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Understanding the Melbourne Cup: Why it’s Controversial

Australia’s ‘race that stops the nation’ has a complicated, controversial history. 

Held on the first Tuesday in November, the Melbourne Cup is an annual Thoroughbred horse race. It’s also a public holiday for those working in Melbourne and some regional parts of Victoria. If you’re outside of the state, you’ll notice a number of Melbourne Cup events being held, and the race being broadcast on TV and radio.

Despite its long tradition – the first race was held in 1861 – the Melbourne Cup has long been questioned over its ethics and many people feel conflicted over the race. After numerous high-profile deaths of horses and the ABC’s 2019 story “The Final Race”, which revealed many racehorses end up at slaughterhouses, recent changes have been made to focus on horse welfare.

Here’s what you need to know about the Melbourne Cup as an international student.

What happens on Melbourne Cup Day?

On Tuesday 7 November 2023, the Melbourne Cup will be held at the Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne’s inner west. While races take place throughout the day, the Cup itself will take place at 3pm (AEDT). 

For those not attending the race – which is a ticketed event open to the general public – Melbourne Cup events will happen across the country. For example, you might see people attending Melbourne Cup lunches. 

One thing you may notice is how formally people are dressed for the Melbourne Cup. The ‘Fashions on the Field’ competition has been running since 1962, awarding the best dressed. Statement fascinators and hats are particularly prominent during the Melbourne Cup carnival period.

Many people bet on the Melbourne Cup, winning cash prizes if the horse they have chosen wins. Some workplaces in Australia may even have their own Melbourne Cup sweep, where you can place bets against your colleagues.

Why is the Melbourne Cup controversial?

Attendance at the Melbourne Cup has been decreasing for years, with 2022’s 73,816 racegoers the lowest since 1995. But why is this happening?

As summarised by Dr Katie Greenway, a psychology lecturer at the University of Melbourne:

In recent years, though, the meaning of the race has changed in people’s minds. It’s become controversial, associated with things people don’t want to be associated with, like animal cruelty, gambling problems and wealth disparity.”

In 2020, Anthony van Dyke became the seventh horse to die in recent years. Following this, Racing Victoria commissioned a review into the injuries and deaths of horses during the Melbourne racing carnival. One of the most significant changes resulting from this review means that all Melbourne Cup runners must undergo a diagnostic CT scan before being allowed to race. It was found that, had this scan happened for Anthony van Dyke, pre-existing injuries and conditions may have been picked up and the horse would not have raced. However, horses can still suffer catastrophic injuries without any pre-existing conditions. 

The glamourisation of gambling is also an issue of concern for many people, particularly since gambling is a significant public policy issue in Australia. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), the social costs of gambling – which include personal financial losses, psychological expenses, relationship costs and more – have been estimated at around $7 billion in Victoria alone.

While many people are divided on their opinions on the event, the decision to attend Melbourne Cup events or get involved with the celebrations is entirely up to you.  What is most important is that you understand why conflicting opinions on this topic exist.

If you don’t want to get involved, you could attend or host your own Nup to the Cup event, which focuses on celebrating animals.