The Race That Stopped A Heart

Oamaru 2013
Horses agisted at a friend’s place in Oamaru NZ

We’ve just had a history-making Melbourne Cup because for the first time the winning horse was ridden by a female jockey. As a feminist, I applaud Michelle Payne achieving her dream although I’m not a fan of horse-racing with memories more negative than positive.

I saw the ‘sport’ first hand in Adelaide when staying with cousins, one of whom had a passion for betting on the horses. His dream I expect similar to most punters – striking it rich. Ross took me down to the local track to watch a race. For Adelaide, little more than a large country town in 1968, the event was casual, without the fuss and glamour surrounding Flemington.

We stood near the finishing rail and a field of a dozen horses came roaring down the track towards me. I’d never been so close to thundering horse hooves; the beasts appeared like manic sweaty giants. The jockeys in bright-coloured silk garb grunting and breathing as heavily as the horses but also uttering the foulest of phrases and beating the flanks of the horses with their whips. Dust whirled in the air alive with expletives.

As a fifteen-year-old animal lover, I was not impressed. Ross didn’t win anything so we both left the racecourse underwhelmed and disappointed, albeit for different reasons.

Fast forward to 1970. The one and only time I ever attended the Melbourne Cup. The winner that year, Baghdad Note, a New Zealand Thoroughbred, ridden by Midge Didham.

Given most of his previous wins in New Zealand had been on wet tracks Baghdad Note was dismissed before the Cup as a ‘mud-lark’. Despite his solid dead-heat third in the Caulfield Cup and a fifth placing in the Mackinnon Stakes he was sent out by punters a 25/1 chance in the Cup. He duly won the race by ¾ of a length becoming just the third grey to win the race after Toryboy in 1865 and Hiraji in 1947.


The reason the day and the winning horse sticks in my mind not because I picked the winner – at 17 I still knew nothing about horses or horse racing.  I was only at Flemington because Nobuko, a Japanese exchange student and a school friend at the time, asked me to attend with her host family, the Dobsons.

It was exciting to see the 3200-metre race – finished in a blink of the eye – but the real drama happened a few feet away.  I didn’t expect the man in front of me to have a heart attack and collapse. The presentation of the cup and parade of horses melted into insignificance as St John’s Ambulance volunteers did their best until emergency services arrived.

Everyone over 40 seems old when you’re a teenager. The man who collapsed may have been in his late 30s or early 40s, or even 50. I was shocked because he looked younger than my Dad. He’d been joking, cheering and jumping around with a group of mates, six school teachers from Tasmania. They’d formed a syndicate to put money on ‘the big grey’ to win. Excited and egging their horse on, they were living life to the full and deliriously happy when Baghdad Note won.

But the 3-minute race resulted in one of them dropping to the ground in agony, fighting for air and clutching his chest before going into a coma.

A salutary lesson in how quickly fortunes can change.

In the kerfuffle following the man’s dramatic collapse, I can recall one of his mates mentioning a bet of $400.  At odds of 25/1 it would have netted $10,000. Even divided among six that was a lot of money considering the average annual wage in 1970 was less than half that amount.

The ambulance sped away to the commiserations of bystanders: “Poor bugger” “What rotten luck” “I’d have a heart attack too at those odds” “There goes his winnings on medical bills” “What a way to go” “Hope he gets to spend it”…

Almost half a century later Baghdad Note the only winning horse whose date of triumph I remember. The race that stops the nation stopped that poor teacher’s heart. I too hope he lived to enjoy his winnings.

Flemington on the day of the Melbourne Cup is considered egalitarian but going there would never have been on my working class family’s list of things to do. Instead, Mum and Dad’s sister, Chrissie indulged their gambling whim at the local TAB. They always bet according to the jockey or whatever horses Bart Cummings entered. (This Melbourne Cup the first without this famous trainer.)

For many religious people, gambling is a sin, if not a time-waster, however, the Melbourne Cup the exception. (My Presbyterian parents not wowsers but they frowned on most gambling.) It is also the day that fashion takes over the front page in newspapers, on billboards, television and now the Internet. Melbourne celebrates the Spring Carnival with style!

The Sexual Revolution of the 60s may have encouraged women to throw off compulsory hats and gloves but the second Tuesday in November 1970 was still about hats and fashion. No one in Melbourne had forgotten the scandal of English model, Jean Shrimpton.

1965:  Jean shocked the Melbourne fashion elite with no hat, wearing a mini and no stockings!

At 17, I wasn’t famous or a model. I had to have a hat. In fact, not just a hat, but an outfit.

A few months earlier, a nephew of my uncle’s decided to get married. Mum bought me a lovely white woollen coat, considered chic at the time, plus a wide-brimmed maroon felt hat. The wedding never eventuated (another story) but the outfit was deemed suitable for Flemington where I’d be rubbing shoulders with the Fashion of the Field entrants – well at least sharing the same air!

