On the Punt: Chance, racing and the horse in Australian life and culture
Bob Charley, Fiona Carruthers, Alan Eskander and Geoff Slattery in conversation with James Warden, 13 August 2010
BRYAN MARTIN: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back. We are well on the home straight now and have about a furlong to go. Session 4 is called On the punt: chance, racing and the horse in Australian life and culture. The public fascination with the Melbourne Cup extends beyond the race itself. For many Australians the race that stops a nation represents a day of fashion, socialising, networking and, of course, fun. Australians love to chance. There are many documented stories of punters chancing their luck on a bet. Winning or losing captivates the nation. We all love a bet. Please make welcome James Warden, who is Director of the Donald Horne Institute for Cultural Heritage who will chair the final session for today.
JAMES WARDEN: Thank you, Bryan. Yes, I am from the University of Canberra and we invented a little thing out there called Donald Horne Institute for Cultural Heritage. Donald found it difficult to get past the magnitude of this particular work The Lucky Country for a couple of reasons. One is that it had one of the most famous covers ever in Australian publishing, which was a work commissioned from Albert Tucker by Geoffrey Dutton at Penguin for the Penguin edition. The picture became known as ‘The lucky country’, and It was a picture of a gambler. He has a card in his pocket and a feather in his cap. It is probably the best-known cover in Australian publishing history, with the possible exception of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunich, and the book sold tremendously well. This is the Angus Robertson edition of the series that Tucker did called ‘The gamblers’.
In this book Donald says that Australia is a lucky country - he meant it ironically, as we know - and he said it has a gamblers luck, instinct, improvisation, innovation, chance. I have been noticing today how often the word ‘lucky’ has been used in all manner of contexts.
We are going to talk about luck and we are going to talk about being unlucky. Did you notice why Australians named that poor koala that was just about burnt to death in the Canberra bushfires Lucky - not unlucky because it got caught in the fire but lucky that it made it through.
Donald wrote the foreword to the 1968 book by Frank Hardy called The Unlucky Australians which was about Aboriginal stockmen in Western Australia trying to earn a living. Frank Hardy used to drink at the Harold Park Hotel and he had three rules for living: never argue with a police officer; never run upstairs; and never back a favourite - and I suspect he broke all of them.
What we want to hear from our panel today - we hope to give the last one a run for their money but we will see - we want to cover some of those themes, the idea of chance, luck and romance which has tumbled out through today, and the punt.
Alan Eskandar’s profession is built around many of those things. Can you have father and son to make a dynasty - is that good enough?
ALAN ESKANDAR: And a sister.
JAMES WARDEN: A dynasty of bookmakers here. Bob Charley, I am sure, is well known to everyone here as the former chairman of the AJC [Australian Jockey Club], Australian Racing Board and then has played, as far as I can tell, every possible role short of being a jockey in Australian racing. Fiona Carruthers, who has written very fluently and beautifully about the horse in Australian history and culture, gave up a secure job as a journalist for all manner of organisations to write a book. And we have Geoff Slattery who has published many things - too many books on Collingwood for my liking - but a tremendous new book on the history of the Melbourne Cup and a really great book on the history of the AFL. Geoff’s done many things - publisher, gourmand, food critic amongst other things.
I would like to throw a question to each of them and then open it up to you to ask questions. We can have a lot of tremendous stuff coming off the stage but we want to give you folk a chance. I will put a question to each of them and then get you to talk.
It’s incumbent upon you all that, if you mention a date, you have to say who the horse was that won that year. I met Donald Horne in 1990 when Kingston Rule, trained by Bart Cummings, won the cup. Donald Horne and I shared a room in the Morven Brown building which oversees the Randwick racecourse. I think it was before Randwick was Royal Randwick. Donald and I were a bit put out that we had to share a room. He clearly had no interest in horseracing but I used to like watching them out the window go around and within sight of the AJC. Donald had no interest in sport but he could see the importance of sport to people like us.
I might start with Geoff. You like horses, Geoff, don’t you? Have you ever been able to eat a whole one?
GEOFF SLATTERY: Let me tell you a little story about that, James. Years ago in my gourmand role I did ABC radio with Doug Aiton on a Tuesday, and this particular Tuesday happened to be Melbourne Cup day. I had one of those days on the punt where we all despair and hope they never happen again. I got to the studio in a foul mood, empty pockets, full of bile and decided that my topic would be the cultures that eat the horse. There are some great recipes. I understand now Western Australia has opened up the abattoirs to the horse. I have a few that might be capable of filling spaces.
JAMES WARDEN: Which might lead into Fiona’s question - we talked earlier about the unlucky and those unlucky horses that don’t make it. For my mind, Shadow King is the unlucky horse, ran six times but beaten successively by Night March, Phar Lap, White Nose, Peter Pan, Hall Mark and Peter Pan - bad luck mate. You have written about that horse, haven’t you? Can you tell the story further about that, how unlucky he is?
FIONA CARRUTHERS: We were listening today to stories about all these great champions and we were talking about - which I am sure will resonate with a lot of people, mainly me because I used to ride a lot of them - all the broken-down racehorses, the horses that get beaten and the horses that don’t get anywhere; we were saying what so fabulous about the Melbourne Cup - Shadow King is such a wonderful example - is that it’s a race where everybody cheers as much for the horses that come second and third and the horse they back that didn’t win, as long as you haven’t backed for too much money. It’s a race that is about putting in your all, your effort. When a horse has a good run, as long as the punters feel their horse ran an honest race and Shadow King - I am sure Andrew Lemon or someone will know better than me - never managed to win. What I loved and put in the book was that, in the fifth cup he ran, the organisers decided he should lead the field out because he had put in such a magnificent effort. When he was retired he then served the community for some 20 years as a police horse. A lot of people don’t remember with these horses that didn’t win the magnificent way they go on to serve. With a lot of them today, still that tradition stays that they become police horses or go to stud or they end up in the great washing pool - Grand Armee is now quite a successful eventer, not that he ever won a Melbourne Cup, but a great racehorse that goes on to have these incredible careers. You don’t tend to think of a horse having a career, but they do. Some of them are better travelled than a lot of people too.
