Australia’s biggest sporting event found at Melbourne Cup

Michelle Payne was the first female jockey ever to win the Melbourne Cup.

Michelle Payne was the first female jockey ever to win the Melbourne Cup.

Fascinators and ties were the dress code as the country stood still for a day to celebrate the culmination of Australian horse racing at the Melbourne Cup. As one of the biggest events in the Australian sports calendar, the Melbourne Cup is also one of the most important events on the global horse racing scene. It was the first time I had ever attended a horse race, and the event definitely exceeded my expectations.

This year, the Cup was especially exciting as Michelle Payne was the first female jockey ever to take home the gold trophy along with $6.2 million in prize money. Witnessing such a historic event enhanced the experience, as Payne’s win was an important milestone in horse racing history. The racing, though, was hardly the only factor demanding attention that day.

The Melbourne Cup brings together people from all over to Flemington Racecourse to celebrate with friends, show off their race style and bet on their favorite horses. Spirits run high throughout the track. People of all ages and backgrounds enjoy picnics on the lawn in the general admission area, as they toast with plastic champagne glasses. Meanwhile, tents and members’ areas invite dedicated and higher-price ticket holders into the stands to watch the 10 races sponsored by a variety of companies. The main race — the Melbourne Cup race seven — happens later in the day.

What fascinated me was the fashion — it was probably one of the most distinctive aspects of the entire experience. Leading up to the event, almost every large retail shop displays wide brimmed hats, creative fascinator headpieces (think Kate Middleton) and crowns, enticing shoppers to pick out a perfect headpiece to go with their outfit. Store windows  show off pieces in their collections, specifically drawing customers to find their headpiece for spring racing season or to be Melbourne Cup ready. Planning the perfect Cup outfit takes precision and the ensembles that people wear to the event demonstrated the dedication that people had, going above and beyond the call of fashion.

Though several women opted for fascinators with bows, flowers, bright colors or mesh attachés reminiscent of the headpieces worn during the royal wedding, others wore large hats or floral crowns. Some people even took the time to make themselves impressive headwear, incorporating painted wood pieces and feathers or, in some cases even fresh flowers. The headwear, though, merely complemented the range of outfits that people wore. Vibrant colors played a dominant role, as spring fashion trends matched the spirit of the daytime lawn party. I opted for a gold leaf crown to go along with my white dress, to aim for a minimalistic look.

Meanwhile, the men also brought their best looks out with impressive suits. In fact, some of the most astounding outfits were worn by men, including a suit covered in cheetah print and top hats topped with race horse statues. Clearly, the fashion was just as important to the event as were the races.

Betting, in particular, was very popular among attendees with totals reaching well into the millions in the pools and prizes, which included trips to Paris. What I found particularly interesting at the event was the absence of commercials on TV bearing the message to gamble responsibly. Usually, these commercials are pretty standard at horse racing events, but they took a break during the Melbourne Cup, which resembles a public holiday.

And a public holiday it is. During this day, the entire country comes to a stop as banks, retail stores, medical centers and eateries close. The excitement spreads around the city leading up to the event, as Melbourne boasts its host status of such a prestigious occasion.

Studying in Melbourne this semester allowed me to take part in this memorable holiday that remains at the core of the city that has been my home for the past couple of months. I would have never expected that the first horse race I would attend would be down under.

Nika Shahery is a junior majoring in international relations and policy, planning and development. Her column, “Aussie Adventure,” runs Thursdays.