At three o'clock today, 23 four-legged athletes will be in the barriers at Flemington racecourse - hooves stomping, ears pricked, adrenaline pumping - ready to contest the race that stops a nation.
With their betting tickets (or smartphones) held tightly in their hands, patrons will be jostling for the best viewing position. Those not on the track will gather around television screens and radios. Cheese platters and champagne glasses will be put to the side, conversations ceased and breaths held. Since 1861, the Melbourne Cup has captivated the Australian public and created a plethora of stories. Stories of champions and battlers, good punts and bad, missed opportunities, heartbreak and joy. Who will steal the spotlight in this year's story?
*Les Coles & Even Stevens, Melbourne Cup 1962.
Fifty-five years ago my maternal grandfather, Les Coles, was creating his own story, fulfilling every jockey's dream of riding in a Melbourne Cup. A few weeks earlier, after wasting hard to ride at 48kg, he had partnered with New Zealand galloper Even Stevens to win the Caulfield Cup. The pair were now favourite to take out the rare achievement of the Cups Double, a feat only 10 other horses have achieved in the race's history. Sitting in fourth position on the turn, Even Stevens swooped the leaders to win by 4 lengths, the same winning margin as at Caulfield.
When interviewed post-race, my grandfather said that at no point in the race did he think he would not win easily.
"Ray Selkrig, who had won the Melbourne Cup the previous year, was the best man at my wedding. In the running of the race, just before the corner, I gave him a little call. He was dropping back on Lord Fury and he made the gap a little bit bigger and I went through on the inside," he recalled.
"And when I pulled up, Ray said, 'Take your hat off, take your hat off'. You can't wear your hat back when you've won the Melbourne Cup!" (Taking your helmet off while still mounted is a big OHS no-no these days!)
New-Zealand born and bred, Even Stevens was on the inaugural Qantas flight for horses on October 2 that year from Wellington to Melbourne. Following his successful Spring campaign, which also included Werribee Cup and C.B Fisher Plate wins, he was leased to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Unfortunately he suffered an injury just prior to sailing for England and was subsequently retired to stud in New Zealand.
Les always said that winning the Melbourne Cup opened doors for his career, one that started humbly in Sydney. It led to a riding opportunity in Singapore that lasted five years and he then retired with a win on Kiwi Can in the 1976 Sandown Cup. There was a brief break from racing where he owned and managed a newsagency but it wasn't long before he was back - first as a small-time horse trainer then 'gateman' at Caulfield, ensuring the safe passage of horses and staff during early morning track work.
I remember visiting my Pop in his Ormond home and hearing stories of racing in the 'good old days'. Photos of the Cups Double, as well as the Wirth's Whip (a traditional gold plated whip presented to each Melbourne Cup winning jockey) were proudly on display, although I'm not sure I quite appreciated the achievement back then. It was only recently that I went looking for vision of the Cup win and needless to say it bought a little tear to my eye. Watch it here. (If anyone has footage of the 1962 Caulfield Cup, I'd love to see it!)
The wheels are already in motion for this year's stories. Owner Lloyd Williams is vying for his sixth win, while jockey Kerrin McEvoy is going for his third. Kathy O'Hara is the only female jockey with a ride and Hughie Morrison wants to be the first trainer from Great Britain to take home the trophy. Whatever the story, we will no doubt use the same words as Les once did to describe the running of our greatest race - "It was marvellous, bloody marvellous."
*2011 Melbourne Cup. Image courtesy SDPmedia.