JAMES WARDEN: There was that terrific footage this morning from the VRC film where you see Peter Pan just streaking along the rails. I think that’s the 1932 -
BRYAN MARTIN: It’s the 1934 footage.
JAMES WARDEN: Poor old Shadow King is not running third, he’s running seventh or something. Tulloch never won. Black and Gold ran down by Vanderhum in the swamp in 1976 but then won the next year. That lovely story from Johnny Letts, which reminded me of the Stephen Bradbury story about winning - everyone fell over and Johnny Letts came through on Piping Lane, which as a little boy in Tasmania that was a tremendous moment for us when you rode a Tasmanian horse, regrettably from northern Tasmania but still those of us in Hobart thought it was near enough. So thanks for that one.
Bob, you have been around the race tracks for a considerable portion of you life, can you recount - before we come back to you about your great interest in the art and poetry and that expression of the romance of the track - a couple of the tremendous, magnificent moments that you have felt as a punter or administrator in your many roles in racing?
BOB CHARLEY: Before I answer that, I just want to say to Bryan Martin that you have put us into the deep end following that previous session. That was sensational. That poignant story of Wendy Green’s reminds me of that saying of that marvellous politician - I am looking at Andrew Peacock when I say this - that Sir James Killen once said, ‘Nothing improves the quality of a racehorse like ownership.’
I have a particular memory of Beldale Ball because I was doing a television show at the time and it’s the only time that I ever tipped a Melbourne Cup winner on air and probably for about the same reasons as Lettsy did because it had impressed me in its lead-up races. I think it was about 20:1. Although I have backed a few Melbourne Cup winners, that is the only one that I actually thought would win.
Jeune sticks in my mind. From a professional punter’s point of view back in the days when the legal eagles were at their height, we very rarely bet on a Melbourne Cup. It’s a very hard race to bet on. If you trace the history of gambling on the Melbourne Cup, the very significant thing is that in the early days the owners - there were many big betting owners in the latter part of the last century, James Tate, James White, Etienne de Mestre. When Glencoe won the Melbourne Cup, the prize money was $1,018 but John Tait collected $20,000. That is nearly 20 times the value of the prize money. Imagine somebody winning 100 million today - Kerry Packer aside, of course.
All through the ’60s, ’70s and the ’80s the Melbourne Cup was characterised by people who really threw in big for a big win. I think a lot of that has changed with the advent of - the ’90s were a tough time in Australia and then you got to the First World War. Consequently during the time that we were on the stage and gambling, I don’t recall there were any huge punters on the Melbourne Cup but I do in later years. Mark Read made a habit of backing horses at the Victoria Club for huge sums of money, and everybody pales in significance with Kerry Packer. He bet 50 million in one day at Randwick. He had some huge wins on the Melbourne Cup but of course he probably wasn’t even there. He and Lloyd Williams together were orchestrating coups. Some of those stick in my mind. I suppose it’s the one you back yourself that you think of most.
JAMES WARDEN: John Randall allegedly made a fortune on Carbine in 1890; is that right, Andrew?
ANDREW LEMON: Small fortune.
JAMES WARDEN: As a man who has to set a price week in and week out, how is Melbourne Cup day for you, Alan, as an experience both personally and in terms of prosecuting your business?
ALAN ESKANDAR: My experience of the Melbourne Cup has largely been professional. My father was a bookmaker. I worked for him when I was studying at uni, and during Cup week I remember sitting an accounting exam at seven in the morning. I had to get out to the Cup because I had to work. We had an accounting exam on that morning, and my lecturer had very little sympathy for me, which I found amazing. Everyone else is sitting the exam at 11 a.m. I just said, ‘That is impossible.’ This is our grand final. I have to work. There is no way that I can sit this accounting exam.
My experience of the Cup has always been professional, but I have loved it. It hasn’t felt like going to work; it has been a rare opportunity for me to be at Flemington for the four days of the carnival. Obviously the pinnacle of that is the Melbourne Cup, but the whole four days at the carnival are amazing. I am fortunate enough to be a Melburnian and I live in the city of Melbourne during Cup week and the lead-up to Cup week. You are sitting at a café somewhere and you overhear people sitting at the table next to you, they are talking about - what are you going wear, where are you going to be, who are you going to back? There is this whole aura of the Melbourne Cup that engulfs Melbourne for the lead-up. Then for the four days at Flemington it engulfs Australia. We have lots of clients who are not only from Melbourne but from all over Australia. Before you know it everyone swarms into Melbourne.
For me that is one of the most exciting weeks of my life. If someone said you can have a first-class ticket anywhere in the world for that first week in November I would say, ‘No, thank you very much. I am comfortable where I am. This is where I want to be.’ The Melbourne Cup is not only the race itself and the horses, but I obviously have a skew towards the wagering side of things. I get excited to take the big bets and I get excited to take the little bets.
We often talk about Kerry Packer, Lloyd Williams and the Mark Reids, the thing that I find the most appeal with the Melbourne Cup is that it is a great equaliser. For the late Kerry Packer spending 50 million at Randwick gives him a rush, and that’s fantastic because he is worth $4 billion. For John Doe who is walking through the betting ring, he’s having $100 on the Melbourne Cup and that is just as important to him as Kerry Packer’s $50 million. That is one of the things I like about it: the betting ring is such a great cross-section of society irrespective of class, status, wealth, race, religion, colour - it makes no difference. You walk into the betting ring and the $5 I am pulling out of my pocket is just as important as Kerry Packer’s $50 million. To be part of that is dynamic, exciting and an enormous rush.
JAMES WARDEN: Do people care if they lose?
