It’s the race that stops the nation, but that doesn’t mean the nation has any idea what it’s actually watching.

Over 100,000 racegoers will flock to Flemington to watch the 154th running of the Melbourne Cup tomorrow, and 700 million people worldwide will watch it on television. Unfortunately, there aren’t 700 million experts on thoroughbred horse racing in the world, which means that most of those people are faking it.

For every genuine pundit in your workplace, there are at least a few people who are just smiling and nodding politely, hoping they won’t be caught using the wrong lingo or cheering at an inappropriate moment.

And you know what? That’s okay. If you’re one of those people, we salute you, and we’re here to help you fake your way through Cup day.

The basics

So, why’s the Melbourne Cup such a big deal? Money, of course — it’s the richest handicap race in the world (last year’s prize money totalled $6.2 million).

Because it’s a handicap race — which means the more successful horses carry more weights in their saddles, in order to level out the field and give every horse a fighting chance to win — it’s also spectacularly unpredictable, which keeps things interesting for punters and bookies alike.

In the three minutes it takes the 24 thoroughbreds to race around the 3200 metre track, pretty much anything can happen.

The bets

If there’s one aspect of the Melbourne Cup that can make it seem mysterious and impenetrable to novices, it’s betting. There are all sorts of weird and wacky terms that can get in the way when you’re trying to place a simple bet on the ponies, ranging from ‘standard’ bets to ‘exotics’.

In truth, ‘exotic’ bets are really just bets with increasingly difficult mathematical odds — they’re about as exotic as a blackface routine.

The standards

To win: This is the most straight-forward bet of all — the horse you pick needs to finish in first place, simple and plain. (Even if the horse you pick finishes in second or third place, you won’t see a dime.)

Place betting: A bet that your horse will place first, second or third. You’re taking less of a risk, so you’ll see less reward, but a win is a win, right?

A bet each way: Love hedging your bets? This is the option for you. A bet ‘each way’ means you’re betting on your horse getting a place and coming first. Essentially, you’re placing two bets here — if your horse wins, you’ll be paid in full; if it comes second or third, you’ll get a (less impressive) dividend for your troubles.

The ‘exotics’

The first four: To pull this one off, you’ll have to pick which horses will take the first four places. The order has to be exact, so you’re setting yourself up for heartbreak here.

Trifecta: Only slightly less difficult, this requires you to pick the horses that take out the first three places in exact order.

Exacta: Pick the first and second place finishers in the right order.

Quinella: This sounds like something you’d order at Guzman y Gomez, but it’s actually a bet that requires you to pick the first two place getters, regardless of order. The safest of the ‘exotic’ options.


Still don’t understand the Melbourne Cup? Here’s a pic of Chris Hemsworth looking handsome on Derby Day to distract you.
Image via Facebook

The odds

First thing’s first — thinking you’re onto a “sure thing” at the Melbourne Cup is a mug’s game, no matter who you are.

It’s awfully revealing that most professional gamblers seem to avoid the Melbourne Cup — there’s not much form to go on (not many races are run over 3200 metres), the imported horses can be something of an unknown quantity, the size of the field is a problem, and the amount of money being thrown at the race by punters who don’t know what they’re talking about (hey, that’s us!) distorts the odds.

For the rest of us, of course, it’s that unpredictability that makes the Melbourne Cup fun! And it is unpredictable — you have less chance of picking the Melbourne Cup trifecta than you do of having a heart attack or being diagnosed with cancer.

It’s not even close, either — according to a recent report from insurance group Asteron Life, you’ve got a one in 12,144 chance of picking the trifecta, as opposed to one in 200 for being diagnosed with cancer, one in 427 for suffering a heart attack, and one in 6250 for being struck by lightning.

As long as you go in with your eyes wide open and only gamble what you can afford to lose, though, a little flutter will go a long way to add to the excitement of the day.

The odds given to each of the 24 horses are given as dollar amounts. So, for example, Admire Rakti is the favourite at $4.80 at the time of writing. For every dollar you bet on Admire Rakti to win, you’ll get $4.80 back if it does. This includes the dollar you put down, so you’re looking at $3.80 profit.

Looking at the odds is the most straight-forward way of parting with your cash, but since we’re talking about the Melbourne Cup, virtually any method you choose of picking a winner is just as likely to pay off.

If you don’t want to take the bookmakers’ word for it, you could look at the form of the horse. For example, Admire Rakti is considered the favourite because the Japanese horse’s last six races have included two places and a victory in the 2014 Caulfield Cup. But it’s worth noting that he’s got a 58.5 kilogram handicap, and no horse has carried 58.5 kilograms to victory since Think Big in 1975.

Lucia Valentina ($7) has run 13 races, including five wins and three places. She took home the prestigious Turnbull Stakes earlier this month.

