The Melbourne Cup: not brought to you by Qantas


The field races in Race 3 The Lavazza Long Black during Melbourne Cup Day at Flemington Racecourse on November 1, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.


Quinn Rooney

They did their darndest, but even Qantas — the airline that stopped a nation — couldn't stop one of the highlights of Australia's sporting calendar.

The Melbourne Cup, known Down Under by its (trademarked) slogan "the race that stops a nation" is akin to the Kentucky Derby in terms of prominence and popularity, although it is older and the prize money — at 6 million Australian dollars — bigger.

Many an Australian workplace comes to a standstill around 3 p.m. on the first Tuesday of November each year, and gather round TVs or radios as 24 horses (minus any scratchings) line up at the barrier at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne for the 3,200-meter (1.99-mile) race.

(In comparison, the Kentucky Derby is run over 2,000 meters and the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, also limited to three-year-olds, is run over 1,900 meters.)

Almost any Australian who can put a bet on does — be it an office pool or an off-track punt.

As American journalist/blogger Eric O'Keefe puts it:

The Melbourne Cup does more than dominate Thoroughbred racing Down Under; it mesmerizes all of Australia.

If you don't want to take his word, consider what Mark Twain said after seeing the Melbourne Cup run in 1895: "Nowhere in the world have I encountered a festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation. The Cup astonishes me."

The race is described in Encyclopedia Britannica as "the greatest all age handicap in the world," and evokes the names of such legendary winners as Carbine and Phar Lap.

However, only a day ago, Australian media were speculating that jockeys due in Melbourne for the cup — including Gerald Mosse, rider of the race favorite Americain — would miss out owing to Qantas' extraordinary near-48-hour grounding of flights due to an industrial dispute. 

Australia's industrial arbitration court put a stop to all industrial action by Qantas and unions Monday, saying it was acting to prevent significant damage to the tourism and airline industries, and Qantas took to the skies that afternoon.

Turns out that while all jockeys were present and accounted for in Melbourne by late Monday (details are sketchy on how they got there in the end), thousands of would-be racegoers held up in the backlog of flights were still trying desperately to make alternative travel plans.

(Sarah Jessica Parker, Dita Von Teese, Joan Collins and two Kardashian sisters were among those attending the race, the New Zealand Herald reports, without specifying if they actually made it).

In 2010, 60,000 attendees arrived from somewhere else in Australia and 10,000 from overseas.

Melbourne Cup organizers said the impact of the Qantas grounding on the event would not be known until after the race, The Australian newspaper reports.

The paper quotes Victorian Tourism Minister Louise Asher as saying Monday that while Qantas planes had resumed flying Monday, the dispute had already caused significant damage to Victorian tourism:

"I expressed my concern previously that Melbourne's Spring Racing Carnival could be affected. With the resumption of Qantas flights, I hope air travel might return to normal soon. Attendance to Melbourne Cup week events may be down, but given the announcement this morning that Qantas will resume flying today, it is difficult to say what the impact will be."

The Victorian premier,  Ted Baillieu, meanwhile said the Federal government should have stepped in sooner to end the dispute and protect the Cup.

"There obviously is an impact on reputation," he said. "We can't afford to have anything which threatens that reputation and that access."

Now, if you'll excuse us, it's 2:55 p.m. and the race is about to begin. Nobody bother calling Australia for the next 15 minutes or so.