Cup brimmeth over

Long-time racing mates (from left) Dene Mackenzie, Rex Martin, Stephen Gray and Nevan Trotter on...
Long-time racing mates (from left) Dene Mackenzie, Rex Martin, Stephen Gray and Nevan Trotter on top of the world in the Eureka Skydeck. Photo supplied.
For longer than we can really nail down, the four of us have been attending Cup Week in Christchurch.

Rex Martin, from Wellington, Stephen Gray, from Nelson, Nevan Trotter and myself, from Dunedin, have had our mixed luck on our betting over the years, but we did have something better - a plan.

In 2008, after a mediocre week in Christchurch, we decided to attend the 2010 Melbourne Cup.

One of the syndicate was not keeping the best of health and we decided collectively that a trip to Melbourne could be just the tonic. And it was.

A bank account was set up, we started contributing $20 each a week, then $25 a week after a year as our plans for the trip became more ambitious.

The winnings from our weekend syndicate bets, admittedly few and far between, were also put into the pot.

Two races and a wine trip were the goals. The Melbourne Cup, obviously, Crown Oaks Day, on the Thursday, and a wee wine trip on Wednesday.

Fortunately, Rex and Stephen were happy enough to leave the organising to Nevan and myself. I say fortunately, because we are the best organisers and we know what we like. Stephen was happy with anything as long as he didn't have to do anything and Rex was happy if Stephen was happy.

Rex and Stephen had both been to Melbourne before with their wives but Nevan and I were new to the city, so it was with a bit of excitement that we got to Christchurch late on the Saturday before the Sunday departure for the trip.

Perhaps drinking sparkling wine at 5am in the Air New Zealand Koru Club was a bit over the top, but with the women at the next table joining us, it felt the right thing to do.

As we looked around the lounge, we could see that others were preparing themselves for the same trip. As it turned out, we stayed in the same hotel as some dairy farmers from Ashburton and enjoyed some good times on the boat to the race and at an Indian restaurant after the race.

The Air NZ staff were magnificent. What a bunch of good people. The attendant in charge recognised immediately that four blokes travelling together for race meetings and wine trails could be a handful, but when three of them ordered juice and coffee and only one (me) ordered more wine, then the problem was solved. Keep pouring wine and giving me regular rev ups and the trip was a breeze.

The forecast for Melbourne was not great and it proved to be cold and miserable on arrival. It rained when we arrived about 8am Melbourne time, and as we awaited the others on our trip the guide said heavy rain had meant some race meetings had been abandoned on Saturday.

Our experience at the Mantra 100 hotel has been previously written about. Suffice to say, it was an experience we would rather not repeat.

That aside, after leaving our bags, we headed to the city for a walk with the one aim of finding coffee and food. Right beside the arts centre, a cafe housed in a tent provided just what we needed - bacon and egg toasted sandwiches and strong coffee.

The art gallery was a treat and we spent some productive time there looking at the old masters displayed in huge galleries. I saw paintings I had only read about. The place was teeming with volunteers who acted as guides or security. Three floors of treasures and packed from opening time.

But necessity beckoned and we headed back to Mantra St to find the promised TAB. Learning to bet in Australia was a must before we went to the cup. As it was, you do not fill out many forms at the actual cup race. You lean over and tell the person behind the counter what your bet is or you queue shoulder-to-shoulder to use a machine. More of that later.

Australian forms are relatively easy to use in the TAB, once you take the time to read the instructions. Yes, I know. Men and instructions, but this time it was worth it. Staff throughout the betting system in Melbourne were so friendly and helpful.

They must get asked the same questions thousands of times during cup week by Kiwis seeking to throw their money at one horse or another. Yet the ones we met were unfailingly polite and helpful.

We went to the markets, had a walk around the Italian sector and headed back to book into the hotel.

After a nano nap, drinks were on the menu. I had seen a bottle store up a block from where we were staying. The price of a six-pack of beer was something of a surprise but it was just part of the journey.

We had put all of our winnings and excess savings on to a debit-credit card to use in Australia. That saved us digging into our own money for anything other than personal spending until Friday.

A unanimous vote saw us heading to Lygon St for an Italian meal. We had some specific items we needed on the menu. As I gazed at the first menu in the window, a young woman came racing over and started running through the specials, and I do mean running. I was trying to look at whether the four items requested for dinner were on the menu. But alas, I was distracted and not being known for my tolerance, I moved on to the next restaurant.