ALAN ESKANDAR: Some people do. But particularly with the Flemington carnival and the Melbourne Cup, it is much more social than winning and losing. People have their own theories and principles as to how they try to find their winner: it could be colour; it could be name; it could be barrier; it could be lucky something or other - people have their own approach to it. I think people just want to see their horse have a good fight. That is what they want to see. They say, ‘Give me a chance. I want to watch it; I want to yell and scream for 3200 metres. If I win it’s sort of a bonus for me.’ It’s the excitement and getting caught up with another 100,000 people at Flemington and the enjoyment of it.
JAMES WARDEN: We might throw it open to the audience now because you have been tremendously patient. I hope Mark Twain got this when he was at Flemington where he said, ‘You have to choose your words carefully. There is a big difference between a horse chestnut and a chestnut horse.’ If you have questions for any of the panellists - you can basically ask what you like but we want to try to draw on this idea of chance, luck, romance, the artwork around horses, the poetry and so forth. But we will take all comers.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: Geoff, you recently published The Story of the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s greatest race and there has been a lot of talk about the actual horses in this greatest 24 Cup race. People’s opinion about horses in the Melbourne Cup and over a period of time, has it surprised you the outburst in some ways as to what this fictitious race has stimulated?
GEOFF SLATTERY: Are you saying to me, Joe, that there is a race on this year that is not the greatest race?
MAN IN AUDIENCE: I am a bit worried that it might overshadow -
JAMES WARDEN: We have the field here.
GEOFF SLATTERY: When the book project started, and all book publishing is the ultimate punt. It’s a bit like what Alan does. What we try to do with the book is you match a book: what is your exposure, how many copies do you need to sell to get your money back, and then whatever happens north of break square is whoopee. This book is not an easy product for us to publish and believe that it can make a profit because it’s a very expensive bet that we make.
In the process of putting the book together I thought: how can we find an edge that is beyond who won in 1868 or what was the first trophy or when was the three-handled cup, blah blah. So I came up with this scheme that says: let’s put together the 24 runners in a mythical field with a big rider on top of it that says what weight would Greg Carpenter give that field. As the time went on and the field came closer together, it came to my desk and I looked at it and thought, ‘Christ, what do we have here? Any of these horses has a justifiable reason to be selected to win.’
The only other part of the equation was at the launch we did a barrier draw. The barrier draw, as John Letts pointed out before, is very significant in any race, including a two miler with a 600-metre straight. Phar Lap got barrier 21 and carries 60 kilos. I don’t know what Alan is going to put up for the market on the race, but I just wish we could go back in time, put them all together and go ‘boom’ and off they go. It is all part of the punt, Joe. Publishing in small business is the ultimate book making business.
JAMES WARDEN: Rain Lover is carrying 56 kilos and he is being ridden, I am sorry to say, by Jim Johnson.
GEOFF SLATTERY: In the jockey choice if jockeys had multiples then they rode the one they were most connected with.
JAMES WARDEN: Bart has got four starters and his Dad has one in this field.
GEOFF SLATTERY: Whenever we see Comic Court, we see Bart as a young man leading the horse.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: I had 20 years in the racing industry, as Bob [Charley] would know, as administrator with the Goulburn club which I had the privilege of turning over $5,000 when I first took over and when I left they were turning over $22 million and built a race track of $10,000 - a great thrill to do all of that. With what Alan said about gambling, I don’t think our general public really understand what gambling is about to the diehards in the racing industry.
One of my philosophies, and I wasn’t a big punter at all, was that I loved to go to the races with so much in my pocket, never counted it through the day, just at the end of the day - crikey, I wonder how I went. When I went home they would say, ‘Dad, how did you go?’ If you lost you always said you broke square. Never go home unless you broke square otherwise they would never let you go again. It’s a wonderful feeling that I don’t think enough of our public really understand.
I will tell you a quick story, if I may, about an elderly lady who criticised me once at a function about this gambling, how bad it was, the country was going broke with all these children starving to death. I said there is so much in racing, more so than just the hard core gambling of it. I will give you an example: buy the paper on Saturday and have a look at the breeding and you will see there could be a horse out of trumps by clubs and they call it full hand. That is how they name horses and the wonderful things they do with it. That lady today still rings me. Thank you.
JAMES WARDEN: Thanks for that.
ALAN ESKANDAR: I couldn’t agree with you more. I tell our team in our offices that we sell entertainment. That is primarily what we sell. The whole concept of this hard core gambler, I am not really convinced it is there, particularly when you come to the carnivals of the Melbourne Cup and the like. Having a bet on racing is your opportunity to be involved with the race. That is your opportunity to actually be there and virtually riding the horse, feeling every bump that it takes and every turn it takes and being involved in that capacity. I couldn’t agree with you more in that having a bet on something like that is the opportunity to participate.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: My very first big bet was at Randwick in the old days of the ledger. A friend of ours was connected to a guy who had a horse called Clown Prince. Some may remember it. It used to run in the mud like a boat. I was at Randwick this day - a 16-year-old boy, I had five bob each way on it - standing on the steps of the ledger. One step up the gentleman in front of me had a peep eye hat on like the old punters used to wear. Clown Prince turned the corner in the straight and is leading and leading - I am frightened to cheer, I had never been to the bigtime races - and he turned around and said, ‘You backed that, boy?’ I said, ‘Yes, I did.” He said, ‘That’s the greatest thrill you’ll have of your life - your money, your decision.’
ALAN ESKANDAR: And now you have been hooked for life no doubt.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: I think my question is addressed to Bob. A couple of things strike me as being very strange about the Melbourne Cup and its significance. If you have a look at the attendance statistics for last ten years, you will see that on seven of the occasions - and indeed the last six in a row - there was greater attendance at Derby Day because it’s the aficionados day with four group one races. If you have a look at the breeding history of the Melbourne Cup, I think in my lifetime only one Melbourne Cup winner has thrown another Melbourne Cup winner, whereas if you look at the Golden Slippers that approximates that period, it has had a profound effect on Australian breeding.
