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Soup of This Day #92: Wild Horses Could Not Drag Me Away

November 1, 2011

Melbourne Cup 1881
An engraving of the finish of the 1881 Melbourne Cup, won by a horse named Zulu. Just 2 years previous the British Army had suffered a catastrophic loss to the Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana, followed on the same day and the next by a stunning reverse, the successful defence of Rorke’s DriftImage: S.B. (Unknown pseudonym),Illustrated Australian News, 1881. The Illustrated Australian News has no affiliation with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

Today is the 1st Tuesday in November. It’s actually the 1st day in November for 2011 as well but it’s the Tuesday bit that makes it special. For the 1st Tuesday in November is Melbourne Cup Day.

The Melbourne Cup is a horse race. For 151 years it has been the horse race for Australians. It is usually referred to as the ‘Race That Stops A Nation’, primarily because it comes close to doing just that. Federal Parliament was mired in debate this morning about halting Question Time for the race – The argument wasn’t about whether it was a good idea or not, instead it was about both sides of politics trying to claim credit for the proposal. Since Question Time tends to involve answers that are wholly unrelated to the questions posed anyway hardly anybody got upset at the suggestion that it be curtailed. And if they did then they probably drowned their discontent at 1 of the ubiquitous Melbourne Cup Parties, where people who ordinarily couldn’t care less about horse racing suddenly start commenting on the form of a 3 year old filly sired out of Archer:

‘It’s got 4 legs,’ they’ll say with a knowing nod, ‘ and I reckon she’s got heart.’

Because 4 legs and a heart are necessary in the upper echelons of horse racing. Actually, if you count the jockey then you probably require 6 legs and 2 hearts.

Phar Lap had 6 legs and 2 hearts (1 standard jockey included). Phar Lap’s personal heart was apparently some ticker, able to help propel the Red Terror to an astonishing 32 wins from 35 starts at 1 point. Since that point was smack in the middle of the Great Depression it’s a fair approximation that he was our Sea Biscuit, if you like Tobey Maguire films and zebras that race.

Come to think of it maybe the zebra thing was another film entirely.

Anyway, Phar Lap came along during the Depression and lifted up a whole lot of people, primarily by winning a Melbourne Cup (1930) but also by physically grasping people in his teeth and hoiking them into the air.

I made that last bit up.

What is not fictitious is that he is considered to be Australia’s greatest race horse. Or New Zealand’s. Technically he was born in New Zealand but was raised and trained in Australia. While it’s a matter of contention as to which country ‘owns’ him (and let’s be clear it’s Australia, we’ll give back Russell Crowe if it sweetens the deal), it’s very clear which country killed him: Take a bow US of A.

Yep, Phar Lap had been taken to race in the US in 1932, possibly because he’d run out of horses to beat in Australia. After a win in Mexico he was domiciled in California awaiting opportunities to race when he was suddenly taken ill and died. Popular legend has it that US gangsters didn’t want the horse to race and so had him poisoned with arsenic.

And now his stuffed hide is in Melbourne, his heart is in Canberra and his skeleton is in New Zealand. Which does admittedly read like a macabre scavenger hunt.

You’ve probably detected a note of flippancy in my writing to this point in the post. If so, well spotted, I guess it’s time to come clean:

I don’t give a @#$% about the Melbourne Cup.

Partly because it’s horce racing and I just don’t get it – Jockeys seem like strange little people. Partly because it seems to involve a lot of betting and Australians are disturbingly good at wagering, to the point that it’s a little unhealthy. Partly because, out of the past 6 horses I’ve had selected for me in random draw sweeps, I make it that 4 have had to be put down after the race. Actually 1 had to be put down so quickly that you could argue that it was during the race.

Yep, I’m the harbinger of death for race horses.

As such I’ll be ignoring the actual race today, giving the obligatory Melbourne Cup luncheon a miss.

