On Tuesday, my eight-year-old son will have $5 each way in race seven.
His six-year-old brother will probably bet to win.
Their four-year-old sister will likely just do what my eldest does.
They will cheer on the race when they see it (no public holiday in NSW) and will wallop and whoop for their pick. They will gamble illegally just like hundreds of thousands of other children around Australia.
And I am okay with that.
Listen: These are the ridiculous things we need to fess up to when it comes to Melbourne Cup. Post continues after audio.
The Melbourne Cup is one of those polarising traditions. Some of us love the day – we revel in the pomp, the ceremony and the glamour. Others find it difficult to come to terms with – they see the wasted money, the alcohol consumption and worry about the consequences.
With the day once again upon us, many women (mothers in a lot of cases) are expressing a difficult to resolve dilemma. They share a deep unease about enjoying the festivities and yet a desire to let their children join in the fun.
The troubling dichotomy of the day is that it celebrates two things many of us find deeply concerning – the exploitation of animals and gambling. We don’t just celebrate Melbourne Cup but in Victoria we give children the day off to honour the three-minute race.
It’s a scenario that makes many people deeply uncomfortable and one I struggle with myself.
For me, the Melbourne Cup is a part of Australian history, it’s a part of my history. I love everything about the day. The times I have attended, the atmosphere is electric. Even as a child it was something to look forward to. I have memories of sitting down with my family the night before the cup and comparing the horses names and their distinguishing features.
I remember examining each of the jockey’s silks, picking just which one I wanted to put my $2 on and debating the pros and cons of stars over stripes or royal reds over regal blues. I remember each and every time my big brother picked the winner (it was never me) and watching him happily collect his fistful of coins in winnings.
I would diligently cut out the sweep from The Sydney Morning Herald and take it to school to distribute to my friends, praying I drew the favourite. I remember the thrill of trying on my mother’s wide-brimmed hats and sitting at school watching the race wearing a paper hat I’d made in class that morning.
It was a celebration of being an Aussie, the thrill of being a part of something.
And yet now as a parent myself, I feel a tinge of unease about encouraging my own children to have the same rose-tinted view of the race.
We live in NSW and don't get the day off, and as my children’s school does not acknowledge the Melbourne Cup, they miss it. There is no sweep or silly hats, no time to gather in the hall and watch the winner parade. I find it sad that they don’t and yet I struggle with this feeling.
In my heart I love the cup and yet my head tells me there are sides to it I need to consider.
I know the horse racing industry has elements that are crooked. I know that gambling affects one in every 25 high school students and that families lives are destroyed. But I also know that the biggest danger in gambling is poker machine addiction, not watching one race once a year with friends.
I know there are horrific deaths and cruel aspects brought to the fore last year by the heartbreaking death of two horses. And yet I know that there are many, many trainers, jockeys and stable hands who treat their animals with dignity, kindness and love.
Last year after my children watched the race (I had taped it and they watched it after school) my eldest son asked me if the horses liked to run . I remember telling him, “Jasper that’s what horses are born for.” And so this year as my own children delight over the patterns and colours of the silks and race around the house pretending to be “horsies in the big race”, I try to come to terms with those conflicted feelings.
These are the messages about gambling we need to need. Post continues after video...
The “Melbourne Cup grinches” decree the day as a twisted Australian tradition that reflects a misguided moral compass. But yet overwhelmingly for most Australians, the day is one that we find joy in, that gives us a common conversation and genuinely does “stop the nation.”
If we are going to feel uncomfortable about the Melbourne Cup, couldn’t we make the same argument about Christmas? Where the majority of the toys we buy for our children are constructed under slave labor conditions and the rate of family violence goes through the roof? Couldn’t we make the same argument about AFL and NRL grand finals? That lead to binge drinking sessions and sexual assaults? Where do we draw the line at what to abandon and what to embrace?
As a parent, I hope to continue that love of the Melbourne Cup with my children. But with most things, I also hope that they can learn to see the incongruities in the occasion.
I hope they can see the light and shade. I hope I can talk to them about the dangers of problem gambling, while at the same time allowing them the excitement of watching the beating hooves of a tribe of magnificent animals demonstrate their power. I hope I can let go of my unease and educate them about the mistreatment of animals, while at the same time allowing them to gasp in awe at the thoroughbreds.
And yet I also know that my heart and head will continue to be conflicted about the Melbourne Cup.
Do you let your children watch The Melbourne Cup?