The one thing that is absolutely notable about the Melbourne Cup is that there is far and away the greatest turnover in official betting which is recorded on the Melbourne Cup than any other race in the country, and that is not taking into account the office sweep or the club Calcutta or whatever it is. It seems to me, and I know Bob is in a particularly good position to comment on this, that the Melbourne Cup is defining of Australians’ propensity to bet but not in large amounts often in small amounts. Bob knows that I used to be chairman of the TAB [Totalisator Agency Board] and I am going to tell you a bit of a story because I am not there any more. TAB tickets are valid for 12 months. One year the Melbourne Cup was held on 1 November; the next year it was held on 7 November; and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why the turnover figures were approximately the same but the profit figures were so much greater. I called the head of wagering in, and the explanation is that a whole bunch of New South Walesmen bet on the Melbourne Cup and don’t collect their winnings until next year. It is something that attracts this betting instinct in Australians.
However, it strikes me that this fun thing for probably 90 per cent of Australians is seriously under attack by wowsers. We heard the gentleman down here talk about how he placed his first bet at Randwick when he was 16. I think I was probably 12. Yet there have been serious proposals that children under the age of 18 should be prohibited from going to racing tracks. I would like a comment from Bob on that kind of landscape.
BOB CHARLEY: Graham, you have covered a lot of territory there. Let me say in the first place that the question of Derby Day attracting the crowd is that you really should have referred to Oaks Day. Oaks Day has gone from 25,000 to over 100,000. That is a sensational marketing effort by the VRC. That is all it is. It is making that day a spectacular day. There are a lot of people who love the Melbourne Cup but it is one of the days that they decline to go because they think there are going to be 110,000 people there and a lot of people will be dressed up in gorilla suits and that sort of thing. So the serious racegoer probably goes Derby Day. He knows there is going to be a big crowd on Cup Day, weather permitting, but the phenomenon is Oaks Day and the phenomenon is 300,000-odd people over four days which I don’t think is equalled anywhere in the world. I certainly have no equivocation in saying - and I have been to racing in every country in the world - there is absolutely nothing like the Melbourne Cup. It’s a pinnacle on its own - not just the Cup itself but the whole carnival.
Getting back to what you are talking about with the wowsers, I can’t comment on that. I can comment on those wowsers who are trying to stop jumps racing though. That really gets under my goat. I wouldn’t worry too much about that. The Melbourne Cup is much too much of an institution to think it’s going to have an effect on people saying they are not going to take their children to the races. I think that is ridiculous.
JAMES WARDEN: I might pass that question on to Fiona. Remember the Argus or The Age was a wowser paper about the Melbourne Cup.
FIONA CARRUTHERS: I was thinking more Graham raised a very interesting point that journalists write a lot about in the racing industry but it is a very interesting point for a symposium like today that breeding patterns are so influenced by the Golden Slipper. If you look at all the statistics, including the betting, I think the Slipper is second only to the Cup in terms of TAB turnover. It’s an interesting reflection on Australians that we are leading the way in breeding two-year-olds - a lot of wowsers probably don’t like that either because there are all sorts of issues with do these horses have a higher breakdown rate, are their bones properly formed, is it an animal welfare issue?
It’s a very interesting thing about our psyche that part of the reason it has become so popular is we now have these big syndicates with say ten people owning a racehorse who want a quick return. It’s an interesting fact that not many Melbourne Cup winners throw Melbourne Cup winners whereas Slipper winners seem to have a much higher strike rate, if you like. The big question: is it good for racing and how many more Australian stayers will we breed? Do we risk the internationals taking over from us there and carting away many more of these beautiful cups because we are predominantly becoming a thoroughbred nursery for young two-year-olds for these sprint races, for the Golden Slippers and for the Blue Diamonds?
But having said that, even though the Slipper has become huge and the Blue Diamond is becoming bigger, I don’t think it will challenge the Melbourne Cup. That still seems to have captivated the nation’s imagination, and I guess the average Aussie is probably not that interested in thoroughbred breeding patterns. It is interesting that the industry is going in these two very different directions in a way.
BOB CHARLEY: Coming back to Graham’s point, I can remember standing in the enclosure at Randwick many years ago with Sir Brian Crowley, who was a previous chairman of the AJC, and a group one three-year-old race had fallen away to four runners, and he lamented that fact. What was happening and has happened is that people are afraid for their horses to be beaten. They don’t want the horse to lose value. So we have this phenomenon - Fiona has just spoken about it - that horses are retiring young to breed more speed. I don’t think that will affect the Melbourne Cup. In Victoria, if you want to race a stayer, there is every opportunity for you to do so, which there isn’t in New South Wales. I race my horses in Victoria for that very reason that every week there are races 2000, 2200, 2400 up to 3000 you can run your horse in. You can’t do that in New South Wales. In fact, I don’t know there is any other state that you can do it in - possibly South Australia. So I don’t see that changing while ever administration in Victoria has as its pinnacle the Caulfield and Melbourne Cup double. The centre of the breeding industry in New South Wales, the Hunter Valley, they will be breeding to win Golden Slippers and possibly races like the Doncaster. I think there is room for both. I don’t think that breeding phenomenon is going to threaten the Melbourne Cup.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: This question is for Alan and possibly for Bob. There is no doubt that, with the corporate bookmakers and people who are doing ratings on races, the number of staff that are involved is quite immense and many hours of work go into planning races. For instance, speed maps are now something that everyone is looking at. How do you weigh that up with John Letts’ story and his complete lack of preparation to ride a Melbourne Cup winner when he turns up at the track, doesn’t know the horse, don’t know how the horse runs and promptly wins on it. It defies all that happens in racing now. I would like an answer on that one.
