The famed horse 'Winx' walking back into the stables with a crowd that showed up just for her.

Photo by Josh Chiodo / Unsplash

Does the Melbourne Cup have a place in 2023? How the race that stopped the nation could now be dividing us

Employment opportunities, fashion, animal welfare advocacy and domestic violence are just a few of the ways the Cup has impacted women.

#FashionsOnTheField, #NupToTheCup and #BettingTips. While each of these hashtags will serve up different social media content – millinery for the first, horses for the second, and racing form guides for the third – they all have one thing in common: the Melbourne Cup.  

Touted as the race that 'stops the nation', the Melbourne Cup has been a key sporting and social event in Australia since the late 1860s, and is a public holiday in Victoria to this day. What was traditionally an occasion bringing people together to celebrate jockeys and their winning thoroughbreds has evolved to become an event that goes well beyond the racetrack. With big brands splashing hefty amounts on glamorous marquees boasting food and drink, live entertainment and celebrity guests, the Melbourne Cup has become a buzzing social affair and fashion spectacle of its own. 

In the process, we’ve seen an inevitable impact on many women in positive and negative ways. 

Missing Perspectives put the question to our Instagram audience: Does the Melbourne Cup have a place in 2023? 

The influx of answers and engaged discussions in the comments section signalled that there are mixed reactions to Australia continuing to host the horse racing event. More employment opportunities, creative self-expression through fashion, and increased representation of women in a male-dominated sport were mentioned in many responses that supported the Melbourne Cup. Concerns about animal welfare and gambling, and the risk of domestic violence were key themes underpinning the argument to say ‘Nup to the Cup’. 

Speaking of the former, seven horses have died across the eight Cups from 2013-2020 – six losing their lives in the Melbourne Cup itself and one in a lead-up race on Cup Day. Last year the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses released its Deathwatch Report 2022, an annual report “that summarises all reported on-track deaths of racehorses around Australia over the past twelve months”. It reported that 139 horses died between August 1, 2021 and July 31, 2022. 

In 2021, the ABC reported that the racing industry in Victoria was adopting tougher screening for horses after a review conducted by Racing Victoria found that stallion Anthony Van Dyck’s death in the 2020 Melbourne Cup may have been avoided if he had undergone a CT scan beforehand. Racing Victoria RV accepted 41 of 44 recommendations after the review. 

Some MP readers showed concern about horses’ welfare at the Melbourne Cup. 

“From animal welfare to humans behaving badly it’s horrid and I do not support it all!” one person wrote in the comments section. “Anything that brings a source of entertainment from animals is a concern.” 

Another said, “Nup to the cup”, adding that they believe “it’s an outdated celebration of privilege and animal cruelty”. 

Others disagreed, with one person commenting, “Yup to the cup! People outside of the industry have no idea how well these horses are looked after”, while another wrote, “Yup to the cup! Anyone with concerns about animal welfare and horse racing should take the time to witness the exceptional care that racehorses receive, both in training and during retirement”. 

Trackside fashion has played a big part in Melbourne Cup celebrations, with millinery and hat sales through the roof come spring racing season. Department store Myer has sponsored the Melbourne Cup’s Fashions on the Field for many years, but in 2023 has pulled the pin on the partnership that began in 1983. While some brands could be distancing themselves from the Cup, others like Lexus – which is the major prize sponsor – are still involved. 

“I’ll be at the cup. All dressed up ready to enjoy the incredible spectacle that it is,” wrote one MP reader, while another argued, "I don't like spray tans, gambling, wearing heels especially when they sink into the grass."

Advocates believe the Melbourne Cup champions females on and off the racetrack, with the likes of Gai Waterhouse being a successful horse trainer and businesswoman, and Michelle Payne becoming the first and only female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup in 2015. 

One reader who held this view told MP that “horse racing is an incredible sport for women and the only one where we compete on equal terms for equal pay."

“We only need to look at the powerhouse Gai Waterhouse, or superstar jockey Jamie Kah, let alone the female horses themselves – Winx, Black Caviar and of course the queen who is the only horse to win three Melbourne Cups; Makybe Diva. A feat the boys could never do!” 

On the flip side, another reader said, “there are other ways to create jobs and bring people together that don’t cost women, families and animals”. 

A rising concern in recent years has been linked to research that shows that violence assaults rise significantly on days of, and around, major sporting events, including the Melbourne Cup.

"Not everyone looks forward to the Melbourne Cup. Domestic violence and emergency services ready themselves for a potential increase in calls, call-outs and admissions. Domestic violence assaults rise significantly on the day of Melbourne Cup," says Dr Kirsty Forsdike, a Senior Lecturer in management, Researcher in the Centre for Sport and Social Impact and Chair of La Trobe’s Violence Against Women Research Network.

Dr Forsdike is one of the academics who worked on the Major sports events and domestic violence: A systematic review in 2022, which examined “empirical research literature exploring the link between major sporting events and incidence of DV."

“We know perpetrators are more likely to use violence or become more violent during public holidays in Australia. Alcohol is certainly a risk factor for increased frequency and severity of domestic violence. The use of alcohol during major sports events and over holidays is well documented,” says Dr Forsdike. 

“Similarly, gambling and stress over income is also linked to the increased escalation of domestic violence.”

It’s an issue that hasn’t been as widely discussed (but perhaps should be), and has left some women questioning how they feel about racing events like the Melbourne Cup. 

“I have been of the fashions side of racing forever. I have always been a believer that the horses are well cared for in the majority of cases,” one reader wrote.  “However, I’ve never been aware of the increase in DV around the cup and that turns me off it. Knowing this I’m actually cringing that we have a work function for the cup that I’m required to attend.” 

Another person said, “Wow, I never realised this! Just another reason to say Nup to the Cup!” 

Regardless of where you stand on the relevance of the Melbourne Cup, there could be one thing that seems almost certain. What was once the race that stopped the nation has slowly become one that’s dividing us.