MELBOURNE -- At racetracks around the world, the most-asked question is "Who do you like?" or variations upon that theme. But in Australia there is a query that runs a close second: "What are you wearing?"
Even though the Aussies rank among the world's most passionate gamblers, horse racing here isn't merely a hard-core gambling event. The races are a party and a fashion show too -- especially during springtime in Melbourne.
When historians list the great moments in racing history here they start with Phar Lap's victory in the 1930 Melbourne Cup, Carbine's win in 1890 and Jean Shrimpton's dress in 1965. (The world-famous model arrived at the high-toned members' enclosure wearing a simple white shift that stopped at mid-thigh. The country was momentarily scandalized -- then the miniskirt craze was born.)
But even in the boondocks, racegoers are style conscious. As an unprepared American visitor, I was incredulous the first time I witnessed a ritual known as "fashions in the field" at a humble little country track in the town of Ballarat.
The feature race had been run, and after three horses wound up in an excruciatingly tight photo finish, a stewards inquiry was posted involving all three. Most tracks would have been abuzz with discussions of the inquiry, but instead an announcement came that it was time for "fashions in the field."
A parade of well-dressed women, invariably wearing large hats, mounted a platform in front of the grandstand, where a panel judged the outfits. This activity went on for 20 or 30 minutes, during which time there was no mention of the inquiry.
I imagined the same scene at Aqueduct: Deranged horseplayers would have been shrieking obscenities and setting fire to trash cans by now. But here everybody politely applauded the winning lady in the big hat before learning that the winning horse's number would stay up.
Having learned that dressing for a day at Flemington isn't quite like dressing for a day at Laurel, my wife, Susan, consulted a Melbourne friend before this trip and asked what one wears to the races. This, it turned out, was a matter full of subtleties.
"On Derby day," she was instructed, "dress tends to be more formal -- you'll see a lot of blacks and whites. Melbourne Cup day you can do anything outrageous -- a skirt split up to your ears if you like. The big day is the Oaks, and you're a lady -- elegant dress, flowers in your hair."
The Oaks -- the big race for 3-year-old fillies -- is such a nationally recognized event that even schoolgirls may dress up especially to emulate the glamorous ladies at the track.
Virtually all of the 50,000 people at Flemington today looked as if they had given months of thought to their outfits for the day. Almost every woman wore a hat -- the larger and more outrageous the better. One wore a hat supporting a champagne bottle; another wore a hat consisting of a wicker coronet. And there were more feathers atop heads at Flemington today than could be found in the aviary of the Royal Melbourne Zoo.
Toddlers in strollers wore fancy outfits. And even counterculture types who might have rejected the formality of the day felt they had to make a fashion statement, such as several men who wore tuxedo jackets, formal shirts, shorts and sneakers. While I had been prepared by trips to the Kentucky Derby for the carnival atmosphere of Tuesday's Melbourne Cup, I have never known anything like the Oaks. It was the most colorful and glamorous day of racing I have ever seen -- and I've seen quite a few.
The whole social and fashion-conscious aspect of Australian racing reveals a great deal about the nature of the sport here, and comparisons arise.
In the United States, dress represents the sharp division of racetrack patrons along social lines. At Belmont Park on any given day the crowd will consist of two basic groups: 1) the rich, who come to socialize in the turf club and the box-seat area, and who dress for the occasion; and 2) the masses who come to gamble and see no need to dress for the occasion.
In Australia, racing always has appealed to a broader segment of society. In rural parts of the country, where the inhabitants live long distances from each other, a race meeting often is a major social event, and even if it consists of a few cheap races run in a dust storm or in searing heat, it is an excuse for all the people in the region to don their finery and socialize.
At a track here, a gentleman in a morning coat or a lady with a plumed hat does not connote snootiness. It's the Aussies' way of having a good time.