ALAN ESKANDAR: That’s a great question, Peter, with all due respect to John because it is not just about jockeys, it is about the industry. The industry has changed dramatically - I have had involvement with it for 20 years - over the last 20 years and whether it be jockeys, trainers or bookmakers where my experience is, the amount of work and preparation and professionalism that has gone into what we do today is unparallelled. Even to the administration of racing, if you look at RVL [Racing Victoria Limited], because that is where my major experience is, in terms of integrity, in terms of the stewards and in terms of every aspect of what they do, we have really taken that next level. There is a whole gamut of people who get involved in a Melbourne Cup. There are some people who get involved on one day a year; there are some people who get involved during the carnival, whether it be spring or autumn; and there are some people who are involved every single week of it - they all put different levels of dedication, homework and preparation into what they do.
From a bookmaking point of view, I don’t recognise my business 20 years ago to what it is today. It’s a completely different business. Completely different resources are required in order to make sure we put up markets that are relevant and that are accurate, because if they are not accurate we get found out very quickly by the punters. It’s something we take a lot of pride in. We believe that at Betstar we are probably the leaders in the Caulfield and Melbourne Cup doubles and the markets. We believe that we are the first out with the markets, and we have staff working on those. As the races go this week, there is great racing at Caulfield this weekend. As horses run we will have people watching that race and preparing a market and adjusting our Melbourne Cup market on the fly. That requires a dedication of resource and a dedication of not only finances but the human element as well. It’s very different; it’s dynamic; and I am sure if we had this symposium again in another 20 years, the industry has evolved even further and become even more dynamic.
JAMES WARDEN: Could I have a follow-up question to that, Alan: you have Betstar in Darwin. I looked at Centrebet the other day and they are offering fields on horses and all the major Australian sports. You can bet on Norwegian women’s handball. You can get $3.50 on a team called Caput. They are offering odds on Miss World: you get $6 on Miss USA, $9 on Miss Mexico and $11 on Miss Australia. How does that array of this extraordinary world of betting that has opened up to everyone, how does that affect horse racing, and you and your business?
ALAN ESKANDAR: I will be mindful not to get off the topic too much here, but it’s an important consideration tor the horse racing industry. The reason it’s an important consideration is that betting on horse racing has been around for 150 years. It has always been around, and we have had a virtual monopoly in betting on outcomes in terms of horse racing. There is a lot of competition in the marketplace at the moment. You can now bet on all the things you mentioned; you can bet on sport, you can bet on online poker, you can bet on casinos - so all of a sudden we need to make sure that we price ourselves adequately to make sure that we don’t lose the interest we have. Of course corporate bookmakers need to contribute to the industry. We all agree to that. But we need to make sure that we don’t charge them too much so they price themselves out of the market and then in relative terms other products seem cheaper and therefore a better alternative.
But having said all of that, we bet on all of those things, and the Melbourne Cup is easily the biggest betting event we bet on all year - by the length of the Flemington straight there is nothing that comes close. Whether it be the AFL final or whether it be all those novelty markets that you mentioned - they are exactly that. They are novelty markets and we put them up for fun and for a giggle. But there is nothing serious done about that. AFL grand finals, EPL [English Premier League], World Cups, Olympics - they all pale into insignificance. The Melbourne Cup is the pinnacle of betting, and we have been betting on it for 12 months before. As soon as the Melbourne Cup finished last year, we put up a market for next year and people are interested in it. So nothing comes close.
JAMES WARDEN: Wendy, I watched the 1996 Melbourne Cup won by Saintly trained by Bart Cummings at the Hotel Darwin now sadly gone and I watched the 1999 Melbourne Cup in a hotel in Balmain. Listening to today, I am sure we all had ‘where were we on that day’ sort of recollections. But you remember better than all of us, don’t you, where you were?
WENDY GREEN: I certainly do, my question is really about the lucky country - Don Horne’s lucky country - which centres on the question of identity and who we are as Australians. One particular part of that text says that even the bank teller who has never been outside the city believes with his whole heart that he, too, if given the chance could race down Kosciuszko side and bring the mob home. This then leads into that idea of the qualities that make us Australian, and one of them is that we are great gamblers.
One of my theories and I would like to put this to Alan and perhaps back to you, James, Fiona and everyone on the panel: do you think that the Melbourne Cup attracts such a great betting contingent - I know the year we won we broke the book in Darwin because everyone in Darwin believed the Darwin horse could beat the rest in Australia so I guess they offlaid that bet. With Australians and why they bet on the Melbourne Cup so fiercely, are we not betting on ourselves saying that the Cup represents us and in representing us we are backing ourselves?
ALAN ESKANDAR: Yes, Wendy, I absolutely believe that. I believe the whole cliche of the ‘have a go’ mentality of Australia and Australians is very much shown or depicted through the fact that all of Australia stops for the Melbourne Cup and we all have a flutter on it. Obviously my experience is largely in Melbourne so it is a bit more amplified being in Melbourne. Nonetheless, I have friends and family in every state in Australia virtually. They all stop to watch the Melbourne Cup and they don’t have a public holiday. It’s an element of: I want to be involved; I want to have a go; and I actually expect to win. Funnily enough, I don’t know anything about any of these horses, I don’t know their names, I don’t know anything about it; but when I have a bet, I expect to win. I think that really epitomises Australia and Australians and why we love this country and why we love the Melbourne Cup.
BOB CHARLEY: It is immortalised in poetry and in literature. You only have to look at the film earlier today with one of Australia’s greatest authors, Les Carlyon, and his passion is racing and the Cup. As was the case with many notable Australians in the past, one of whom was Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant who, apart from being shot by a firing squad, was quite a good poet. There is one poem that he wrote about being with a mob of bullocks and the last four lines are, ‘We’ll bring them down to Homebush and when the agents settle up, hey, a spell in Sydney town and Melbourne for the Cup.’ That theme runs through quite a few poets and authors. While ever that is there and while ever Australian children are taught to read those poets and authors, the Melbourne Cup is not going to lose any of its glamour or its glow. In fact, if anything, it will keep increasing.
