wonderful to be a part of this generation, this life-time that we see Bart Cummings coming through.

It’s a fabulous race; it’s a great celebration. To tell us more about what constitutes the heart of racing, it is my pleasure to welcome Mat Trinca to the microphone. Mat is the Assistant Director, Collections, Content and Exhibitions, of the National Museum of Australia. He will be chairing the first session of our symposium. Please make welcome Mr Mat Trinca.

MAT TRINCA: Thanks, Bryan, for the very kind introduction. Welcome to all of you for this first session of what I think will promise to be a fascinating day’s discussion about the long and glorious history of the Melbourne Cup. I am especially delighted to be chairing this session ‘The Melbourne Cup and why it is important’ because of the Museum’s own strong interest and continuing scholarship in this area. I should tell you that in one of the new permanent galleries of the Museum that will open next year, Flemington and the Melbourne Cup, and indeed Phar Lap’s heart which is a real treasure of this Museum’s collection, will feature. I am also delighted because I am looking forward very much to hearing what our speakers have to say about this iconic Australian event.

Our first speaker today is Andrew Sayers, the Director of the National Museum of Australia. Andrew was formerly Director of the National Portrait Gallery and Assistant Director of Collections at the National Gallery of Australia. He is a highly-regarded scholar and curator of Australian art and history. Can I please ask you to welcome to the podium Mr Andrew Sayers, who will be speaking on ‘The heart of Australian racing: The Melbourne Cup’.

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you very much, Mat. I would like to welcome you all here to today’s symposium and I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land here, the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri people. As Mat mentioned, I was previously until just a few weeks ago Director of the National Portrait Gallery.

A lot of people asked me when I came across to the National Museum of Australia what the difference was between an art museum and a museum of social history such as the National Museum. I guess in my second week I was quite graphically introduced to the difference when I had to front the press to indicate the reasons why we were not able to lend the heart of Phar Lap from this collection to the Phar Lap re-assembly in Melbourne for the 150th anniversary. Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand, had agreed to lend the skeleton and we looked as though we were holding out in not lending the heart. In fact, Rob Hulls [Victorian Attorney-General] went into the press and said, ‘Have a heart, Canberra, please lend it.’

But unfortunately that 6.3 kilos of horse heart muscle is in a staggeringly fragile condition. I was able to inspect it up close in its bath of preserving solution. You can see how the tissue is actually starting to fall apart in front of your very eyes. The heart of Phar Lap will never be able to leave the National Museum with the current state of scientific technology. Of course there may be something in the future which allows us to get over those particular problems. The heart of Phar Lap is an object around which an extraordinary number of stories can be woven, and in a sense it carries a tremendous amount of weight. That really is the difference between what art galleries do and what museums do: the objects enable us to tell stories.

This symposium is called ‘The Heart of Australian Racing’ as an acknowledgement of that of that iconic object in our collection. I have been here at the National Museum now for less than ten weeks but already I can see very clearly a role for the National Museum, and today’s symposium is one dimension of what I think is an important role for a National Museum, and that is to connect history with contemporary Australia. Virtually everything that happens in contemporary Australia has a history. With an institution such as the Melbourne Cup, it’s very clear to see the way in which that history has created the institution which it is today.

It is not always clear, it seems to me, when we look at aspects of contemporary Australia that we can see the way in which history has shaped the way we think and the way we feel. Almost the most important aspect of the National Museum’s role is to bring the past and the present into a very meaningfully dialogue, and in this we have a great opportunity to have a very cross-generational conversation. Children having a conversation with their grandparents and their parents, and families and friends of different generations, who all have a view of Australia which is created by their particular experiences - all of these things can be shared. There is no-one in Australia for whom the Melbourne Cup doesn’t have some memory or some meaning, and today gives us a great opportunity to look at the complexities of that story.

One of the mysteries to me, and I never really gone into this in any great detail, is how the fields for the Melbourne Cup are actually established. I conclude by saying that this is a great line-up today, a great field. The expertise, the experiences and the diverse range of ways in which our speakers have played a part in this extraordinary story promise to make today’s symposium a very rich and rewarding investigation of this subject. Thank you. [applause]

Date published: 30 August 2010