Of Boat People and Thoroughbreds


As a nation, we are obsessed with foreigners. Simultaneously enthralled and appalled, it is a patriotic complex. Boat people, Meatloaf, the Queen … Americain.

Yes, apparently the scope of the national fixation on les étrangers encompasses more than the human race and extends to the country’s most celebrated horserace. For each year, with metronomic regularity, the coverage of the lead-up to the Melbourne Cup is populated by news stories detailing the arrival of foreign horses upon our fair shores.

The purported outrage? After spending mere weeks in quarantine — equine for mandatory detention — these marauding hordes of horses are released into the community to wreak havoc at our race meets, plotting to thieve our coveted trophies. Such a part of the build-up to the Cup has the expression of concerns on this theme become that it has acquired its own xenophobic vernacular, tales tall and true are told to our young ones of the "foreign invasion" by "raiders". What queer tropes for the racing industry to deploy in the context of promoting Australia’s spring racing carnival to the world.

Certainly, much as the human face of the nation has changed, the diversity of breeding histories among the 24-odd runners for the Cup has noticeably increased in recent times. It was only in 1993 that European-trained horses were first invited to participate in the race that stops the nation. Up until that point, only a handful of foreign-bred horses had ever won the Cup. Since Vintage Crop’s victory in that year, the likes of Jezabeel, Ethereal, Media Puzzle and Delta Blues have all saluted.

Last year, the American-bred and French-trained Americain was first across the line. And, when the 24 starters enter the gates today in the 2011 edition of the race, only three of them will be Australian-bred. While 11 of the runners this year are nevertheless still Australian-trained, these figures indicate that a significant shift has indeed occurred.

It is very much a transformation of the racing industry’s own making. It is no longer the Melbourne Cup. It is the Emirates’ Melbourne Cup. It is an event with the financial clout to attract the interest of the wider racing world, ranking as one of the world’s richest races in terms of prizemoney. Therein lies the curiosity of the characterisation of these horses as raiders. We have gladly laid out the welcome mat for years, yet still only begrudgingly open the gate.

Why is the ambiguity of emotions reserved for foreign nags not directed towards non-Australian sportspeople? Why, for instance, has Roger Federer not been characterised as a swashbuckling pirate when he has moored on the banks of the Yarra each January over the past decade to thwart our Lleyton Hewitt? Perhaps, we have simply had longer to adjust to the perceived ignominy of an Australian Grand Slam without an Australian Grand Slam winner.

Perhaps there is something in Mark Twain’s observation in Following the Equator that, in comparison with our other sporting events, "Cup Day only, commands an attention, an interest, and an enthusiasm which are universal". Moreover, the Australian Open is but one of four Grand Slams played around the world each year, whereas there is only one Melbourne Cup. So, while we court international approval of the Cup, we nevertheless seek to cling to the race’s essential Australianness, the characteristic of the event that struck Twain more than a century ago.

However, if we are going to remain such bad sports, unable to gracefully share our turf with interloping gallopers, perhaps we should just stick to the footy. After all, a horse is a horse. Even one with an outrageous French accent.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.