GEOFF SLATTERY: There is a lot of answers to what Wendy said before. She said that we’re a country of great gamblers. I think there are three gamblers. I have been all of them and I am still part of two of them, I think. The first one is, as Alan says, you go to the races or you go to the computer or whatever and you get entertained, and entertainment is $20 or $50.
Then the next level of gambling is you entertain with pain. So you can afford it, but the glory of the victory is in direct relation to how much money you are going to lose. There is a story in our magazine we are doing this week about a friend of the trainer of Shoot Out whose father gave him $500 to put on a house, and of course he went to the races, lost the $500, borrowed $200, got $500 back, felt happy, got a tip for the next even money, put $500, got up by a nose - he’s got a grand. He goes to his Dad and says, ‘I have turned $500 into $1000,’ and his old man knocked him out. That’s pain with an outcome that you can almost afford.
The third part is the pain you can’t afford. This is where the wowser question comes into play. We can’t avoid that issue. Alan’s business is about drawing all parts of that spectrum together to play, to have pain and to die. They’re the three parts of the gambling thing.
The other point about Wendy’s question - we’re a country of great gamblers. What is Tony Abbott and what is Julia Gillard doing? Where are they gambling? Where is their vision, where is their pain for the country to grow? They are just two horses who go to the line together and you can’t tell what is going on because they haven’t got any colours on. I wish they would gamble with our country and say, ‘We are going to be much greater than we ever were and we are not going to have a bloke sitting behind me nodding, and we’re not going to have a minder, and we’re not going to have a debate that is not a debate.’ I was lucky to have a sandwich with Andrew Peacock at lunch and we talked about how different I felt he was when he spoke today than when he was Leader of the Opposition, how different John Hewson is on television from when he was the dull person who lost the unlosable. I wish we gambled more in matters that counted and I am happy to be somewhere between two and three on that spectrum of pain.
JAMES WARDEN: Fiona, would you like to respond on that?
FIONA CARRUTHERS: It was such a poetic sentiment, Wendy, I can see why you are the ambassador for the Cup. Of course I agree and I was thinking while my other fellow panellists were talking, for me the office sweep just says it all. As people have been discussing today, for what other event does everybody enter into when they can’t even tell one end of the horse from the other. When you link it to gambling, I think the Melbourne Cup is very cleverly a sort of good betting race. I don’t know if Alan would agree but I think gambling has a good and a bad face; it’s something that can destroy homes and break up marriages and lead to addiction, but it’s also a great fun activity that expresses what a wonderful country we are and how you can back a roughie and it gets up - not that that happens in the Melbourne Cup any more. I think that is the magic of the Melbourne Cup that it is aligned more with the good gambling mythology. What Graham was saying was interesting that it’s the race where people will have a small bet, which is considered kind of a healthy bet - maybe you could have a tick like the Heart Foundation that a small bet is a good bet. I have always remembered dear old - what was her name? - Tommy Smith’s wife, Gai’s mother - Val - who passed away last year, I think. She swore to me blind she never bet more than $2. I have gone over that sometimes but I try to stick close to that.
ALAN ESKANDAR: One of the great things talking about the betting aspect of it and why people probably have a small bet is just the involvement of it, as I was touching on earlier, it is just being part of it. You don’t need to have $100,000 on a horse in the Melbourne Cup to be involved; you need to have something that is relative to your interest in it. It becomes water cooler talk the next day when you go to work. It is all encompassing; everybody is involved with the Melbourne Cup. It doesn’t matter where you live in Australia, the next day you go to work and everybody is talking about it.
One of the things particularly for me, which is sort of ironic being a bookmaker, is the depth of the Melbourne Cup. It is greater than just having a bet and just the gambling aspect of it. That was really drummed into me in the last year Makybe Diva won the Melbourne Cup. She was in my lifetime probably the most amazing horse to win the Melbourne Cup. She ran around favourite and it was a very expensive outcome for me. In terms of my hip pocket solely, I did not want Makybe Diva to win the third Melbourne Cup; I can imagine everybody else in this room did, particularly the people at the VRC because of obviously the story and euphoria that followed that. But for me it was clearly the most expensive horse in the field to win the Melbourne Cup. Yet I found myself watching in race and naturally just in awe of her and naturally cheering her home, which was so counter-intuitive to me because it was so expensive, yet I couldn’t help myself. That really goes to show - yes, it was very expensive entertainment but it was entertainment nonetheless - the depth of this thing that has been created, being the Melbourne Cup. There are so many levels to it and there is so much depth to the Melbourne Cup. Of course having a bet on it is important and is engaging but there is more depth to it than just having a bet on it.
JAMES WARDEN: Rod, for a while there the ACT had a public holiday on Melbourne Cup Day and everyone hated it. I think it has now changed because it killed the office party at lunchtime and people didn’t do any work anyway. So the experiment in the ACT of a public holiday here didn’t work, because people wanted to congregate around the sweeps, around the cups of tea and bad champagne.
ROD FITZROY: Just on that subject, I think that’s common around Australia. In fact, the survey I spoke about earlier about the economic impact outside of Victoria really comes about through people attending restaurants together, clubs, bowling clubs, golf clubs - it’s millions of people. The survey demonstrated a million people go to lunch on Melbourne Cup day around Australia and a million and a half gather and have barbecues in backyards. You don’t need to declare it a public holiday. It’s there already, I guess, and probably taking the half day off work is the Australian tradition as well. It has got the Cup to thank for it.
