Melbourne Cup: The good, the bad and the ugly of the race that stops the nation

😃 The Good: Part of Australia's history

😔 The Bad: Heartbreaking deaths of racehorses

😢 The Ugly: Hundreds of millions gambled

The Melbourne Cup is entrenched in Australian history, but concerns about animal welfare and gambling have raised questions about its ability to continue to bring the nation together.

Despite this, the 2021 race still attracted 1.7 million viewers and over $220 million in bets nationally.

Here are the good, bad and ugly aspects of the Melbourne Cup.

Growing up watching the Cup

If you grew up in Australia, you probably have good memories of your dad shouting at the TV as the nation cheered the horses racing down the Flemington straight in the Melbourne Cup.

In the 1980s with Cup fever as high as ever Fosters Lager was the major sponsor and Prime Minister Bob Hawke was always seen in the stands.

Victoria would get the day off and everyone else would don fancy hats at work and have a tipple. Sweepstakes drawn out of a hat would form part of the festivities.

Close to the finish line, Might and Power and another horse racing in the Melbourne Cup.
Might and Power wins the 1997 Melbourne Cup. Source: Getty

In the queue outside the TAB, mates would work to become fast experts in betting. There was no fooling the woman behind the counter though, she knew you were a ring-in.

"Win, place, or each way?" she'd ask.

And there was the history. There were school lessons dedicated to Phar Lap bringing hope to ordinary Aussies by winning the Cup during the Great Depression. The part about him being a Kiwi was skimmed over.

On the first Tuesday of November 2022, those memories come flooding back and for four minutes it’s great to forget about the Ukraine War, Covid-19 and inflation.

Excessive horse deaths are a bad look

It's now the information age. Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (CRP) spokesperson Kristin Leigh believes there's nothing good about the Cup except that it "puts a spotlight on the horrors of the industry".

Trying to combat the negative messaging is racing public relations firm Kick Collective. It argues Australia is actually the "safest nation to race a horse".

Green screens are erected around Red Cadeaux by people in Emirates vests at the Melbourne Cup.
A screen is erected around Red Cadeaux after he pulled up during the 2015 Cup. Source: AAP

A key problem, according to its managing director Vicky Leonard, is the Cup is "one day of the year when the public pay attention to horse racing", and being one of the most gruelling events on the racing calendar it has a higher-than-average fatality rate.

She believes this combination has harmed the image of the wider racing industry, and given opponents a platform to misrepresent it.

"It's been devastating for the whole industry ... It's a shame because it should be the one day a year that we can show our race off," she said.

In the Cups from 2013-2020 seven horses died, a year later the race was fatality free.

Entrants now receive two pre-race physical veterinary examinations by a panel of Racing Victoria vets and a CT scan of lower limbs. Horses in other races are not subjected to the same scrutiny.

Over $300 million gambled on Cup Day

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the Melbourne Cup Carnival directly employed 21,000 staff and contractors.

It added a whopping $447.6 million financial benefit to Victoria. But the ugly side of the Cup is the money gambled away.

Australia's fondness of gambling is of growing concern and during the 2021 Cup Day punters bet an astonishing $372.8 million, of which $223.8 million was on the Cup itself.

Hands holding Australian money in the foreground. Horses racing in the background.
The Melbourne Cup used to bring the nation together, but in recent years concerns about gambling and animal welfare have grown. Source: AAP

Humane Society International suggests much of the cash bet could be better directed to racehorse welfare.

Its head of campaigns Nicola Beynon suggests just a fraction of that money could fund "a retirement plan and sanctuaries for all race horses and other exploited animals”

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