It may or may not stop the nation, but the Melbourne Cup certainly helps power a state’s economy.
With its $18.3 million in prize money – up a million from last year – the Melbourne Cup Festival remains arguably the world's most successful racing event.
But prize money represents only a portion of the Cup's riches. With an estimated gross economic benefit of $388 million to the Victorian economy, the Melbourne Cup Festival is big business.
The biggest winners, apart from the 18,000 people employed at Flemington in the lead-up and during the festival, are the fashion, tourism, and food and beverage industries.
A study commissioned by the Victorian Racing Commission found the 2015 Cup Carnival generated:
-$29.1 million from commercial accommodation in Victoria
-$49.7 million in retail sales
-$20.91 million from food and beverage
-$7.61 million from personal grooming
-$12.6 million from fashion
Fashions on the Field, born in 1962 as an initiative designed to "woo more women to the races", has inextricably tied racing to fashion. So among the 300,000 plus visitors expected to saunter through the gates at Flemington this year there will be a great many well-dressed women, who collectively pack serious economic clout.
In the lead up to last year’s Cup, fashion conscious punters spent $2.6 million on more than 325,000 fashion items, including:
-68,641 hats and fascinators
-54,389 pairs of shoes
-15,405 shirts and ties and
These are facts for which milliners, like Louise Macdonald, are eternally grateful; Ms Macdonald says the Melbourne Cup accounts for 75% of her annual trade.
She begins preparing for the Cup in February and hits full speed in September, when spring fashions come out and women begin to buy their frocks in preparation for the event. It is her busiest time of the year, and she is convinced that demand for her hats is due to much more than tradition.
"Over the past 10 or 15 years the Victorian Racing Club has encouraged headwear, particularly with the [Fashions on the Field] competition,” Ms Macdonald says. “That's not to say that every woman will enter the competition, but it does set the tone.
"The Melbourne Cup is my Christmas."
The big race attracts about 75,000 visitors from interstate and overseas – there was an 11% increase in the number of race-lovers who travelled to Victoria especially for the Melbourne Cup Festival last year.
That means a lot of beds required – 191,900 “bed-nights” according the VRC research. Visitors will spend nearly $30 million on accommodation alone.
Of course they have to get to Melbourne in the first place and that’s where travel providers like P&O Cruises, come into the picture. President Sture Myrmell,says his company picks up about 5% of the punters coming to Melbourne from Sydney and Brisbane and delivers them on cruise ships.
They will arrive at the festival after a week of styling workshops, fascinator-making workshops, presentations by racing stalwarts, betting master classes, and of course, much merry-making.
“Cruising is the ultimate way to experience the ‘race that stops a nation’," says Mr Myrmell says. "It combines two of Australians’ great loves – cruising and horse racing."
Overseas visitors are also flocking to the event. In just four years, the number of countries represented has increased from 26 to 34.
Among the many hospitality providers giving attendees cause to celebrate are Melbourne caterers Blakes Feast, who are accredited caterers in the members' car parks and will be managing up to 50 different sites per day. Springtime is a busy time for Blakes Feast, and Melbourne Cup clients are the ones who spend biggest.
"A lot of our clients are corporates who have allocated budgets for this time of year," says Kasey Thompson, Operations Director. "They understand the infrastructure required for events at the track, and are willing to pay a premium for a great product and to have everything managed for them so it's seamless and easy."
This premium is responsible for the nearly $21 million spent on food and beverage last year, as people embraced the party-like atmosphere of the Victorian public holiday.
Although the gambling industry records billions of dollars in Melbourne Cup bets, the Victorian Racing Club downplays this aspect and promotes the Melbourne Cup Festival as an event that "celebrates all that Melbourne does best": world-class sport, fashion, entertainment, and hospitality.
And it really is more than just a race. The Melbourne Cup is a social and cultural phenomenon with a countless number of satellite events revolving around it; from balls, to business functions, to champagne breakfasts, to fashion luncheons, and even snail race fundraisers at primary schools.
The sheer magnitude of the day itself at Flemington is, and has long been, astonishing.
"They come a hundred thousand strong and they pack the spacious grounds and grandstands," wrote Mark Twain of his visit to the Melbourne Cup back in 1895, and the event has only continued to grow.
There is no other home-grown, self-funded event in Australia that has such a positive impact on a local economy. It may or may not stop the nation, but the Melbourne Cup certainly helps power a state’s economy.