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The Spring racing season has begun.  An English horse called All the Good came galloping in ahead of the rest of the pack at the Caufield Cup on Saturday.  To say it was an upset is a bit of an understatement.  The odds were fifty to one.  The horse is owned by a company called Godolphin, based in the United Arab Emirates.  I’m sure the Sheik can use the money.

I am ashamed to say that I have yet to attend one of these horsey events, not even the Melbourne Cup, the race that “stops the nation.” I did make an effort to expand my horizons when we lived in Hong Kong, but that occasion was prompted by an invitation.  Still, I did the whole thing, getting the form and placing bets (on horses I liked the names of), promptly losing whatever winnings came my way.  I just couldn’t see the point.  Perhaps if I rode a horse, I might be more interested, but I doubt it.  I ride a bike and I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch a cycling race unless the riders were all naked….or wearing burqas.

The summer cycling season has begun.  It was kicked off yesterday by the big event of the year– “Around the Bay in a Day.”  16,450 riders turned out.  I was not one of them.  I do have some good memories, like the sunrise over the Yarra, but I was very nervous among riders who were all attempting to go at different speeds.  Negotiating a safe space among cyclists, cars and ‘utes’ (pick up trucks) is quite demanding for those of us whose vision and reflexes are, shall we say, a little rusty.

Cyclists can be as boorish and unpleasant as motorists when they get obsessed with speed.  Last year, the day of the ride turned quite hot and the wind was in my face much of the way.  I was overdressed for the weather and glad to see the city come into view.  This year, the warm front broke early Sunday morning, so the temperature was cool.  Wind is another matter.  It seems like there is always wind.

Two members of our recumbent cycling group headed out before dawn to take on the challenge.  Last year I chose the wimpy 100 km option, from the town of Sorrento back into the city of Melbourne.  The full ride requires a ferry ride across the mouth of the bay from Portsea to Queenscliff.  It is 210 kms (130 miles).  Bike Victoria offers an optional detour of another forty kms for those riders who just can’t get enough time in the saddle.  That makes it a tidy 250 kms.

Each of my fellow recumbent riders took off well before five in the morning and headed in opposite directions around Port Philip Bay.  They are both strong riders, well able to keep up and even pass some of the hot, young lycra-clad cyclists who barrel down the coast road every Sunday morning.  Steve passed an entire peloton of riders wearing BMW T-shirts.  John R, who was worried about his knees, averaged 27 kms an hour (riding time) over the 250 km distance.  Not too shabby.

John had an early lunch while he waited for the ferry.  By this point, the chocolate icing on his dessert had melted, so he had a chocolate chicken sandwich. Nice touch, John.  I almost wish I’d been there.  The picture below is from a previous event.  John K, the guy in the middle, is far too sensible to do this kind of thing.

Steve on the left, John R on the right with their high-tech, home built recumbents.  John K in the middle with his one-of-a kind special.

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A singular absence of reportage on the most significant social event of the year in this fair city could lead faithful readers to suppose that I was not actually in Melbourne the day of the “race that stops the nation”

I was, in fact, about twenty kilometers away with half dozen “cycle recyclers” tooling along on a country road leading back to our starting point, the town of Bulla. We were fighting hills and flies and the occasional rabid driver who seemed to think we had no right to be on his road on his day off.

The flies are particularly fierce this time of year. Aussie flies have evolved with virtually no Darwinian sense of self preservation. They do not fly away when you start swatting, simply renew the attack from a different angle. Kamikazes of the insect world. Perhaps the horses here run so fast simply to leave flies behind.

When we moved to Hong Kong it was quickly apparent that horse racing was a very big deal. The funding for the social safety net came entirely from funds generated by betting, but then the Chinese are big gamblers.

Down under, horse racing is huge, and the Melbourne Cup is the biggest race of all. According to my handy Australian encyclopedia, it was established in 1838. Several rival clubs threatened its survival in its infancy, but the formation of the Victoria Racing Club solidified the racing scene in Melbourne. The very first Cup under the new Club was run in 1861. There were 4,000 spectators. On Tuesday, there were 102, 411 at the track.

There is major money involved. The industry employs some 30,000 people and the prize money hovers around 150 million. There are five hundred clubs and 423 different venues. Our little cycling group stopped for lunch at the Coach and Horses Inn in the rural town of Clarkefield, middle of nowhere.

The Cup is just one of a series of races that form the Spring Carnival, which is as much about fashion and alcohol as jockeys and horses. The newspaper is plastered with photos of glamorous girls with fabulous outfits (and spectacular hats), and vivid descriptions of outrageously ostentatious marquees where the rich and famous indulge in champagne and catered delicacies.

Aside from Phar Lap, the most famous horse in Melbourne Cup lore is Makybe Diva, a nine year-old mare who entered the Australian horse racing record books by being the first racehorse to win three consecutive Melbourne Cup races (2003, 2004, 2005). Makybe Diva was born in England. When she failed to attract a bid at auction, Tony Santic, a tuna fisherman from South Australia, bought her and shipped her home to Australia.

Stuck for a name, Santic passed on the problem to five female employees in his fishing business. Not finding inspiration from the bloodlines, the women settled on using the first two letters of their given names in naming the filly. Maureen Dellar, Kylie Bascomb, Belinda Grocke, Dianne Tonkin and Vanessa Parthenis are now part of Australian racing history.

Just in case you were wondering, Super Efficient came from nowhere on Tuesday to win by half a length. The odds against him were twenty to one. He is the first since Phar Lap to win the Derby then come back and win the Cup.

Lloyd Williams, his billionaire owner, went to his casino to celebrate with 200 of his closest friends. Our motley cycling group pulled into Bulla with considerably less fanfare and virtually no spectators. We toyed with the idea of attempting to find a barrista in town, but decided against it. I drove home, had a shower and soaped down my forelock.

It was a good day.

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