Aussie rules football, rugby league and cricket may dominate the Australian sporting consciousness for much of the year, but there is only one sport that can genuinely claim to bring the entire country to a standstill.
On the first Tuesday of November, horseracing’s Melbourne Cup – otherwise known as “the race that stops the nation” – sees 100,000 fans flock to the city’s Flemington Racecourse, with millions more watching on TV in bars and restaurants across the country and over AU$350 million (US$237 million) wagered on the outcome.
The race is even marked with a public holiday in the state of Victoria, while workplaces throughout the rest of Australia grind to a halt at 3pm, with office-workers running sweepstakes and gathering around screens to watch the four-minute drama unfold, as the world’s finest thoroughbreds contest the sport’s richest two-mile handicap.
The event has firmly established itself as part of Australia’s culture since it was first held in 1861, and highlights the country’s love affair with horseracing – a sport that can be traced right back to the arrival of the earliest colonial settlers in 1788, when the First Fleet carried with it a stallion, four mares, a colt and a filly. That horse population soon grew and by 1810, the first officially organised race was held at Sydney’s Hyde Park, with almost all of the colony’s 11,000 inhabitants reportedly descending on the track to enjoy the action.
And as settlers spread throughout the country, so too did horseracing, with Australia now boasting more racecourses than anywhere else in the world – from the regal surrounds of Royal Randwick, which overlooks the glittering Sydney skyline, to the swirling dust tracks of Outback towns such as Queensland’s Betoota, which hosts the annual Simpson Desert Racing Carnival.
“Horseracing is part of our country’s heritage,” explains Nick Moraitis, one of Australia’s best-known racehorse owners, whose legendary Might and Power is one of only two horses to have won the Melbourne Cup, Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate – three of the country’s most prestigious races.
“Right back in the beginning [of British colonisation], in every country town there would be a church and a racecourse. That’s all people needed – a church to pray in and a racecourse for enjoyment. And people still look for that outlet today. They can get a real thrill if they back a winner and then they feel fantastic. You can seen it on their faces – whether you’re at Rosehill Gardens [in Sydney], or Orange [in country New South Wales], or any other country town, you can see who has won a race just by looking at them.”
For Peter V’landys, the chief executive of Racing NSW, Australia’s love of the sport goes even deeper.
“It’s a part of our DNA,” he says. “When the settlers first came out here, that was their entertainment. Anyone who had a hard week’s work could go to the races at the weekend and have a good time. Racing continues to do that. It’s a social activity where you go with your friends, have a good time, a flutter and enjoy the day.”
Few Australians have horse racing as ingrained in their DNA as James Cummings. The 31-year-old is a fourth generation racehorse trainer and the grandson of record 12-time Melbourne Cup-winner Bart Cummings. Having grown up around the stables and racetracks of Australia, Cummings is able to provide a unique insight into the country’s passion for horse racing, which is the third best-attended sport Down Under, behind only Aussie rules football and rugby league.
“I think it fills a different space than those other sports because of its complexity and diversity,” he explains. “Involvement can range from casual onlookers, who maybe only follow one or two races a year, to heavily interested punters who study the form guides and really consider themselves experts. Then there are the owners, who come from all walks of life as well, right through to the breeders, the trainers and the jockeys who make a living out of the sport. I don’t think that’s quite the case with tennis and cricket and rugby union; I mean there are people that make a living out of it, don’t get me wrong, but there’s not quite that diversity of involvement that there is with horse racing.”
Cummings began working as a stable-hand for his father when he was just 13 and, in May 2017, was appointed as the head trainer in Australia for Godolphin – the highly successful stable founded by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, which has won over 5,000 races worldwide, including the 2018 Melbourne Cup.
Despite his tender years, Cummings has already won close to 600 races as a trainer himself, including 15 top-level Group 1 victories, with his horses raking in over AU$55 million in prize money since 2015. And, according to Cummings, the vast sums available from thoroughbred racing in Australia help underline the sport’s popularity.
“Horse racing amongst Australians has always been a popular past-time and an enjoyable gambling pursuit,” he says. “From the early days when they gambled on horses at Hyde Park, we’ve now got more racetracks than anywhere in the world, and in the week leading up to the Melbourne Cup, the front and back pages of the national newspapers will be dominated by stories about the race, with form guides so anyone can get involved and have a bet.”
And Australians certainly like a flutter. They wagered more than AU$23 billion on racing in 2016-17 – equivalent to over AU$1,200 per person – and that huge interest has helped swell the prizes available. In the 2017-18 season, the prizes paid out to owners across the country totalled AU$733 million, placing Australia behind only Japan and the United States in the racing world. Boosting that prize fund in recent years has been a new event offering a record pay-out of AU$14 million, making it the world’s richest race on turf.