This time, a young man came over and after letting me gaze at the menu for say 30sec, he launched into the specials. Hands up in the air, I moved on to the next menu. By this time, the others were walking up the street, convinced they would never get fed.

George, a waiter who had been watching my progression, invited me to view his menu at Sale E-Pepe. It had all the items requested. He asked if he could say something.

When approval was given, he offered two bottles of red wine, a plate of bruschetta and a stripper as an incentive to dine at his restaurant. Without hesitation, I accepted and whistled back the others.

The young waitress, on her second day at the restaurant, was quick to assure us she was not the stripper. What a fantastic meal it was. We vowed to return. There was no stripper, a small price to pay.

Monday went in a blur. We watched the cup parade in the central city, marvelled at the former winners who were walked down Collins St and waved at the jockeys preparing for their big day on Tuesday. Nevan and I bought 150th cup pins to wear on the day. Later, with a few drinks, some Greek food at Tsindos (large portions) and lots of optimism, we retired for the night.

Tuesday arrived and we were up early and ready. Nevan and Stephen were running in the mornings and Rex and I walked but on Tuesday, we were very focused and were poring over cup form from three newspapers.

A boat cruise to the cup was on the agenda, with breakfast and drinks. The cruise was a shade too long as we missed the first two races. In the wash-up, it did not matter as we got soaked as we soaked up the atmosphere. We had great seats in the stand just past the winning post, we had easy access to shelter when the first rain started and it was an experience just being at the cup. Apparently, celebrities other than us were there but we did not see them.

Placing bets was a major mission under the main stand. Stephen had disappeared to try a bookie, the rest of us disappeared to try the totes. I found that an easy bet here was a mystery bet there and putting on trifectas was relatively easy, once the woman behind the counter explained.

What amazed me was the patience people displayed in queues. You queued for betting on the tote, betting on the machines, betting with bookies, for food and drink. Security guards were an obvious presence but I cannot believe they had to deal with anyone other than the loud drunks at the end of the day. Once you were in a queue, it was peaceful and people just waited patiently. The staff were superb and could give some of their counterparts at Riccarton a lesson in customer relations.

The atmosphere was hot, steamy and full of noise and colour. Because of the rain, I suspect more people than normal were crowded under the stand. But what a buzz.

I stood in a line to place a bet on a machine and found the people before me taking the favourite So You Think with every other horse in the field in some way or another. One called the bets, the other hit the buttons.

The total bet came to more than $2000 and they probably did not win much as So You Think came third behind Americain and Maluckyday. I wondered if I was at a minimum bet machine but, thankfully, it took my bet on Owen Glenn's Monaco Consul (which finished well back).

Just as the cup was due to run, the skies opened. We were trapped in the crowd in an open stand, surrounded by people with umbrellas who seemed to open them so the water drained straight off into our laps. We did not move, we were there for the race.

It was like the race was in slow motion or a time lapse. We lapped up every second of it. As the crowd got to its feet to cheer on the winners, another downpour ensured we were soaked to the skin, but it didn't matter.

The people next to us collected the trifecta on the cup, a handsome dividend. We genuinely felt excited for them. One of us got the cup winner and all of us were thoroughly pleased we attended.

There were some exceedingly drunk people, but the Oaks day crowd on Thursday seemed worse.

As we headed for the first train back to the city, we found we had only watched four races but it was enough. As we got to the station, a young woman on very high heels toppled over, legs up in the air and her short dress becoming even shorter. Without batting an eyelid, the policeman turned to the crowd and said: "Does anyone need counselling after what they have just seen?" Priceless.

By the time we got back to Flinders Station, we were dry again. We walked out and straight across the street to Melbourne's oldest hotel to calm our nerves with cleansing ales and a refreshing wine. The story of the day grew decidedly from then on. I admit I made nothing on the day.

But a lucky trifecta on Oaks day pulled me back and I came home with more cash that I went with.

The Oaks day was my favourite as far as racing. Table service in the Carbine Marquee, access to totes and bookies without queuing, good food and plenty of it, wonderful company with the couple from Sydney who knew a bit about horse racing and easy walking through the front of the stand.

I had my photo taken on the finish line on Oaks day but the memory of attending the 150th Melbourne Cup will remain. We do not intend attending the cup again but we have plans for more racing trips - possibly Australia or Hong Kong. I would like to see the Kentucky Derby and Stephen wants to see the Prix De L'Arc de Triomphe race meeting, in Paris. Anything is possible. We are still saving.

• Dene Mackenzie is business editor of the Otago Daily Times.


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