Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Oh! Calcutta!

It is difficult to describe the Melbourne Cup to non-Australians. It is the most prestigious horse race of the year, but it is more than that; it is literally the race that stops the nation. Held on the first Tuesday of November, it is the most watched sporting even on the calendar. Victoria (the state of which Melbourne is the capital) has a public holiday to mark the occasion, and in workplaces all over the country people down tools to watch the race and gamble. For us it is like the Triple Crown and Breeder's Cup all rolled into one... except that everyone cares.

Unbeknownst to me, the Australian Embassy usually holds a function for the Cup. This shouldn't be surprising, really, and I am amazed that I hadn't gotten wind of it sooner. In fact, the only reason I knew about it this year was because a couple of Australian friends of mine had mentioned it to me. Despite still feeling the effects of my weekend trip to AC (some kind of trip report forthcoming, though you can check out Jon's take on it here), I decided that the siren song of Australian beer and gambling must be obeyed.

I arrived at the Embassy just before 8pm, and proceeded to sink a few VBs. I looked over the options for having a (hypothetical) flutter on the ponies, despite the fact the only thing I knew about the horses (via the Boy Genius) was that a nag by the name of Geordieland was being ridden by a top American jockey. Fortunately the Embassy provided us with form guides we could use to make (ill)informed picks.

For those that wanted a low-risk piece of the action they had "sweeps", where you paid $2 and were issued a random horse's number. If the horse came in first you pocketed $16, 2nd paid $8, and 3rd paid $4. Not that exciting, but you had some horseflesh to cheer for.

For those who craved a bit more action, there was the Calcutta. Part one of the Calcutta was a raffle for the rights to a "half-share" of a horse. Part two was an auction for the other "half-share" to a horse. The backers of the winning horse would win 60% of the prize pool (that is, 30% to each half-share), 30% for the second-place horse, and 10% for the third-place horse. Looking at the numbers for the last two Calcuttas (which were provided) it looked like the total prize pool might hit $4000, with the horse receiving the most interest in the auction going for $250+.

Now, I am not a horse racing man. Not that I mind it, but the only times I bet on the ponies is if I am at the track (which is usually only done for a prestigious event like the Perth Cup), or for something like the Melbourne Cup. Nonetheless I was determined to see if I could get a share of one of the runners. I plonked down $20 for 20 tickets in the raffle, hoping that that would get me some action. Unfortunately I blanked on the first round, and I was faced with either throwing my hat into the auction ring, or being forced to be an idle (though drunkie) spectator.

I borrowed a pen off my mate, and went through the form guide marking those horses I thought might either have a decent shot at money or that I reckoned could go for a reasonable price given their chances of coming home. The action for the first few horses was fast and furious, with last year's high bid mark beaten early. All of a sudden I was doubtful about my chances at getting a horsie of my very own, though for a moment it looked like one of my targets was going to go in my range. The moment was fleeting, however, as my opponent kept raising strongly... and so I bowed out, fearing that he was prepared to go way past the $75 he had just bid.

The next couple of horses I liked were much too expensive, followed by a slew of horses I didn't care for. All of a sudden there were only 5 horses left to bid on in the field of 22, and it was loooking like I was going to be left out in the cold. But the next horse was Geordieland, which had the aforementioned American jockey onboard.

I must have looked like a man ready to throw money around, as an older woman standing next to me leaned over and asked "Do you like this horse?" When I nodded, she added "Me too."

"Oh," I said, searching for some piece of intimidation. Smiling, I added: "I have very deep pockets."

That seemed to do the trick.

Despite my mind games I didn't get a bid in as the price quickly raced over the $250 mark. Sheepishly my neighbour and I grinned at each other.

"How about the next horse, do like that one?"

"Yep," I replied, "but so does everyone in the place. It'll go for a mint."

The older woman paused.

"OK then, how about we pool our resources. I can go up to $120, so $240 combined. You do the bidding"

This sounded like a fine plan to me, and so I gave my assent. All good, until the next horse actually went for $380. We commiserated with each other regarding our inability to bring home the bacon, and eyed the remaining 3 horses. Knowing the question was coming, I informed my new partner that I didn't like the next horse, but I did fancy the next-to-last offering, Delta Blues. I decided my plan of action was to see how the bidding went, then if it looked good I would jump in with a slight overbid compared to the action to try and freeze the field.

The auction for Delta Blues began, and quickly went above $150. I was afraid our chances were shot, until the action petered out at $190. Two blokes in front of us, who had been bidding for everything, finally gingerly raised their hands and announced "$200". I paused for a beat, then raised my hand.

"$220!" I bellowed.

The two blokes in front turned around to see who had just outbid them.

"I really like this horse," I informed them as convincingly as possible.

They folded like a map, and Delta Blues was ours for $220.

I gave a little fist pump, ecstatic with finally getting a horse... which is right about when my partner's husband rocked up.

"Mark", my partner began, "you need to give this man $110."

I grinned as Mark gave me a strange look, though he indeed reached into his wallet and gave me the readies. I tangoed to the cashier, and handed over our money. The good news was that the pool was huge, edging over $5000. Now all we had to do was hit at least a place to make some money.

Settling the nerves with a few more VBs, I edged closer to the screen that the race feed was being projected on. I was hoping that our horse got out fast so that I would at least be able to locate it - in a 22 horse field it can be pretty easy to lose your nag in the crowd, which makes the cheering a little anti-climactic. I wasn't sure where my partner was, but since she had ponied up the dough already I wasn't too worried. At just after 11pm EST all the horses were ready in their gates. The tension in the room was palpable.

And they were off!

Delta Blues did get out early, and was actually in first momentarily before settling into second just off the rail. I was happy with that, though a little worried about the pace and whether the horse would get stuck on the rail. The jockey did well, however, holding his position nicely and not getting pinned.

As the horses rounded towards the home straight, Delta Blues made a little move, edging a little wider and gaining a clear path. It was at that point I started to realise we were in with a shot.

"Mate, he's looking pretty good," I said to my friend Gazza standing next to me.

At the beginning of the straight my horse kicked, and started opening a lead on the field. Halfway down the straight I raised my arms, sure that it was going to come home... but all of a sudden a pursuer emerged from the pack and began reducing the margin at an alarming rate. With arms still raised I eyed the screen wildly. Where the hell was the post?!

Heads nodding in unison, Delta Blues and Pop Rock hit the line...


... and we were home by a nose!!

Out of nowhere my partner raced up, leaping into my arms for a big hug. We jumped up and down, then jumped up and down some more. Mark wandered up and congratulated me on my horse betting acumen, though I received no hugs from the big guy.

After an eternity the results were made official, and my partner-in-crime and I made our way up to the cashier to accept a rather fat envelope. Total winnings: $1583 between the two of us. Not a bad night's work.

The crowd began to thin out as people began to leave the Embassy and head home. My partner and I carefully split the money and gave each other a last victory hug before we waved goodbye. I wandered out into the cool DC night, floating in an alcohol and adrenaline induced haze.

I should really get to the embassy more often.

4 Comments:

  • Nice score! By the way, the jock on Geordieland was a frog named Frankie Dettori. They fly him in from France to run big races on the grass in the US.

    By Blogger BG, at 12:25 PM  

  • Bastard.

    As you see on my blog..I LOST my Melbourne Cup exacta because of bloody Delta Blues (the money being on Pop Rock).

    By Blogger Jules, at 2:59 PM  

  • YAY!

    By Blogger peacecorn, at 4:19 PM  

  • Haha, nice win Garth

    By Blogger jl514, at 7:09 PM  

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