Two Days at the Races: Melbourne’s Cox Plate and Oaks Day

Street performers entertain crowds at the Cox Plate.

Everyone knows that time of year in Melbourne. Crowds spill out from trains and trams in the early morning, the ladies dressed in hats and frocks, the lads in suits and ties. Others come in chauffeured cars and dearer outfits, bound for a day of marquees and fine dining. Bent heads and knitted brows labour over the choosing of a winner, while the masses get happily sloshed on canned beer, cheap sparkling wine and pre-mixed beverages.

I’ve always enjoyed the Spring Racing Carnival, while also examining it as an aberration: several days from September through November where we put the fancy face on gambling and binge drinking. A more positive viewpoint is to see it as just a good day out. Local and international visitors (including many celebrities) flock to the state of Victoria for thoroughbred horse racing during this time of year. A flurry of activity can be seen all around Melbourne in the lead-up to the events. Most clothing retailers, from the tiny boutiques dotting the laneways in the central business district to the major department stores stock up on hats, ties, dresses and suits. Fashion shows are carefully planned by both sponsors and participants, while executives prepare to host elaborate spreads for their clients at the various corporate marquees.

Horses enter the barriers before an Oaks Day race at Flemington.

John and I have enjoyed many a day at the races and we’ve been careful to choose different events to attend over our four years here. This year is a special one for the Melbourne Cup. It is the event’s 150th anniversary and special celebrations and events have been happening for the last several months to honour this special milestone. Around nine races are run on each day, usually starting in the morning and finishing up in the late afternoon.

The bookie ring at Moonee Valley Racecourse during the Cox Plate.

The Spring Racing Carnival features race days all over the state, the most famous of which are held at the major courses: Betfair Park Sandown, Caulfield, Moonee Valley and Flemington, home to the biggest race, The Melbourne Cup, also known as the “race that stops a nation.” Yes it’s true, the first Tuesday in November is always a public holiday here so everyone can experience the big event at 3 pm.

Something we found interesting this year was a special promotion by one of our favourite beer brands, James Boag’s, which was called The Greatest Cup Never Run. In an attempt to answer the question regarding which previous Melbourne Cup-winning horse was the greatest, a simulated race was designed using predicitve software. Channel 7 broadcast the event on Melbourne Cup Day, featuring 24 of the top horses from the last 149 years. Phar Lap, who won the real race in 1930 was the winner, while the actual 2010 Melbourne Cup was won by Americain, a US-bred, French-trained, Australian-owned stallion (and a winner we were thrilled to pick!)

Some things are the same at every race day. Like most big events, a palpable difference in your comfort level is felt depending on how much you spent to attend. General admission tickets will buy access to the grounds and little else. Get there early and bring a blanket to stake your claim on a spot of grass in front of the track and you’ll have a meeting place for the day as well as somewhere to sit. Otherwise wear comfortable shoes (a predicament if you’re female because of the dress code) and plan to be on your feet all day. Other options include reserved stand seating, restaurant packages and swanky invitation-only marquees. Picnic lunches are allowed or you can feast on a variety of offerings from vendors around the grounds (gourmet sausages are a favourite of ours). Alcohol is available everywhere, including beer, wine, pre-mixed spirits and frozen daiquiris (though how anyone can drink those in the recent weather is beyond me).

The contenders are paraded in front of spectators ahead of a race at the Cox Plate.

The Carnival brings its own traditions for racegoers. Most people dress up, especially at the major events. Some go as far as to plan elaborate costumes like matching bright floral-printed suits or wild hats. You don’t have to be a big fan of horse racing to come out and have a good time as there is something for everyone to enjoy. It’s also customary to have at least one bet on the races, especially the Melbourne Cup itself. Punters can choose from the TAB, where more sophisticated bets can be placed, or one of the bookie rings, which are large spaces allocated to the bookmakers (completely legal in Australia). Usually you can only bet on a win or a place with the bookmakers, but you can often get better odds. It is worthwhile to shop around here.

The weather hasn’t been great in recent years, and this can be distressing for the women considering the near impossibility of finding suitable ladies racewear for chilly days. Rain featured heavily this year, and the fluctuating weather conditions are unfortunate; so many of us are left shivering for hours by the track (I gave up and left my coat on all day at Cox Plate).

Scenes from the crowd around the main bookie ring during Oaks Day at Flemington.

The first race day we attended this year was the Cox Plate at the Moonee Valley Racecourse. Cox Plate attracts smaller crowds than the more prominent races held at Flemington. This year’s attendance was 31,456. For many people, this is a more attractive crowd size and we quickly discovered that the grounds are much more accessible to the action than Flemington. If you’re interested in the horses, you can walk right up to the stables and get close to the real players. The race also starts later in the day and the atmosphere is more casual: while many attendees were dressed up, others showed up in jeans and casual jackets. As expected, So You Think won the Cox Plate Race.

We also went to Oaks Day. Traditionally known as the ‘Ladies Day,’ Oaks tends to attract a smaller crowd than the more popular Derby Day and Melbourne Cup (only 75,088 people showed up this year compared to 90,361 and 110,223, respectively). Fashion seems to be the premier event of this day and from what we could see, the crowd was older and pretty mellow. This could easily be due to the fact that it is held on a Thursday and most people have to take time off work to attend. Overall we preferred the atmosphere of Derby Day, while we’ve always found the Melbourne Cup to be too crowded and crazy for our liking. We usually join many others at one of the bars and pubs around town to watch the event. Parties are often held on this day so even if people don’t make it to Flemington, they are sure to be celebrating somewhere and keeping an eye on the races.

Racegoers prepare to watch a race on the lawn at Oaks Day. Five guys (in the checkered outfits) came dressed as Bart Cummings’ jockeys – he is one of Australia’s most famous horse trainers, winning twelve Melbourne Cups.

The Spring Racing Carnival is one of Melbourne’s premier attractions for both locals and tourists. General admission tickets do not need to be purchased ahead of the day, however, reserved seating and places in the restaurants and marquees can sell out months in advance. For more information, visit Racing Victoria.

Have you attended any famous horse races or do you have an opinion on Victoria’s Spring Racing Carnival? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

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