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The Melbourne Cup: what it means to me and what it means to Australia

Andrew Peacock, co-owner of Leilani, winner of the 1974 Caulfield Cup, 13 August 2010

MAT TRINCA: Our keynote and final speaker for this session is Mr Andrew Peacock. To this audience, Andrew Peacock might be best known as the co-owner of the champion mare Leilani, winner of the 1974 Caulfield Cup, who came so close to winning the Melbourne Cup when defeated by stablemate Think Big. But he is, as we all know, really best known as an Australian political leader and statesman of high standing. He was once known himself as ‘the colt from Kooyong’ and he entered federal politics in 1966 after the retirement of Sir Robert Menzies. Mr Peacock served twice as leader of the Federal Liberal Party of Australia and has also served as Australia’s Foreign Minister. From 1996 to 1999 he was Australian Ambassador to the United States where he now lives. Today Mr Peacock will speak on ‘The Melbourne Cup: what it means to me and what it means to Australia’. Please join me in welcoming Andrew Peacock to the table.

ANDREW PEACOCK: Two things are uppermost in my mind as I stand here – three actually. Andrew Lemon is going to speak with you. He is one of the great and thorough writers on Australian thoroughbred history. Even he would concede, as our great chairman Rod Fitzroy said, that Les Carlyon is the great wordsmith in Australian racing. Rod, as everything the VRC [Victoria Racing Club] seems to do, that was a wonderful presentation that you had Les make. Les did his normal high standards that tear your heart out and give you that degree of emotion that we do associate with the Melbourne Cup.

The other is that I have had a lot of fun in my life. I have had a lot to do. I even got 52 per cent in an election once and lost it. I have had a few disappointments. I can tell you there is no more distressing, depressing moment than having the favourite that runs second in the Melbourne Cup. Whatever the tribulation in life may be, nothing is quintessentially as bad as that. It was 1974, and I still feel pissed off about it. You put on a brave face and go through life saying, ‘well that’s it,’ but it is part of that great allure that Les Carlyon calls ‘chasing a dream’. Les had some phrase in one of his books that said ‘If you believe that two and two makes four and everything that calculates always levels out like that, then forget about the turf because racing is about dreams and those fractions do not matter’.

Andrew [Lemon] also encapsulated it so well. In the second volume of Australian Thoroughbred Racing that Andrew Lemon produced, and he has another book out, he wrote - and I remember it so well because 20 years ago I launched his second volume:

1861 was a turning point in Australian racing. The primitive was giving way to the civilised, to the ordered, the restrained. Folly was giving way to wisdom -

I’m not too sure about that on a racecourse -

anarchy to rules, scrub and dust to turf … Fortunately for horse racing as we know it today, the best of the traditions of those early years were not entirely lost. In their own subtle way they still contribute to the unique nature of Australian >thoroughbred racing.

Rod also spoke of it when he talked about the way the weighting and the handicap of the Melbourne Cup encapsulated the times. Egalitarianism, though not used as such, was a pronounced feature of Australian culture. So it was fairly evident that if you were putting a horse race together and some people could handicap the better horses and give the other ones a chance that reflected an Australian outlook, and the tradition continues on today. That, too, can be a disappointment. If my mare had won the Melbourne Cup, she would have carried the greatest weight since Wakeful in 1901 or something like that. So ‘if’ is a great thing. My father used to say to me, ‘Don’t give me the “if”. If your father was your mother you would look different.’ That is how relevant that is.

I have gone through life adoring it [the Cup]. It has that encapsulated attraction that, as Andrew [Lemon] tells us in his history was the first Thursday in November and of course is now the first Tuesday in November.

One of the great quotes of the greatest training effort - it is beyond belief that Bart Cummings has won as many Melbourne Cups as he has. I know records are there to be broken but I defy anyone to tell me that anyone is ever going to break the JB Cummings record. But if you want to use him, just remember that great quote of his - because a bit of money comes into it at the end of the day – where he said as I recall, ‘It’s $150 a day to train your horse, but double if I have got to train the owner,’ and that generally happens.

