When I was a student I worked a variety of strange jobs to pay the rent. Without a doubt the most soul-destroying was the one that involved doing six-hour shifts at various racetracks around Melbourne, selling bets to the hapless fools who frequented them. The culmination of the season was the Melbourne Cup and some of the other days surrounding them — Derby Day wasn’t too bad; Oaks Day was pretty appalling. But the Melbourne Cup is proof that white trash is a state of mind and has nothing to do with how much money you have (or spend).

Most of my shifts were regular racing and harness meets, far removed from the hype of the Cup. Not that I’d recommend attending these regular racing meets, because they are astonishingly depressing. The clientele were predominantly very old people who were probably betting their pensions. At least that’s what I interpreted from the look of despair in their eyes. There were also an awful lot of people with poor communications skills, either from lack of education or not speaking English as a first language.

They weren’t affluent and didn’t seem to be in control of what they were doing. They would place their bets with an automated sense of ritual finely honed from years of repetition. At the start of the night they’d be placing bets of hundreds of dollars and if they didn’t have a win all night, they’d end up placing bets from whatever loose change they had left after buying a cup of tea for dinner. Every now and then one would have a big win and strut around defiantly about how successful their system was; the memory of all the crushing defeats and losses forgotten.

However, they were nothing compared to the “high rollers”. These people had a lot of money to flash around and seemed to feel that somehow that earned them my respect. They were predominantly men, mostly white and mostly middle-aged, although you got a few younger guys in suits who seemed to have made it their life mission to mimic every alpha male cliché imaginable.

One of these gorillas, in a beer-stained suit, once actually boasted about how awesome he was because he could place a $600 win bet on a horse. Clearly, he wanted me to be in awe of that, to be impressed that he could flutter away such a large sum of money on something so tenuous. He felt I owed him my respect. Are you kidding? It’s hard to respect guys whose idea of a good time is to hang out with other sweaty guys and excrete large wads of cash into the giant money pit of a racetrack.

Funnily enough, most people who worked at the racetracks preferred clients like this. The regulars at least knew what they wanted and made their bets efficiently. The real contempt and spite was often reserved for the frivolous punters who only came out on Melbourne Cup day. The recent school leavers who had just turned 18 and now felt all grown up, the hapless office workers dragged along to a corporate event, the bewildered international guests wondering how they were duped into coming, the sad trawl of suburbanites who honestly thought it would be a glamorous affair and the gangs of young blokes who still found it hilarious to wear board shorts, tuxedo jackets and top hats. Those guys seem to always be there.

I have to admit, I preferred serving these lightweight day-pass punters. Sure, they liked to pretend to be racing experts, but they were mostly harmless, simply trying to have fun and convince themselves that they wanted to be there. They didn’t rush to make last-minute bets, mostly only bet a few dollars and only placed bets on races held there and then (the regulars would, confusingly, bet on races all over the country). I worked in general public areas and in private corporate tents, and didn’t mind either. The main difference was that the general public stood on concrete while the private tents stood on mud.

It was venturing out of my little booth that was truly horrifying and it got worse as the day went on. That was when you realised just how low people can collectively fall when filled with alcohol and the illusion of class. It was a bit like an after party of a school formal but on a much larger scale: a lot of very elaborately dressed people looking sick, confused and sad. Leaving the racetrack was like being in a massive walk of shame. The complete lack of self-respect and dignity was overwhelming. And the smell of vomit. I will never forget the pervasive smell of Champagne and fried food vomit that covered the racetrack from about the fifth race on.

I abhor the Melbourne Cup and will never enjoy it on any level. And I’m still not too sure what the point of it is. It is extraordinarily far removed from the rest of the racing scene, not that I’m a fan of that either, so what else is it? Maybe it was once a great social and fashion event, but these days I wonder if it’s just an elaborate day to play dress-ups. It also seems to be a desperate reinforcement of status and privilege with its strict hierarchy about who is allowed where and into what tent. But, all it seems to do is reveal the extent to which people can possess wealth and fame, but zero class.

The Melbourne Cup makes everybody involved a mug punter. It brings together the desperate, the obnoxious and the vacuous in a ritual of despair and soullessness. But, go on folks, go on and enjoy yourself. Just remember the people on the day who are selling you bets and pouring you drinks won’t respect you based on how much money you win or bet. If you can live with this and the stench of vomit then all the best to you. May the best underdog jockey on the best Australian-bred horse win. I think we’re meant to give a damn about things like that.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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