Melbourne Cup loses some shine with crowds trending downwards as animal welfare concerns rise

Melbourne Cup loses some shine with crowds trending downwards as animal welfare concerns rise

The Melbourne Cup’s reputation may be a little scratched but plenty of Australians still like to give it a trot.

Attendances at meetings have been dwindling and fewer Australians are gambling on horse races – but those still having a punt are spending more. The Australian Hotels Association, meanwhile, has reported that pubs and restaurants are doing a roaring trade.

A major report released by Gambling Research Australia in October found 16.8% of Australians gambled on horse races in the past year, down from 22.4% a decade before. But turnover keeps increasing, from $22.9bn in 2010-11 to $26.9bn in 2018-19 (adjusted for inflation).

CQUniversity senior postdoctoral fellow in the experimental gambling research laboratory, and co-author of the report, Dr Alex Russell, says the apparent discrepancy is due to people turning off gambling, but those left behind being the heavy gamblers.

“The people who are still betting are betting a tonne,” Russell said. “A lot of that is driven by more and more online gambling – it doubled in the past decade.”

Russell said people have realised that gambling is not just a harmless recreational activity but something with damaging effects on people and animals.

“We’re just seeing more and more people saying ‘I bloody hate gambling’, or ‘I’m sick of all the ads’,” he said. “The other thing about the Melbourne Cup and horse racing is it comes with the animal cruelty issue.”

There have been seven horse deaths in the past six years at the big race, prompting Racing Victoria to introduce new safety measures. Animal rights protesters targeted it again this year, joined – inexplicably – by anti-lockdown activists.

In an article in The Conversation, Russell pointed to an analysis of Melbourne Cup tweets last year that had #nuptothecup, #horseracingkills and #animalcruelty in the top 10.

Attendances at the Cup were steadily declining before Covid changed everything. From a high of 122,736 (when Makybe Diva won in 2003), the numbers hovered at just over 100,000 in the early 2010s before sinking to 83,471 in 2018 then 81,408 in 2019.

Covid meant there were no spectators last year and a cap of 10,000 people this year.

Television audiences have also been declining, the Nine papers reported last year, although Channel 10 said people were live-streaming the event instead.

Gerard Daffy from online sports betting site TAB said the cup might have “lost a bit of its gloss”, blaming an increasing number of international entries. But, thanks to the pandemic, Australians are dominating again. He said Incentivise (the pre-race favourite who came second behind Verry Elleegant) was a “headline act … a horse from Queensland that’s come from obscurity”.

“The Melbourne Cup’s the Melbourne Cup,” Daffy said. “It’s the race that stops the nation, it truly does, and it always will.”

The Australian Hotels Association chief executive officer, Stephen Ferguson, said while race-day crowds were on “an inchingly slow decline”, pubs and restaurants had held their ground. That was true this year, bearing in mind capacity restrictions, he said.

“The Melbourne Cup is the starting gun for the run into Christmas,” he said.

“It always is. It’s one of the biggest days of the year. It’s a festive day, full of bookings. People are social animals, they’re looking to get out there and connect. Who wants to get on a train to Flemington when you can sit in a pub?”

Russell said for many people, Melbourne Cup betting was just a once-yearly bit of fun.

“It’s an excuse to take the day off, go to the pub, get dressed up,” he said. “It’s still got that about it, but a lot of people have had their eyes opened to all the stuff around it.”