First run in 2017, The Everest – held in October at Sydney’s Royal Randwick – attracts a select field of 12 elite horses to compete in the 1,200m sprint. The race was the brainchild of Racing NSW’s V’landys, who was keen to attract a new generation of fans to the track.
“Kids don’t like doing what their parents do,” he explains. “When parents starting using Facebook, the kids went on to Instagram and Snapchat. It’s the same with sport. If the parents follow a particular event, the kids don’t really engage. So The Everest is a new generational event for the under-35s, which was specifically designed and marketed for a younger crowd.”
Targeting that younger crowd includes turning race-day into a mini-festival, with international headliners keeping fans at the track long after the race has finished. Last year saw One Direction’s Liam Payne perform, while the inaugural race-day featured Jason Derulo.
“That helps attract a younger audience as well, because they stay on after the races and dance away,” says V’landys. “That’s now a new tradition that we’ve started, and now these young people are creating an atmosphere that I’ve never seen at the races before; they just bring a different vibrancy with them.”
Other innovativons to help differentiate The Everest from other, more established events include the unique entry system. Rather than horses qualifying for the race – as they do with the Melbourne Cup – The Everest offers 12 starting “slots”, available for AU$600,000 each, which then give their owners the chance to either race their own horse or invite another owner to enter on their behalf, with any prize money shared. “It’s a disruptive concept in the Australian racing landscape,” explains V’landys, “but we had to be disruptive in order to capture that attention.”
Critics initially scoffed at the asking price for starting slots, claiming the race would be the sole domain of the rich and famous. But horse ownership in Australia is perhaps more open than anywhere else in the world, with more than 29,000 Aussies experiencing the thrill of watching their own horse race through syndicate ownership. Indeed, the winner of the first two editions of The Everest – Redzel – is owned by a group that includes a police officer, schoolteacher, doctor, taxi driver, electrician, pharmacist, cricket coach and a security guard.
“That’s one of the great things about racing – it is an incredible leveller,” explains Moraitis, himself a self-made millionaire through his fresh produce business. “You can be a king or a queen or an every-day battler, but you’re all at the races on a Saturday trying to win.”
Among the owners looking to win last year’s running of The Everest was His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and his Godolphin stable, led by Cummings.
Having originally selected Home Of The Brave to run, an elevated temperature saw stable-mate Osborne Bulls step in as a last-minute replacement. The gelding proved to be an inspired choice, providing the highlight of the race as jockey Tommy Berry led the exciting sprinter on an exhilarating charge through the field right down the outside of the Royal Randwick straight to finish third.
“Osborne Bulls was a dramatic and late inclusion in the race, when our other runner fell ill, but it was amazing how it came together in that way,” reveals Cummings. “We’re a pretty big operation, we win plenty of races, but that was an incredible thing to be a part of. Placing third was obviously not a victory for us, but it really felt like a win and we were simply overcome by the whole aura and spirit of the race.”
As the grandson of 12-time Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Bart Cummings, James is certainly no stranger to grand racing occasions, and he is in little doubt that The Everest could one day challenge its esteemed Victorian cousin as “the race that stops the nation”.
“In some quarters it was maybe looked down a little bit at first, as perhaps a rich man’s sweepstake, but it really has captured the attention of Australian race-goers and it’s bringing people to the track who wouldn’t usually come to the races,” he says.
“In such a short period of time it has gained a huge following and really gripped the public attention. That speaks volumes about where the race is heading and as it continues to evolve, bringing the best of the best sprinters together to race, and I’ve no doubt in my mind that it will challenge the special image of the Melbourne Cup.”
That is certainly the ambition of V’landys and his team, who plan to continue disrupting Australia’s storied racing landscape. “The Melbourne Cup has been around for over 150 years, while this October will only be our third year,” he explains. “We have a strategy in place and, if it keeps going upwards like it has been, we think that The Everest will be the premier horse racing event [in Australia] within the next five to ten years.”
For Moraitis, who grew up dreaming of owning a Melbourne Cup-winning horse, the allure of The Everest is also tantalising. “I’d like to win one, that’s for sure,” he says. “Even to have a horse running in it would be an unbelievable thrill, and it would certainly put a smile on my face.”
With AU$14 million on the line, that smile would likely be even broader than those on the faces of race-goers around Australia who have backed a winner – be it at Royal Randwick, or dusty Betoota.