$400m bet on one race

sunset Hydra
The author, seeking inspiration on a Greek isle.

Four hundred million dollars is a useful amount of money. In the hands of people who know how to distribute money for a good purpose, it could be dispersed in a myriad of ways. They might take up to 20 percent off the top to administer their charities, but that’s a subject for another time.
For example, $400m, equivalent to about a 20% of the Australian Government’s public housing budget, could be used to alleviate homelessness. If evenly distributed, our 105,237 homeless people would each receive about $3,800, which would easily cover a bond and a month’s rent in most Australian cities.
Another example: For $400m you could set up specialised clinics and buy stocks of prosthetic limbs for people in war-torn countries who lost their arms and/or legs to land mines and IEDs. There’d be money left over to pay medical staff to teach people how to walk again.
Or back home, if you had $400m you could negotiate with banks about forming a Blockies Syndicate to buy farms in WA and NSW, the struggling ones currently the target of acquisitive Chinese investment companies.

Now to the Melbourne Cup

If you were wondering where I was going with the $400 million thing, this is what 14 million Australians apparently gamble on the first Tuesday in November trying to pick the winner of a two-mile horse race with 24 runners. Outrageous, isn’t it? Of course, some of that money is recycled, tipped into the wallets of those who backed the winner. Given that the 2015 Melbourne Cup was won by a 100-1 outsider, though, I’d say a lot went into consolidated revenue.
Sarah Michael of the Daily Mail Australia described the race that stops a nation as just that. Research by HR firm Randstad estimated that 77% of Australian workers spend 3.5 hours or more celebrating the Melbourne Cup. The number of full-time employees who call in sick on the Wednesday after is 25% higher than normal. All up, it’s a loss of productivity estimated at $1 billion.
Not all workers treat Melbourne Cup day like the public holiday it is in Victoria. Randstad’s survey found that 15% said they watch the race and participate in office sweepstakes then get back to work. Eight percent said they were too busy to watch the race at all. And (my observation), an unknown percentage spend time and emotional energy alerting people to the cruel, exploitative side of horse racing.

The Victorian Racing Club says the 2013 Melbourne Cup contributed $364.4 in gross economic benefit to the State in 2013-2014. More than half was estimated to be spent in Melbourne department stores, fashion houses, boutiques and shoe stores and on associated events leading up to Cup day. Pubs and restaurants did OK too.
The VRC’s 2014 annual report tells us that 3.2 million home viewers tuned in to the Melbourne Cup and the race was beamed into 163 countries. Annual reports tend to lag behind, so you need to know they are referring to the 2013 cup. It is a fair bet demand for this horse race to be broadcast live around the world will have risen in the ensuing years.
After all, there was only one Australian-bred horse in the 2015 field (Sertorious). Almost half the horses were imported from wealthy stables in England, Ireland and Japan (which made the $50,000 Kiwi-bred winner look all the better). And didn’t you just love Michelle Payne’s speech, in which she not only hung the flag out for female jockeys, but also (correct me if I’m wrong), she did not mention the ubiquitous sponsors at all, though she did wear the cap.

Not everyone in the nation stops

However, the claim that 13.8 million Aussies place bets on the Melbourne cup tends to ignore the 10.4 million who did not bet at all.
The ‘didn’t have a bet’ brigade probably includes infants in nappies, those with religious and/or ethical reasons for not gambling, tight-arses (Aussie slang for thrifty people) and those with pathological addictions who literally had to hide under the doona for the week to stop the ads from online bookmakers penetrating the part of the brain that succumbs to compulsion.

There is a debate about what happens to the 11,000 thoroughbreds who retire from racing each season. In 2013, the Australian Racing Board commissioned a survey of 1,470 horses that had finished racing: 664 (45%) went to stud, 450 (31%) were sold/gifted as pleasure horses and 205 (14%) were returned to their owners. A further 109 (7 percent) died or were euthanised, while just six (0.4 percent) ended up at the abattoirs. Animal rights groups claim that significantly more horses than that go to abattoirs. A 2008 academic study found that 40% of horses at an Australian abattoir had thoroughbred brands. No-one collects data on pleasure horses, who owns them or what happens to them over time, so the numbers are hard to nail down. ARMB survey author Renee Geelen is now working to broaden the study to include thoroughbreds that never get to the race track.

Meanwhile, the use of whips in racing is again under scrutiny. Jockeys are now fined or even suspended for over-use of the whip. The slow motion footage of Michelle Payne (who was riding hands and heels) madly waving her whip near the winning post is shown to be air whipping of the “OMG, I’ve won the Melbourne Cup” kind.

So the once-a-year punters had their flutter. Insurance group Asteron says the average bet in 2014 was $29. (Apparently this amount of money could provide three chooks to a third world family via Oxfam).

Asteron’s Risky Nation report not only discussed our love of the punt, but used actuarial statistics to alert us to our optimistic, yet risk-taking nature. For example, on average, we each gamble $1,641 a year (losing $1,300), yet comparatively few of us take out sickness insurance and the majority have inadequate life cover.

A third of the people Asteron surveyed reckoned paying $420 a year for sickness insurance was “not worth it” and 31% “didn’t know”. Asteron (an arm of Suncorp), says the odds of needing income insurance are 67-1, the odds of being diagnosed with cancer 200-1 and the chances of having a heart attack 427-1. The odds of picking the Melbourne Cup trifecta, however, are 12,144-1.

The TAB said $15.07 million was wagered on the Melbourne Cup trifecta last Tuesday. I could not find out just how many people managed to pick the 100-1 chance to win, chased home by Max Dynamite and Criterion, both at generous odds.
The trifecta paid $26,045. No-one in our street won it.

The choice is ours. Back up on the Sandown Cup tomorrow, run down to your favourite insurer and bump up your life cover, or make a punter-size donation to the charity of your choice.

The Red Cross chose Melbourne Cup Day to ask people for a donation of “$25 or $60” to deliver clean water and sanitation to villages in Burma.

They’ll probably get a better response than the telemarketer who called our Melbourne Cup lunch host at 1.59pm on Tuesday to sell her a new mobile phone.