MELBOURNE -- As an entire nation came to a standstill and watched, a son of Secretariat named Kingston Rule Tuesday won the most famous horse race in the Southern Hemisphere.
Kingston Rule's track-record performance in the 130th Melbourne Cup might be the last great victory for his sire, who died earlier this year. It was a record eighth triumph in this race for a legendary trainer, Bart Cummings, who long before had been christened the "King of the Cup."
But even if a horse with an ordinary pedigree from an ordinary stable had won this race, the impact of the Melbourne Cup on Australia hardly would have been diminished. No horse race on earth affects a population the way the Melbourne Cup affects Australia. The Kentucky Derby doesn't come close.
The first Tuesday in November is a national holiday because of the race. Banks are closed. Parliament is recessed. In the week preceding the Cup, you can walk down virtually any street in any city and see reminders of the event at hand. Clothing stores advertise appropriate Cup day wear. A sign in a poultry store advises: "Order your Melbourne Cup chicken now." Or this: "Closed Tuesday. Our Cup Tip: The Phantom."
Approximately $80 million was bet on the race, through legal bookmakers, on-course tote machines and Australia's extensive off-track betting system -- an extraordinary figure that amounts to $5 for every man, woman and child in the country. As that statistic suggests, a passion for racing and betting runs through every part of Australian society.
When Australia's prime minister, Bob Hawke, was at the Flemington races Saturday (with a well-marked racing form under his arm), a radio reporter asked him for his Cup selection. But the P.M. demurred, saying he had to study the race further. Les Carlyon of the Melbourne Age noted: "The man has a sense of proportion that is entirely Australian. He will speak spontaneously on the economy or Saddam Hussein. On deeper matters, such as a 3,200-metre handicap at Flemington, he needs time to reflect."
Run for the first time in 1861, the Melbourne Cup was drawing crowds of 100,000 as long ago as the 1880s, when the city's population was less than 300,000. This year a crowd of nearly 93,000 converged on Flemington Race Course amidst a carnival atmosphere reminscent of Louisville on the first Saturday in May.
But unlike the big U.S. races, where everybody scrambles to acquire decent reserved seats, here the most coveted possessions are spaces in the members' grassy car park.
Every space equals one party. Geoff Torney, a solicitor and racing executive at another track, pulled his Mercedes into his allotted spot and set up a table under a small canopy, where his wife, Janet, prepared to lay out lunch: "We have smoked salmon, pork spareribs in a South African spicy sauce, chicken in a lovely tarragon dressing, rare beef. But we've yet to get our bearnaise sauce."
From midmorning, champagne was flowing as the Torneys entertained family and friends, and their party typified the way thousands spend Cup day.
On the other side of the racecourse, in the public car park, the assembled mass of humanity was immediately recognizable to an American visitor. This was the infield crowd at Churchill Downs or Pimlico. The Aussies have a word for the rowdies here -- they call them yobbos -- and they would account for the estimated consumption of 329,000 bottles of beer at Flemington.
For the spectators, this may be a party, but for owners and trainers, winning the Cup can be the same all-consuming passion as the Derby is in America. Owner David Hains, one of the wealthiest men in Australia, lost an excruciating photo-finish in this race in 1982, and he said: "I thought I'd had my chance."
But it was two years after that defeat that he made a decision that would give him his ultimate triumph. He shipped a great mare, Rose of Kingston, to Kentucky, and paid $100,000 to breed her to Secretariat.
The product of that mating, Kingston Rule, wound up in the care of the master trainer of Melbourne Cup horses, although at a time when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb. Bart Cummings had been part of a tax-oriented syndication deal in which he would choose and train a group of young horses, but as Australia's economy faltered, nobody subscribed for a single share and Cummings found himself owing $8 million for the horses he bought.
His whole future in the business seemed in jeopardy. He wanted this Melbourne Cup with its $1.6 million purse. And he prepared Kingston Rule for it in a way that would flabbergast American horsemen.
This is an era when American trainers want horses to go into big races "fresh." They don't like to race horses within two or three weeks of an event such as the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders' Cup. Kingston Rule tuned up for the Melbourne Cup by winning at 1 5/8 miles 10 days ago. And then on Saturday -- three days before the Cup -- he raced 1 9/16 miles and finished second. That is the orthodox way of training horses here -- an orthodoxy that Cummings helped create -- and Kingston Rule was ready.
At 2:40 p.m. a huge roar went up from the 93,000 at Flemington as the 24 runners broke from the gate. They raced a half-mile down a straightaway until they were in front of the stands -- with Kingston Rule sitting on the rail in eighth position -- and then continued their trip around this sweeping, 1 1/2-mile grass oval.
Jockey Darren Beadman was able to stay on the rail around the final turn -- while many of his rivals unavoidably were going wide -- and then eased out past two tiring leaders in midstretch and accelerated. Kingston Rule held off The Phantom to win by a length.
In the winner's circle, the Duchess of York presented the Melbourne Cup trophy and the victorious owner, trainer and jockey all delivered short speeches to the crowd.
Amid the festivities, nobody was crass enough to ask whether the Melbourne Cup really deserves to be such a famous race. Purists frequently argue that it doesn't. Its two-mile distance (or, to be precise, 3,200 meters) is almost as much of an anachronism in Australia as it would be in America.
It rewards plodders instead of horses with speed and brilliance, the qualities that breeders most revere. Winning a Cup is considered the kiss of death for a prospective stallion. Moreover, the Melbourne Cup is a handicap -- a race in which the most accomplished horses are burdened with the largest weight assignments -- and so the best horse does not necessarily win.
Kingston Rule was carrying 116 pounds, getting a concession of 12 pounds from the top-weighted horse in the field. So what did his victory prove? This is an ancient issue. As long ago as 1863, a turf writer here declared that the conditions of the Cup "make a farce of everything that racing stands for."
Gary Gray, who produced a film on the history of the race, offered the most cogent explanation for the Cup's enduring popularity. "It is a mirror of Australian society," he said, "and our egalitarianism. The idea behind it is to give the little bloke a chance -- not to decide who is the best. It's the people's race."
Even the purists who deride the Cup in theory have a hard time doing so when they are swept up in the excitement and emotion of the big day at Flemington. Robert Sangster of Britain, one of the most successful horse owners in the world, once declared haughtily that the Melbourne Cup could never be taken seriously as an important race. Then he won it in 1980, and he would say that it was one of the most exhilarating moments of his turf career.
Sangster and his wife were flying home to Europe after their victory, and his wife had the gold trophy tucked in a suede bag under her seat. The steward asked: "The Melbourne Cup wouldn't be in there, by chance?" and when she said yes, the steward filled it with champagne and passed it around the first-class cabin so that everyone could take a sip from the hallowed vessel.
The ritual sounded almost like a religious ceremony -- a description not far off the mark in describing the way Australians feel about the Melbourne Cup.