Horse racing is huge in Australia. Anybody who has spent any time here could tell you that. Australia has more racecourses than any other nation (there’s over 360 registered racing grounds spread across the country) and as a country we produce a significant number of world-class horses, trainers and jockeys.
Thoroughbred racing in particular has massive spectator appeal all across Australia and is the third most popular sport, after the much loved Australian Football and Rugby leagues. Wagers across all races in a single year easily reaches into the billions of dollars, with prize money surpassing $430 million. If nothing else, the money that goes into it shows the sheer popularity of the sport across the nation. But why do Australians love it so much? Well, a lot of it has to do with the history of the sport and the traditions laid down in the early years of the nation.
History of Australian Horse Racing
It may or may not surprise you to know that, despite their abundance today, horses are not actually native to Australia. The very first horses in Australia were imported, arriving aboard a ship from London in 1788, mainly for the purpose of working on ranches and farms.
The actual act of racing horses caught on pretty quickly however and was first established around the Sydney area. The first official race ever to be held in Australia was held at Hyde Park in Sydney all the way back in 1810. This was during the days of English colonialism, and it’s fair to say that racing is one of the more enjoyable leftovers of the colonial period. Horse-racing had been a tradition in England going back hundreds of years so it makes sense that it would have been brought to Australian shores with the first English settlers. Although English Colonialism is a thing of the past, racing and wagering on horses has stuck around to become a beloved national pastime and tradition. In fact, during the 2016 Melbourne Cup, Australians wagered over $657 million over the four day period. That’s some serious coin.
Since the very first official race, numerous clubs and regulatory bodies have been set up all around Australia, beginning with the Australian Jockey Club, also known as the AJC, which was founded in 1842. It’s counterpart, the Sydney Turf Club (STC) was founded in 1943 and was the originator of the modern day Golden Slipper Stakes. These two groups then merged in 2010 to become the Australian Turf Club which oversees a lot of the racing action throughout the nation.
The only dip in popularity ever experienced by the sport happened after World War II, when poker machines and greyhound racing were introduced and the crowds were drawn away from horse-racing. However, the sport soon experienced a resurgence with the introduction of the TAB (Totaliser Agency Board) and with televised races, and nowadays the races are as popular as ever.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of horse-racing in Australia, and of Australia’s importance to horse-racing worldwide. Australian jockeys and trainers are some of the best in the world, and were actually the first to pioneer the crouched riding style (also known as the Martini Glass style) which, because of it’s effectiveness, is now a standard in horse-racing world-wide.
The Melbourne Cup
Out of all the races held in Australia every year, the Melbourne Cup is by far the biggest and most popular. It’s a 3200-metre race for three-year-olds and above, held annually at the Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne.
Every year the Cup hosts over 100,000 fans, and has televised broadcasts reaching over 650 million people in Australia and beyond. The Melbourne Cup has such a big draw that during the 2016 Melbourne Cup, Australians wagered over $657 million over a four day period. Roughly $350 million of that was spent on Cup day. That’s some serious cash. In terms of prize money, winners of the Melbourne Cup can expect to receive a whopping $7.3 million making it the richest two-mile handicap in the world, even beating out the Grand National in England, as well as any American race in terms of money to be won.
The race is affectionately known to Australians as “the race that stops a nation”, and is held on the first Tuesday in November. This is not an understated claim; an example can be found in former Prime Minister Bob Hawke who, in the middle of a press conference, stopped the proceedings and wheeled a television onto the stage so he could watch the race before returning to the briefing.
This year it will be held on November 5th at the Flemington Racecourse. The odds-on-favourite horse for 2019 is currently Cross Counter, a 4 year old gelding trained by Charlie Appleby. Cross Counter was the winner of last year’s cup and made history by being the first British-trained horse in history to take the win.
Other notable races
With over 360 racecourses spread across the nation, there are far too many events in the racing calendar to mention. There are those annual events, however, which outstrip the competition and easily attract hundreds of thousands of punters every year.
As mentioned, the Melbourne Cup is the biggest and best of them, but other notable events include the Victoria Derby, the Golden Slipper Stakes, the Caulfield Cup and the W S Cox Plate. Each of these tend to be held in the Spring and Autumn months and attract numbers similar to or just shy of those that attend the Melbourne Cup.
So it’s fair to say that a lot of the popularity of horse-racing in Australia comes down to simple tradition as well as the rich history of the sport, the beginnings of which coincide almost exactly with the founding of modern day Australia more than two hundred years ago. We also can’t forget the excitement and thrill of the sport itself when accounting for why Australians love it so much. Besides that, there’s also the national love of a good wager. From its humble beginnings in Sydney, races and race-tracks can now be found in every province in Australia, and the sport will no doubt continue to attract fans and wagers for many years to come.