I was going to draw a few things together with a question or perhaps a challenge for Alan as our bookmaker. This year I was wondering if Alan might be prepared to give me the odds that one of the runners in the Cup - and back onto breeding - might be able to be traced back to the horse that will wear number two saddle cloth in Geoff’s greatest Melbourne Cup never run - Carbine. Carbine is generally regarded as one of the three greatest horses to win the Cup alongside Phar Lap and Makybe Diva. He wasn’t entire and was able to go to stud, unlike Phar Lap, so there is a prospect that we might see some of his blood go around in the Melbourne Cup this year, despite our propensity to encourage speed in the stallion barn at the moment. Alan, I will just see whether you would be prepared to give me odds that there might be representative of Carbine in the 2010 Melbourne Cup?
ALAN ESKANDAR: I would probably need to do a bit more homework.
ROD FITZROY: Could I perhaps give you a little bit of advice on that because for the last three years I have asked the keeper of the Australian stud book to undertake that exercise for me, and every horse in the Melbourne Cup for the last three years has had Carbine in their blood - and in most cases it’s on both the sire and dam side, and that includes the Japanese, the Irish and the English. I won’t take money because there is no doubt there will be one, there would be the whole field most probably. There would be a rare exception that not every runner in the cup will have Carbine in their blood.
ALAN ESKANDAR: I am glad I tread warily then because obviously you knew the answer before I did.
BOB CHARLEY: You will probably be interested to know Carbine is arguably the most painted racehorse in world history. When the Duke of Portland bought him, he was so grateful for having him there, he gave one painting to the VRC, one to the AJC and I think he has several more there. I have found 35 paintings of Carbine. Every artist worth his salt tried to paint Carbine.
JAMES WARDEN: Was Carbine great-grandfather to Phar Lap?
ROD FITZROY: Yes, he is.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: I would like the panel to make a comment on this. We have heard of the glamour, the glory and the huge numbers going to Melbourne, yet the irony in the industry is that race tracks are closing, hardly anyone goes to the races midweek even Saturdays - I am talking as an owner here and a past administrator. Does the panel think that, rather than Melbourne Cup dying, it’s going to go on and on; and not only that, can it be the answer the industry is looking for - bookmakers, administrators? Is it the media that could be the big help here for the industry?
ALAN ESKANDAR: I am happy to make a comment. My take on that is that our industry like most industries is evolving. We often have lots of talk about how attendances are changing, not necessarily in the total numbers but in terms of when they actually show up to races. I don’t think we should be scared of the evolution of our industry; it’s something we should embrace and harness as best we can. The fact is we put on great carnivals whether it be in Melbourne or otherwise and we get attendances coming to those great carnivals. As long as we get the funding to the industry as it needs to be, then we are still going to get participation in the industry. As long as prize money still goes up, we are still going to get owners making sure that they buy horses and want to be involved in our industry. So get the funding model right and everything else will come from that.
I don’t think it is panic stations yet. This whole fearmongering concept is a dangerous one. We don’t need to panic. We need to work together and realise that our industry is evolving. We just need to embrace that. Every industry evolves. We can’t put our head in the sand and say, ‘Wasn’t it great 30 years ago and it will be like that forever,’ because it won’t. So work to our strengths. That’s just the way it is.
There is much more competition in the marketplace these days. There are so many things you can do on a Saturday afternoon that potentially you couldn’t do 30 or 40 years ago. So to expect to get the same number of people there 52 Saturdays a year is probably an unrealistic expectation. We also need to be really conscious of being too attendance focused, because the game has gone beyond attendance. Attendance is obviously important and vital because we want people to participate at the race track of course. But whether we set a record in attendance this year at Derby Day or Oaks Day or otherwise, to me - the people from the VRC are probably going to disagree with me for saying this - is not an important thing. That doesn’t gauge my success of the whole carnival. I think we make a rod for our own back by doing that. It’s dangerous because at some stage we can’t break the record of attendance. That is just the way it is. We can’t fit 200,000 people at Flemington so at some stage we won’t break that record. But that doesn’t mean whether it is good or bad. You can still love it just as much. People participate with the Melbourne Cup in different ways. As Rod mentioned, 1.5 million people are having a barbecue on Cup Day. They are not at Flemington but that is something that the Melbourne Cup has created. That is something that this great race has done for Australia and they are not at Flemington.
BOB CHARLEY: I agree with that. The AFL is the most attended sport in Australia, followed by racing and followed by cricket. If you were to draw a parallel with cricket the test against the Poms will fill stadiums all around Australia, but go and look at a Sheffield Shield match, there is no-one there at all. The cricketers are lucky to have their families there. I don’t see non-attendance at mid-week meetings as being a shock horror thing. I agree with Alan. They will keep coming to the carnivals providing the money stream is right. That is the difficult thing to get right.
GEOFF SLATTERY: Can I make two points: the carnivals are parties. I was in Sydney on the weekend at Randwick races and then walked down the road to the footy. There was hardly anyone there. But during my trip to Sydney I met two males who met their wives at the derby. That is not an uncommon story. Your point about attendances at mid-week races and the like, where the industry fails is not about getting people to the mid-week races or the Saturday normal meeting, it is about providing a package for people who want to be entertained by those meetings in one location on the net or in a bit of TVN to actually make the industry more interesting to those of us who sit at home and prefer to punt on the computer, to give us more form, to give us more access, to give us more understanding of the players in the game that we are watching. There is no concert of industry working to communicate right across Australia. I can get great form out of Western Australian racing. I can get ordinary form out of RVL. I don’t know if I can get any out of New South Wales. But there is no concert of it. I can go to the dogs and get video form of anything. I can go to harness racing - you can see I am a desperate. The harness racing website gives you the last run of every runner in a form guide all free. If you want it out of the racing industry, good luck. They are the two issues: let’s entertain ourselves at parties and get married often; and let’s get better service for the punters at home.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: As the great-grandson of a former Melbourne Cup jockey, John Nicholas Perkins, who had rides in the 1861, 1862 and 1864 Melbourne Cups, I would like to lodge a late protest on the result of the 1864 Melbourne Cup. Perhaps Rod Fitzroy may take this up with the stewards. In Bell’s Sporting Life, John Nicholas Perkins rode Poet who was first across the line, but that was 84 years before photo finish. Apparently one horse finished on the rail side and one underneath the grandstand side. Most people who were facing the winning post agree that Poet won. Lantern was posted as the winner and there was a rowdy demonstration. After that demonstration Lantern was still first and Poet was about fourth or something. I believe there was another demonstration, and then Lantern was still first, but Poet had gone to second. But my understanding from family folklore and Bell’s Sporting Life was that Poet, ridden by John Nicholas Perkins, actually won the 1864 Melbourne Cup.
