Updated: Tuesday, November 12, 2002 4:30 PM
By Victor Zast
Posted: Tuesday, November 12, 2002 10:13 AM
A trio of Elvis impersonators play "Up on the Rooftop" just inside the entrance to Flemington Racecourse. One of the Elvises plays a tuba. Another bangs away on a snare drum, while the third blows into a tinny-sounding saxophone. The members, stalwarts of the Victoria Racing Club, Flemington's ruling body, walk by in morning suits.
Outside the gates, the music takes another twist. Marquees are what the Aussies call hospitality tents, but would you trust a mate who can't get the name of his city right to know what a tent is? They say "Melbuhn," these Melburnians. The trendiest "Melbuhnians" hang out in a "cahpahk."
The carpark nearest the train tracks is The Nursery. The kids in this Nursery are fashion plates, sucking up on champagne and tailgating on finger sandwiches. Tim and Lisa Johnson, who own the farm where the fastest Cup winner ever, Kingston Rule, stands, entertain them.
Tim is the brother of trainer Murray Johnson of Perfect Drift fame. Somehow Murray escaped all this madness to find a more sensible life in Kentucky--one of coping with owners who will never call it "Tuffway."
"See how nice all the women are dressed?" Tim asked, as if a sighted man could miss the plunging necklines and plumaged millinery. "It's our day for pretending we're British," he concluded, seemingly unaware of the trio of Elvises or the bush hats worn by the burly men on whose arms these lovelies preen.
The Nursery is a rental neighborhood of emerald green lawns and row upon row of canvas covered playpens. On one day a year, the Johnsons reside at Super Site Number Eleven on Phar Lap Drive.
Phar Lap, of course, is the Man o' War of Australia, a horse so steeped in lore the Melburnians have dedicated a museum exhibit to him. The streets in The Nursery are named after former Cup winners. At the end of Windbag, there's a video board. The Tote is located on Carbine. The toilets are on Nimblefoot.
About 200 meters to the south, on the other side of a tunnel of roses, are The Birdcage marquees. The "birds" in The Birdcage appear sexier than the babes in The Nursery, but maybe the lavishness makes it so. Roast lamb and Peking duck pancakes. A tieless Richard Branson skirting the dress code, hobnobbing with "The Turbo Prince,"
Frederik of Hollywood...er, Denmark.
The Saab marquee features blocks of ice containing tulips. The Canon marquee has an original sculpture of Salvador Dali. L'Oreal has a Powder Room that offers makeovers for women without need for them. Olivia Newton-John is the guest of Moët & Chandon. Heather Graham dances to the music of a deejay at Channel Seven.
Out on the public lawns, the revelers include freaks dressed as nuns, genies in a bottle, and hairy drag queens. The pre-race shenanigans feature a country music singer and 20 Australian cowboys looking like Palladin. Sentiment sweeps over the crowd with the singing of "Waltzing Matilda."
Seven hundred million people in 17 countries are watching the Melbourne Cup on television. There is no other race in the world for which a holiday is proclaimed, nor any race on which 90% of a country's population will bet.
In 1895, Mark Twain wrote of the Melbourne Cup, "They come a hundred thousand strong...and they pack the spacious grounds and grandstands and make a spectacle." Twain missed the attendance figures of this year's Cup by 2,533, but he got everything else right. The event has endured as unparalleled pageantry for 142 years, and, despite worry that the race is becoming too international, there's no stop to the phenomenon in sight.
The Melbourne Cup is all about Australia, about hard luck and rags to riches and "roughies," which, if you don't speak the language, is what "punters" call longshots, mate. It is built on stories such as Archer winning the first running in 1861 after walking 500 miles to Melbourne, and jockey Damien Oliver winning the latest in the memory and britches of his brother Jason, who was killed in a riding accident the previous week, just as their father, Ray, died 27 years ago. This year's edition will fit right in, even though Media Puzzle was one of the favorites and his Irish owners escaped with the trophy after the Irish wake. b Victor Zast is president of Private Perfumery in Chicago.
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