All of this will have me labelled as ‘un-australian’. I’ve decapitalised that because such a sentiment just seems better without a big ‘A’ out the front. Still, it’s a black mark against me and now I’ll talk about cricket so as to distrac…

I’m a Western Australian. I was born in Subiaco, have lived all of my subsequent years in WA and think that the Melbournian accent is not at all sexy. In part because of the latter I fell in love with another Perth girl who as it happens was born in the same hospital as me. Funnily enough I work only a couple of kilometres down the road from said hospital and so I’ll often describe the vector sum of my life so far as not very much.

Which is ok because I quite like my home state and I really do like Perth. Others will tell you that it is boring and that it’s just a large country town. To them I’d respond with: It’s what you make of it and yeah, so what?

I once flew across to Canberra for a conference, my 1st trip outside of WA. Upon return as the plane landed at Perth Airport the passengers burst into applause. Not because we were the recipients of some kind of heroic piece of piloting skill. Nope, we clapped because we were home. When we entered the terminal the waiting throng clapped too. Anytime the residents of a country town of 1.7 million applaud because they got home safe and sound then you know it’s a special place.

Something that makes us special is our isolation – This is a stupidly big State (About 3.8 times the size of Texas) and Perth is in the South Western corner of it. This places the city around 2769km (by road) from Adelaide, the next nearest State capital, and a staggering 3798km from Canberra, our national capital. That latter figure is around 60% of the Earth’s radius and just shy of 10% of our planet’s circumference. What those distances don’t explain is that to get to Perth from any other Australian capital you need to traverse a desert. At least 1 desert – There are 10 of them and the 1 that sits directly between Adelaide and Perth, the Great Victoria Desert is around 1.5 times the size of the United Kingdom. It’s hot and lonely out here.

All of which is good for biological diversity – faced with unique conditions an extraordinary number of organisms that are endemic to WA exist here. Basically, we breed ’em tough out west. And this is how we treat our sportsmen and women too. They have to be tough. They have to travel like nobody else in Australia and at some point on those long trips they have to face up to better resourced and rested opponents. It’s no wonder then that we tried to secede in 1933 – 68% voted for it in a referendum but the rest of the country wouldn’t let us go.

They also wouldn’t let us into the Sheffield Shield competition. Australia’s premier domestic cricket league started in 1892 with NSW, Victoria and South Australia. WA, was deemed to be too far away at the time – It took until 1947 for WA to finally get the nod. The Western Australian’s repaid that generous inclusion by promptly winning their 1st season. It was to take 20 years to win again but in the 31 years that followed that 2nd Shield they won another 13. They have been successful in the lesser one-day competition too – Winning 11 times out of the 41 completed seasons, 3 more than 2nd best NSW. This success has been a springboard for players on the international stage, with 5 cricketers, Bob Simpson, Kim Hughes, Geoff Marsh, Adam Gilchrist and Mike Hussey, captaining Australia while playing for WA.

Nowadays the team is known as the Western Warriors and they have endured a recent lean trot, failing to win the Shield since 1999 and the one-day Cup since 2004. This season though might be different. They have started with a win and an almost-win to have 8 points, just 4 behind competition leaders, Queensland. As it happens, on this Melbourne Cup Day they have commenced a match at the Western Australian Cricket Association Ground (Known as the WACA, pronounced ‘wacker’) against the latter, bowling the tourists out for 273.

The chief destroyer for the Sandgropers was 20 year old Mitch Marsh, the son of former WA great Geoff Marsh (1 of the men mentioned above who had captained Australia). Mitch took career best figures of 6 for 84, twice being on the verge of a maiden hat-trick. WA did struggle with the bat in reply, edging to 3 for 71 at stumps but as well as his impressive pace and swing Marsh the Younger did take another victory out of the day:

Dunaden, a French horse, had the staying power and a fortunate bob of the head that edged it past 2nd place Red Cadeaux in today’s 2011 edition of the Melbourne Cup. At the conclusion of the 3200m race the 2 could only be separated via a photo and even that wasn’t clear. Dunaden then by a whisker and Mitch Marsh won $120 in a WACA sweep.

Do horses have whiskers?

Wild Horses Could Not Drag Me Away

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