BOB CHARLEY: What is Rod going to do about that?
MAN IN AUDIENCE: That is what I wanted to know, what he is going to do.
GEOFF SLATTERY: You will be pleased to know that that story is in this book.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: Good.
JAMES WARDEN: I think there have only been two protests in a very long history - Let’s Elope [in 1991] and The Pearl in 1871, both dismissed - a very small proportion of protests, you would have to say.
ROD FITZROY: There has never been a dead heat.
JAMES WARDEN: No, not for first. There is the 1948 photo finish when Rimfire beat Dark Marne, or did it?
ROD FITZROY: Yes, it did.
ALAN ESKANDAR: And it was 80:1.
JAMES WARDEN: Then they shifted the position of the camera afterwards.
ANDREW LEMON: Another urban myth no, they didn’t.
JAMES WARDEN: I think we just need to wrap up. I would like to do two things before asking Bob to say a few words in relation to Banjo Paterson, one is quickly to get Alan to run through the phantom field, the dream field of 24 starters.
ALAN ESKANDAR: Why do you run through it and I will give you my tip.
JAMES WARDEN: This is saddle cloth numbers I think: Phar Lap, Carbine, Makybe Diva, Peter Pan, Galilee, Poseidon, Rising Fast, Rain Lover, Comic Court, Grand Flaneur, Might and Power, Archer, Vintage Crop, Delta, Malua, Nightmarch, Poitrel, Saintly, The Barb, Dalray, Hall Mark, Light Fingers, Doriemus and Think Big.
ALAN ESKANDAR: My tip in the race would be Makybe Diva. She’s been the most amazing horse I have ever seen run around Flemington. We pay a lot of respect to really smart punters. We have a handful of punters who bet with us who are just geniuses and how they find winners at all different odds is beyond us. Sometimes we scratch our head. In her last year every educated punter that we had on our books said she couldn’t win and she managed to do it. She proved everybody wrong; she won it three times in a row. It will never ever happen again. A lot of these horses were before my time. I think the concept is fabulous to bring all these horses from different eras to race against each other. The concept is fabulous but I can just comment from what I have seen, and from what I have seen nothing could beat Makybe Diva.
GEOFF SLATTERY: I guess I am a dreamer and I try to articulate each horse into its era being fit and well, dominant on the day in the same race, and they are weighted. So she has a big weight against some very well-weighted horses. You would have great fun with the twiddles. Before Bob speaks, I want to make one reference to this book - when I was researching and Andrew [Lemon] mentioned a line from CJ Dennis’s poem about I had the money in me hand. The most remarkable thing about that poem is that CJ Dennis worked for the Herald at the time, and his role was to create poetry about the Melbourne Cup for the next day’s edition. He wrote this amazing story of the man down on his luck who tipped to his wife all week that Trivalve would win the Cup. He got to the races and some bloke tugged his coat, he changed his mind and he had done his money. He wrote that poem in all its glorious beauty within deadline on the next day, which I think is just as good a story as anything that has come out of the Melbourne Cup - as a former Herald journalist. There you go.
JAMES WARDEN: I have a question, if you don’t mind, to the ‘colt from Kooyong’, No. 1 ticket holder at Essendon, am I right, you were?
ANDREW PEACOCK: Yes.
JAMES WARDEN: So choice Prime Minister - another flag for Essendon or Leilani comes home over Think Big?
ANDREW PEACOCK: There is no issue - it’s Leilani all the way.
JAMES WARDEN: Before I ask Louise back to wrap up, Bob, give us a treat if you don’t mind. Do you wear a hat to the races, Bob? One of the hats he wears to the races is chairman of the Banjo club.
BOB CHARLEY: [reciting ‘A dream of the Melbourne Cup by AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson]
JAMES WARDEN: Thanks, Bob.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: I must confess that I am not a racing person but you lot can come back any time. What a great day we have had, what a fantastic array of people we’ve had here today: professional historians, journalists, bookmakers, race callers, jockeys, administrators, trainers, owners, punters - quite a few of them around, I think. Andrew Peacock has added a certain air of international sophistication to the whole day, don’t you agree, and he stayed with us. Thank you, Andrew.
We have heard great personal accounts and experiences, great interpretations of history of times gone past in a wonderful atmosphere of good will and humour, with passion and some tragedy, romance, poetry, magic and even a protest or two. What a great day we have had.
I want to thank all of our speakers and the chairs who have guided us through the day, the staff of the National Museum who have made today happen, some of them invisible to you: Ros, Leanne, Liz, Lorna and Polly down here, our ex-Hansard reporter, who has recorded the day for us in print. Thank you to all of the staff.
Thank you to John Harms who I know many of us have missed today. He was really part of the original inspiration for the day so we are very sorry that he couldn’t be here. Thank you to James for standing in for John in this last session and doing such a great job. I didn’t know you knew so much about racing, by the way.
JAMES WARDEN: I made it all up like John.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: This has been a fantastic Melbourne Canberra partnership working with the VRC with Rod, Sue, Andrew, Joe and Fleur, and I can’t name all the other people that must have been working behind the scenes in your organisation. It’s been a tremendous partnership with a great result for everyone. It really just remains to say thank you to all of you for coming today and to thank you tor your interest, your contribution, your participation and your questions. The conversations that happened over morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea have really made the day a terrific day. Let’s put our hands together and thank everybody. [applause]
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Date published: 17 September 2010