German horse Protectionist ($7.50) has run in just nine races, racking up an impressive four wins and four places. One of Protectionist’s wins came at the 3,000m Prix de Kergolay in France, a race that was also won by eventual Melbourne Cup winner Americain in 2010. Jockey Ryan Moore is also in top form, after riding Adelaide to victory in the Cox Plate late in October.

Ultimately, though, you’d do just as well to pick the horse with the funniest or most sentimental name, or the luckiest number. Draw a name out of a hat, or let your partner pick — the main thing is that you have fun with it and don’t take it seriously.

The sweeps

Drawn the short straw and got stuck organising the office sweeps? No problem.

A sweep is a competition run at the office where people buy a ticket representing a horse in the race. The tickets are drawn out randomly, so there’s no skill involved whatsoever (which is just the way we like it).

Just follow these easy steps to run an office sweep for the ages:

  1. Make a card for each horse in the race, or print a set that you find online. Each card should include the name of the horse, the jockey and the trainer. There are printable cards here, here, here and here, and if none of those are to your liking, you can surely find more just by Googling ‘Melbourne Cup 2014 sweeps’. (You’ll want to double check the cards are for this year’s race, or you’re going to have a lot of unhappy punters in the office.)
  2. Fold each of the tickets and have each entrant draw their ticket out of a hat. Everybody pays the same amount of money for a ticket.
  3. Divide the money everybody put in to make up your prize pool. So if everybody put in $10 for a card, and there are 24 cards, you’ll have $240. It’s up to you how you allocate the cash — for example, you might give $150 to the winner, $50 to second, and $40 to third. Just make sure you decide the prize amounts (and everybody agrees on them) before the race.

If you’ve got more than 24 people in your office, that’s fine — you can run a couple of sweeps at the same time.

Despite the fact that the sweep is completely random, whoever wins is guaranteed to brag about it for the rest of the day — and for some people, the bragging rights might be worth more than the cash prize. We have no tips for dealing with these people. You’ll just have to put up with them. Sorry.

Chris understands your pain.  Image via Facebook

Chris understands your pain.
Image via Facebook

The watercooler

Of course, you won’t convince people you’re a real Melbourne Cup expert until you start dropping classic Cup trivia around the watercooler. Normally, we wouldn’t advise a Cup rookie to try this — it’s an easy way to get caught out — but hey, we’ve got a good feeling about you.

Here’s a few gems you might want to casually work into the conversation:

  • The Cup’s first winner, Archer, supposedly walked about 800km from his stables in Nowra (NSW) to Melbourne in 1861. His trainer won £170 and a gold watch for his efforts, and just 4000 people were there to watch it. Archer backed up both the walk and the win in 1862.
  • Five horses have won more than one Cup. Makybe Diva actually did it three times (2003, 2004, 2005), with Archer (1861, ’62), Peter Pan (1932, ’34), Rain Lover (1968, ’69) and Think Big (1974, ’75) rounding out the field of repeat winners.
  • Millionaire Tony Santicis named Makybe Diva after the first two letters from the names of his employees — Maureen, Kylie, Belinda, Diane and Vanessa.
  • You can’t drink and ride — jockeys in Victoria must maintain blood-alcohol readings under 0.02.
  • The phrase ‘The race that stops the nation’ is a trademark of the Victorian Racing Club. One day, they’re going to come collecting on an awful lot of debt.
  • Russia won the Melbourne Cup in 1946. (Well, not Russia, the federal semi-presidential republic, but Russia, the ’40s racehorse.)
  • The Melbourne Cup is usually incredibly close, but Archer (1862) and Rain Lover (1968) romped it in — they’re tied for the greatest winning margin at eight lengths.
  • World War I and World War II stopped most sport in Australia — but not the Melbourne Cup, which continued unabated.
  • Most people think that British model Jean Shrimpton caused a stir at the Melbourne Cup with her ‘revealing’ outfit in 1965, but they’re wrong — that happened on Derby Day. Shrimpton shocked Flemington by wearing a miniskirt with no gloves, hat or stockings. (Three days later, at the Melbourne Cup, Shrimpton actually caved to convention and wore a three-piece suit, straw hat, beige gloves and stockings.)
  • It’s been 80-odd years since Phar Lap last went around the track, so don’t drop his name unless you want to look like a rank amateur. If somebody else brings him up, though, you can casually mention that, yes, ‘Phar Lap’ is Thai for ‘lightning’, and yes, his heart really did weigh 6.2kg (the average horse heart weighs in at 3.2kg).

That’s all we’ve got, but that should be more than enough to help you fake your way through Cup Day with authority. Make sure you let us know how you go!

You might also like…
Where to watch the Melbourne Cup in Brisbane