Nurturing the picking of winners in the Melbourne Cup

A photo of Rowan, from Chicago, is paired with a picture of a Melbourne Cup Day booklet. Photos by Roy Colbert.
A photo of Rowan, from Chicago, is paired with a picture of a Melbourne Cup Day booklet. Photos by Roy Colbert.
The grandchildren are here from Chicago, one at school already, oy vey. And as the wise grandfather who has bobbed and weaved successfully through all of life's arrows and nunchukas, so far, it has naturally behoven me to educate them appropriately.

It is not easy taking in a completely new culture, and it is vital I choose only wheat. No chaff. So I have begun with horse racing.

"What is THIS?" ejaculated Rowan (6) as we read a newspaper over a Vegemite and avocado sandwich. It was a whole page of words and numbers with pictures of funny little men wearing David Bain jerseys and pixie caps.

"It is The Melbourne Cup," I replied, my memory already racing as I recalled this mighty and very occasionally fiscally fortuitous race. Belldale Bill! I won $145 that day. 1980. I could tell what I did with the money if this was a complete different media publication.

There was a lot of stuff on the page, a jaffered Baldwin Street of statistics, couched in impenetrable code. It took me a few years to learn how to decipher a racing page as a teenager, but Rowan is gifted, so he understood the whole caboodle after about seven minutes.

"I'm going to bet on THIS one!" he announced.

Unusual Suspect. "It is paying the most money, $301."

Rowan had clearly fallen for the same wretched fraux-luciferous logic that has destroyed Kiwi punters for centuries, although to be fair, the Government takes 17c in every dollar, which they have sensibly used to make this country into the teeming lifestyle mecca it is today. Thank you for this, losing punters.

I explained to him that the chances of Unusual Suspect winning were about as good as that of his great-grandmother, who is in a rest-home in Christchurch and would probably be asleep when the horses lurched out of the starting stalls on Tuesday afternoon. I suggested to him instead he might bet on a name that meant something to him, or even a favourite number. Without meaning to introduce sexism to Rowan's life at this woefully early stage, I still felt there was merit in pointing out this was how New Zealand women have made money out of horse racing since Te Raupraha's horses thundered along Kapiti Island in the late 18th century.

His mother joined us and immediately began squealing at the knit and pearl of the jockeys' jerseys. I quietly moved Rowan into the next room.

"This is man's work, Ra," I said to him.

"We must not be lured down false paths."

So I told him how to win at horse racing. Without meaning to introduce racism to Rowan's life at this woefully early stage, I nevertheless had to tell him about the Chinese.

"Chinese people never lose at gambling," I said to him matter-of-factly.

My winning horse racing theory happened at the Forbury Raceway nearly 40 years ago. I had been losing hundreds of dollars in every race, trying to impress my then girlfriend.

She was Chinese, and she finally decided to take pity on me. She explained if you accidentally see a Chinese stranger at the racetrack, you run through the names of the horses in the next race alphabetically, one letter for each horse. On the SECOND time through, when the letter you say matches the first letter of the horse, you bet on that horse. It came up Quiet Native, a horse with no form at all, and bred from a chance encounter its mum had with a wombat during a visit to Australia. Quiet Native led from the start, as bad horses often do, only it stayed there, and won going away by five lengths. Paid a fortune. They took the horse north and it never won again.

True story, ask Tayler Strong.

I walked with Rowan to the TAB but we never saw any Chinese people. His horse finished fourth. Mine, 22nd favourite and perhaps a little old at 8 for this searing test of stamina, is finishing about now.

• Roy Colbert is a Dunedin writer.