The Melbourne Cup is also associated with rogues, crooks, cheats, liars and deadbeats - all the people that the VRC has cleaned out of racing, all of those have gone but they are part of the tradition. We had not one of those but we had a very tough interesting jockey in Athol George Mulley many years ago. AG Mulley rode Bernborough in the Melbourne Cup for a Mr AO Romano. Mr Romano told Athol George Mulley three or four times in the few days before the Cup that he controlled the horse and he was telling him he had to be up on the pace all the way. His last instructions, as Mulley was legged up, was once again to say to him, ‘Look, remember I own this horse. I control it. You go to the front. I control it.’ And Mulley said to him, ‘Not for the next four minutes you don’t.’ Lovely story. One of the greatest horses I have seen didn’t win the Cup.

The Melbourne Cup stands apart. I have been lucky enough to work and serve overseas. Rod [Fitzroy] mentioned great races: the Arc [l’Arc de Triomphe]. He didn’t mention King George and Queen Elizabeth, a similar sort of thing, the Breeders Cup and if you throw in the Kentucky Derby and the Epsom Derby, the latter two being confined to three-year-olds - they are all hugely important races in their nation but they don’t stop any nation. They don’t command that feeling of heart, which is so well encapsulated by the topic that the organisers produced ‘The heart of racing: the Melbourne Cup’. They are great races; they have great support. Royal Ascot is a great festival, but nothing stops a nation like this.

I served in Washington as ambassador; I was very privileged to do so. I can tell you honestly that the biggest event, by far the most popular, that I put on was a reception and a party that went on through the night, of course, because of time differences for the Melbourne Cup. I had to organise for some group of bookmakers in Las Vegas to beam it through to Washington in the embassy, which thank goodness the press at the time never got on to because they were enjoying the feature as well. I won’t mention the cabinet members who used to come along because it was a really great feature. You know that around the world Australians will seek to find who has won the Melbourne Cup. It doesn’t happen anywhere else; it just doesn’t happen.

So what was the first Thursday in November, which has for so long become the first Tuesday in November, encapsulates the sort of endless adventure that racing people seek. It can be disastrous. It can be like one of the characters in one of Damon Runyon’s books whose name was ‘hot horse herby’. Damon Runyon said, ‘Whenever Herby left the track he would put his hands in his pockets and all he would feel were his fingers.’ We have all experienced that on Cup day but we budget for it, I hope. Although I am not advocating gambling, it is part of the fun of the festival of racing itself. I defy anyone to find an event that competes with it.

As I said, I think the weights were allocated in the notion of egalitarianism of the time, but the VRC, again with so much wisdom, has made the race a quality handicap so that every horse actually has a chance. In fact, having a look at the sort of horses that the Melbourne Cup attracts today from Japan, from Europe - with successes from Ireland and Japan - it’s going to be hard to get a horse into the Cup. I think that’s a good thing. Australians have shown how much they appreciate excellence, growth and development. To think an extraordinary event like the Melbourne Cup can keep improving in quality is summed up by the fact that it’s very hard these days to get a good horse into the Cup. That is how good a test it is also on the track itself.

To all those who may be seeking, good luck; all those who do, remember Les’s words ‘It’s a dream you’re chasing.’ It is to me until the good Lord calls me an endless adventure that I seek. I got one last year in France; I’m set for this year. It did a Ten a month ago, so there you are, lucky enough to get to the barrier.

But of all elements of racing, encapsulating at its peak with the quality of organisation is the Melbourne Cup. To the National Museum of Australia for what it does to help thousands of people, particularly children onward, get a feeling for the culture of Australia and the VRC for putting this [symposium] on, because it doesn’t just happen - I thank them. I am very pleased today to have participated in a very small way. May the Melbourne Cup long endure. Thank you.

MAT TRINCA: I think you would agree that Les Carlyon’s passion has been ably matched, exceeded perhaps, by our keynote speaker this morning. Thank you, Mr Peacock, for that fascinating personal study – erudite, passionate and deeply personal, that you have brought to this symposium today.

Date published: 30 August 2010