All bets are off

The horses were gathered behind the barrier. The big moment was approaching and they’d soon be on their way in the 2018 Melbourne Cup. I was on the Irish horse The Cliffsofmoher for two reasons – I’d visited the real Cliffs of Moher in 2017 and the horse had run a good race in the Caulfield Cup.

The Cliffsofmoher looked a bit distressed as he waited his turn to be led into position. My immediate thought was that it should be taken out of the race – the commentators noticed it too. But some horses sweat before races don’t they? They are all different aren’t they? The Cliffsofmoher broke a shoulder during the race. Soon he was dead. I don’t know if there was a connection between the horse’s pre-race condition and the accident during the race.

I can’t remember what won the race. I think it was owned by that bloke whose daughter ran away.

I grew up in a racing family. Not a horse owning, members of the committee type of racing family but we went to the races in Kalgoorlie. The annual race round – Boulder Cup; Hannans Handicap; Kalgoorlie Cup – was my favourite time of the year. I had a favourite horse – Guardlock and favourite jockeys Frank Flannery and Keith Mifflin.

My first memory of the Melbourne Cup is 1964. The family sat around the stereogram and listened to the broadcast – the race was probably called by Joe Brown on the ABC (he’d soon be my favourite race caller along with Max Simmonds in Perth). Polo Prince won and I was left with the impression this Melbourne Cup was an important part of life.

In 1965 I had my first bet on the Cup. I recall my brother Dean dropping into the TAB in Boulder on route to Mass at All Hallows Church – I think we were on our way to an All Saints Day service. I’d given him 10 shillings with instructions to put five bob each way on Ziema. Next day it ran second to Light Fingers (the first Melbourne Cup win for Bart Cummings) – caught right on the post. When I saw the race for the first time on the Movietone News at the Palace Theatre in Boulder some weeks later I just couldn’t believe how the beautiful Ziema had lost. There was more bad news too – Dean had backed it for a win.

Looking back at the replay recently I noticed three horses fell in the 1965 Melbourne Cup – they all survived.

The 1965 Melbourne Cup

I always knew horse racing had a dodgy side. More than once I was told the horse I’d backed in a race in Kalgoorlie “wasn’t going” – not trying to win. But I remained interested. In 1972 in my last year of school I ran a book on the Melbourne Cup. Two punters took my overly generous odds of 66/1 on the Tasmanian horse Piping Lane – the two bets of $13.20 to 20c wiped me out and thankfully ended a fledgling bookie’s career.

Gambling remained a background thing in my life. I wasn’t a regular race goer but would have a bet from time to time – and always on the Melbourne Cup. I liked knowing about racing. Knowing the history. Knowing the lingo. Knowing enough to see through a little con as betting became digital. Punters were led to believe a horse at $2 was two-to-one when really it’s the less attractive evens.

The Cliffsofmoher tragedy shook me. But there was worse to come. The story in The Age by Damien Ractcliffe and Chip Le Grand about what might have happened to Red Cardinal, another Irish runner in the 2018 Melbourne Cup, on the night before the race was also shocking. And then came Caro Meldrum-Hanna’s story on the ABC’s 7.30.

The horse racing industry won’t be rocked by my decision to step away from the punt but I hope it does get a rocket. There are good people involved in racing but it’s hurt a lot of people and horses too. The racing industry employs and destroys.

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