Unfortunately, Tuesday, November 3, 1970, was hotter than average for that time of year.  Even with my stylish coat unbuttoned I roasted in 24 degrees under a cloudless sky. To put the heatwave’ in context for that Spring:

  • The hottest day of 1970 was December 3, with a high temperature of 36°C. For reference, on that day the average high temperature is 23°C and the high temperature exceeds 30°C only one day in ten.
  • The hottest month of 1970 was December with an average daily high temperature of 23°C.
  • The longest warm spell was from November 29 to December 5, constituting seven consecutive days with warmer than average high temperatures.

In respect to Cup fashion, times have not changed. One of the delights of train travel during the Spring Racing Carnival is to forget ugg boots, Bermuda shorts, thongs, daggy jeans, singlets and all the other fashion faux pas of picture postcard Aussies and watch commuters transform into silk and taffeta delights and wearers of bow ties, sleek suits, even top hats. Strappy high heels, polished leather shoes, and modern-day spats accompany evening gowns and dinner suited elegance.  An incredible variety of Fascinators is indeed fascinating.

However, the carriages on the way home are often filled with sunburned, bedraggled racegoers their clothes and demeanours the worse for alcohol and high spirits.

Like many public events, people have their stories and memories of Cup Day. I think Victoria is the only place in the world that has a public holiday because of a horse race, but the race that stops a nation an apt catchcry. When I was at university in Canberra, public servant friends became excited about the race.

The Melbourne Cup. Photograph courtesy of the Victoria Racing Club.

In the 70s (and even today), many government departments hold a sweep. In Canberra, some generous person brought their television into work and for 3 minutes everyone downed pens and held their breath to see who would be going home richer. My friend Christine McCafferey from Townsville said it even happened up there.

I haven’t been in a sweep since John died, but for years the union office had one. He’d nominate horses for the girls and me – one or the other often a winner.

But for me Cup Day has a deeper significance. In 1983, that was the day John and I set up home together. We always celebrated it as our special day. The only time we were apart on Cup Day, the year I took the girls to Disneyland – John’s special treat to them when he got access to his superannuation. Too fragile to travel overseas, he stayed with a mate while we were away.

The closest the girls got to horses that year was a day spent at a friend of a friend’s property:

MaryJane horse-riding South Carolina 1997
MaryJane horse-riding South Carolina 1997
Anne horse-riding South Carolina 1997
Anne horse-riding South Carolina 1997

We were on Pawley’s Island South Carolina staying with a childhood friend of mine. John arranged for the delivery of beautiful flowers. The autumn floral arrangement stunning. Not surprisingly,  the girls more impressed by the pumpkin shaped vase and they insisted I brought the pottery pumpkin home to Oz. (Americans make a big deal out of Halloween.)

pumpkin vase

Another memorable Cup Day was a family holiday in Tasmania. We were staying in a bed and breakfast on the east coast halfway between Launceston and Bicheno and managed to buy a Melbourne paper. We picked two horses each, 50 cents or a dollar, each way. John and I choosing our ‘lucky numbers’, the girls picking horses because they liked their names or fancied the jockey’s colours. (We know nothing about horse racing!)

John returned from the general store and we packed the car ready for the day’s journey. I looked at the racing stub, ‘John why have you picked these horses?’

‘What do you mean, love. I just copied down the numbers.’

We double-checked he had the right race. However, he’d chosen barrier numbers!  I did say we were ignorant regarding horse racing!

Back to the general store and choosing the right horses – thank goodness we always put on the minimum. The drive to Bicheno to get decent reception on the car radio to hear the race fraught with tension. Would we find somewhere to hear the race? Because of John’s mistake we had nearly every horse in the field and the girls were sure one of our horses would win. Murphy’s Law dictated otherwise – the three winning horses not on our list!

The girls don’t remember the horse race as much as parking on a dune to hear the race. We watched the sea roll in on mountains of surf through a windscreen covered in seagulls. It was like a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds.

I had bought fish and chips for lunch and one of the girls had thrown a chip out the window for a passing bird. Big mistake. I don’t know if any records were broken in Melbourne that day, but I’m pretty sure we saw the most squawking seagulls ever recorded on a car windscreen. Not to mention the hungry flocks attacking side windows and doors.

The final memorable Melbourne Cup Day was November 2010. I was recovering from pneumonia caused by the first dose of chemotherapy being too strong. I’d been in Cabrini hospital a couple of days at death’s door and didn’t know the date let alone care – breathing difficult enough.

My two beautiful daughters breezed in carrying a basket of goodies for me to share with the nurses. The girls wore cardboard jockey hats and whips, waved streamers and balloons. A burst of merriment and joy sorely needed by patients and the nurses who worked on a day others spent with family.

Celebrations are what we make them – whether whole-heartedly getting into the spirit of the occasion or adapting and grabbing the chance for enjoyment. And of course, the memories the special events trigger also an opportunity write.