Alexandra Cook, a graphic designer from Sydney, is a problem Melbourne Cup organisers wished they didn’t have.
Previously on Cup Day you would find her in the office, donning a fascinator and drinking house sparkling as the horses lined up at Flemington. She’d put a cheeky flutter on her favourite.
Not so much now.
“I used to attend the races, I had a membership pass and I would get dressed up. I loved it; it was a fun day out,” she told news.com.au.
“My friends loved looking at the horses; so magnificent – there was nothing like them running past at such a speed with the cheering around you.”
Then a colleague mentioned the horses’ welfare. And there was the year two horses died at the Cup.
“It sounds naive but it never occurred to me to think about the animals,” Ms Cook said.
“But then I had to ask myself, am I someone who in good conscience could be part of something like that? I realised I couldn’t.”
Ms Cook is part of a growing group of Australians — many of them Millennials — who are registering their disenchantment with Australia’s biggest race day.
For generations, Cup Day has been an iconic Australian tradition; “the race that stops the nation”; an event as synonymous with Australia as the outback, mateship and meat pies.
It’s so important they made Cup Day a public holiday in Victoria.
Held on the first Tuesday in November since 1861, it’s a day when non-punters become fervent readers of the form guide; TABs and betting agencies are packed to the gills; parents place bets for their tiny children and the every office in Australia runs a sweep.
It’s a day when most of us leave work early for the track or to gather round the TV in pubs, clubs and restaurants.
But while the Cup is undoubtedly one of Australia’s biggest sporting events, 2019 has proved to be one of the most challenging years yet.
An undercurrent of anti-racing sentiment has been on the rise after the deaths of six horses in the Cup since 2013 — a tragic statistic seized on by protesters.
Last year, the Cup was rocked when Cliffsofmoher was euthanised in front of the grandstand crowd after the horse broke its shoulder.
Then last month an ABC investigation revealed retired thoroughbreds were being abused and slaughtered for pet food.
Even seasoned racing supporters — trainers, jockeys and owners — found the footage confronting and called for changes in a bid to maintain the popularity of the sport.
Late last month, owner Lloyd Williams said the industry had to move with the times including banning the whip used in racing.
There is no doubt the anti-racing sentiment has had an effect on the once blanket popularity of the Cup, which contributes a staggering $2.1 billion to the Victorian economy.
A report from market researchers Roy Morgan shows a decline in audience especially among younger people.
“Australians are increasingly turning to other entertainment choices at the expense of racing,” Roy Morgan chief executive officer Michele Levine said.
Pressure group the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses lists dozens of “Nup to the Cup” events in bars and pubs around Australia that in previous years would have keenly been running Cup Day lunches.
Newcastle’s Beaumont Hotel has a “no TV, no radio, no horses” policy, while Sydney’s Newtown Hotel is more succint with an event called “F**k the Cup”.
Meanwhile, major protests are being planned both during the annual Cup Parade today in Melbourne and at Flemington on race day.
The popularity of the Melbourne Cup has been declining, on TV at least, for years. The 2002 broadcast reached 2.5 million Australians but it fell below 2 million viewers in 2016 and hasn’t managed to climb back up since.
Punters also aren’t turning up to Flemington in the numbers they used to. At the Cup’s peak in 2003, 123,000 people squeezed into the racecourse to see Makybe Diva sprint to the first of three consecutive victories.
Last year only 83,000 went through the gates – a drop of almost a third. Although partly attributable to a massive downpour on the day, figures show there has been a steady decline in numbers over the past decade. Just last week, Racing Victoria said betting turnover at the Caulfield Cup was down 25 per cent on the previous year.
Big name celebrities have also had second thoughts about the event.
US pop star Taylor Swift pulled out of performing at the event in late September. Officially it was because of changes to her Asian tour, but it coincided with an increasing spotlight on the welfare of horses
Since then, model and Cup sponsor Lexus ambassador Megan Gale has also announced a scheduling conflict means she won’t be making it to Flemington.
The Herald Sun reported actor and Myer ambassador Asher Keddie had it written into her contract that she was under no obligation to attended the event due to her reservations about animal welfare.
Racing bosses say they have heard the outcry and are listening. They point to the millions being ploughed into horse welfare initiatives.
GENERALLY VEGANS OPPOSED
Vicky Leonard, managing director of a marketing company focused on racing, said the industry needs to “fling the doors open” and highlight the positive aspects of racing as well as the work it was doing on animal welfare.
A lifelong horse lover, Ms Leonard runs racing marketing firm Kick Collective. She told news.com.au the industry needed to move with the times.
“Social expectations are becoming increasingly heightened around many industries, especially by young people,” she said.
And she warned if the industry didn’t pay attention sponsors could follow celebrities in shunning Flemington.
“It’s not just a major fear, it’s very much a reality – sponsors who do not believe their company values are aligned with what horse racing represents will be next to speak with their investment dollar,” she said.
“We must fix this by ensuring thoroughbred welfare is held to the highest form of account, leading the world in best practice.
“There is an incredible industry behind the scenes that very few people get to see – those who foal down the mares during the night, rehabilitate athletic injuries, those who get up at 3am to ride trackwork every morning and kiss the horse to sleep at night.
“But we’re let down by the 1 per cent with a bad moral compass. The first step is eradication of this 1 per cent with no tolerance. They should be banned.”
But even then Ms Leonard says not everyone will be persuaded.
“There is a percentage of the population that racing will never appease. They’re generally vegans and tend to also be opposed to pets and even service animals. They’re not a crowd we can win over,” Ms Leonard said.
“There is a very large portion of the Australian population who would be happy to support racing if they were given the social permission to do so.”
To get there, the industry has to be transparent about its efforts to put tough welfare standards in place, even if it has a way to go. But it also needs to tackle the view that it is just for the “elite few”. It could highlight, for instance, that part horse ownership is possible for just a few dollars a month.
“The industry must showcase the horses and their people, not just girls in pretty dresses or blokes on the punt,” Ms Leonard said.
The Victoria Racing Club (VRC) announced last week it was kickstarting a new equine wellbeing fund with a contribution of $1 million and a proportion of ticket sales and membership fees to be directed to the fund.
Racing Victoria is to invest $25 million into off-the-track welfare initiatives.
“We want everyone to know that we are absolutely committed to the wellbeing of racehorses both on and off the track,” VRC chairman Amanda Elliott said.
Earlier, the VRC said it was “appalled” by the “horrific vision” in the ABC investigation.
But for like Cook, it’s too late. “I’ll use the Cup as an excuse for an extra long lunch. But being associated with horse racing is now in my past,” she said.