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A day at the Melbourne Cup - ‘everyone’s pretty merry by the end’

The Irish trainer Joseph O’Brien wins the ‘race that stops a nation’ with Rekindling

Two men fall onto the ground as they have a fight after the running of the 157th version of the Melbourne Cup at Flemington racecourse in Melbourne. Photograph: Reuters

It is easy to send up the Melbourne Cup, but easier if everyone’s in on it. Matthew Young and Rob Waddell, both handsome 28-year-olds, are sucking on some beers, dressed in fitted blue suits and tan shoes, just before the 3pm start.

They don’t really come for the racing, says Matthew. “We do have a scout at the fillies. We’re going well with the cliches here, hey?”

The friends wear the young male uniform – the younger the man, the tighter the pants and the pointier the shoes, and Matthew says he made an effort. “I went to Chaddie [the Chadstone shopping centre] yesterday’’ to pick out some chinos.

They are swaying just a little at this stage of the afternoon, but they are far from drunk. Yes, it can get out of hand later on, but “it’s easy for the Herald Sun to pick 30 people out of 100,000 who are out of control.” That’s not too bad, says Matthew, particularly when everyone has had a few drinks.

The whole “race that stops a nation” is a cliche, but it’s not too bad. There’s the one about the Melbourne weather in November, this time blustery and miserable, with everyday overcoats slung over fluorescent mini-skirts and strapless tops.

There’s the one about how this Tuesday in November is as good a barometer as any of how corporate Australia is faring, and how “class” is marked in a nation that still likes to think of itself as egalitarian, even if that ideal is under strain.

The measure of “class” differentiation is supposedly the Birdcage, the corporate marquee enclosure near Flemington’s parade ring. The purpose is to be seen and photographed, and the selfies are no less ubiquitous here than in the general public area. The essential accessory is a phone, an Instagram account and an ability to scream “hi!” as you bump into someone you know.

Racegoers after the running of the Melbourne Cup at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne. Photograph: PA

In the “retro” Myer marquee, we drink citrus spritzers and nibble morsels like green bao with fried chicken and pickles. Yes, it’s invitation-only snobbery, where the famous and wealthy mingle with each other rather than with the rest of us.

Yet it’s a down-to-earth kind of snobbery. AFL footballers suck on beers and stick together, and exceptionally thin women in skin-tight dresses chatter in broad Australian accents about home renovations.

Nadia Bartel, the wife of former Geelong star Jimmy, has been to about 10 Melbourne Cups and says it’s “just fun”. In the long line for the women’s toilet, fashions on the field second place winner Carle Rutledge is happy to talk about how she made her own hat. She enters the competition to push herself, because it’s “nerve-wracking”.

“This whole day is a carnival,” she says.

Over the years, the great Australian cultural cringe has been on painful display at the Cup, with tens of thousands of dollars spent on snaring overseas starlets for the purpose of being photographed in a Lexus, Myer or Emirates marquee. It’s nonsense, but it’s harmless enough.

The big name this year was supposed to be Paris Jackson, the 19-year-old daughter of Michael. Journalists stand in the drizzle for Jackson’s arrival on the “black carpet” at the Myer marquee.

And good on her for wearing cool desert boots – her own! – and a dress other than the one she was supposed to wear, a scandal in Birdcage land. The model and budding actor walks up and down for a minute, smiles for photographs, and says “thanks guys” and nothing else.

Outside the Birdcage, you can wander around the parade area, and see and smell the horses, some calm, some flighty. The roses are, as ever, a glorious Cup cliche, and there are the picnic rugs, champagne in plastic cups, and hot chips and tomato sauce.

Is it a grand Australian good time, whatever your age, your status or your bank-balance? To a point. Shoes come off, breasts threaten to pop out of dresses, young people get drunk and give into love and lust. You can dress up in Australia, but this is a casual nation at heart.

Lloyd Williams lead owner, trainer Joseph O’Brien, jockey Corey Brown and Emirates’ Barry Brown hold their trophies after their horse Rekindling won the 157th Melbourne Cup at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne. Photograph: Getty Images

After the race, I find myself at the press conference with the owner of the winner, Rekindling – Lloyd Williams, in a top hat and with a yellow rose in his lapel. He’s with jockey Corey Brown and Irish trainer Joseph O’Brien, who looks young enough to be a schoolboy.

Williams has a sip of water. “What do you want to know, hey?” Williams, with six winners to date, is almost a Cup cliche himself, and Brown says what jockeys almost always say at such a moment: “I’m speechless.” His ride on Rekindling was “almost perfect”.

“Wherever I pointed him he was happy to go.”

Outside, somewhere, Matthew and Rob will be having their own celebration. They both bet on Rekindling. They come to the cup for the “festival vibe”, says Rob, because it is always a special occasion. “It’s all good natured,” he says. “And everyone’s pretty merry by the end.” - Guardian services