The Cup run and won in virtual silence

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At the start of every Melbourne Cup in living memory a celebratory roar has accompanied the moment when the barriers open at the top of Flemington's iconic straight.

On Tuesday, instead, a lone voice cried out from a virtually empty grandstand in homage to the absent revellers missing from the lawns and grandstand overlooking the patch of grass horses have run over for 160 years in an attempt to win the Melbourne Cup.

The forlorn tone carried the sadness of a hymn as the funereal atmosphere that preceded the country's biggest race made those surrounding the normally bustling mounting yard carry a comportment usually confined to mourners on the steps of a church.



On the first Tuesday in November everyone at Flemington was working to make the occasion work, the trainers, the jockeys, the media, the stewards, administrators, security and last, but not least, the horses.

There was no champagne to loosen the lips or purse strings of racegoers, nor were there veterans attending their 20th or 30th or 50th Cup in succession going through the rituals associated with Australia's favourite raceday.

There were merely men and women going about their business with a silent formality, free of the usual excited greetings present when owners meet up in the hour before the race to live their dream of having a runner in the Melbourne Cup.

There was some consolation in the fact the race was happening at all, given the winter Melbourne experienced. Every effort was being made to make the occasion as good a television spectacle as possible.

The positive vibe began when jockey Michael Rodd – wearing the same black mask as his peers – waved to no one as he walked into the mounting yard to be introduced over the public address system as the rider of Mustajeer.

His act was both comical and poignant. There were no marquees, no one in carparks or bars, no one with their necks craned in hope. The sunshine bore down on grass and not much more.

The recognisable whirl of a solitary helicopter remained. But when champion stallion Anthony Van Dyck entered the yard at 2:43pm – 17 minutes from the race and, tragically, less than an hour before he would be euthanised after sustaining a fractured fetlock rounding the home turn to cast an all-too familiar pall on the day – there was quiet.



From the stand, as the horses walked in circles, free of distractions that crowds bring, the mounting yard carried as much atmosphere as a virtual race shown on a screen inside a pub.

Amid the emptiness, individual voices became audible from 50 metres away.

One was that of Bonnie Anderson, who, moments after singing a beautiful rendition of the national anthem for a television audience, was heard in the distance telling a friend as she jumped up and down on the spot with excitement, "It's all done".

For most, it had not yet begun as the race moved closer to starting.

Trainer Ciaron Maher, who would normally struggle to find his Cup jockey amid the pre-race crush, only had to avoid a television microphone stand to get to Glen Boss, who was riding Cox Plate winner Sir Dragonet. At least, there were some advantages for the participants.

Previous runners such as last year's winner Vow and Declare, the indefatigable Prince of Arran, the classy Finche, the Irish pair Twilight Payment and Master of Reality, Steel Prince and Surprise Baby who had all run in the 2019 version of the race – a time when the mention of COVID-19 would have had people scanning their race books to see whether they had missed something – lifted the excitement, too.

Those names don't walk out onto a racetrack on raceday unless it means something.

When race caller Matt Hill announced there were "90 seconds until the Melbourne Cup, horses to be called up soon", it was hard not to weep.

Although no hairs stood up on the back of the neck the reality of what was at stake suddenly became clearer as Twilight Payment, the eventual winner, jumped quietly from the stalls and into the lead.

As the Joseph O'Brien-trained eight-year-old took the field past the winning post for the first time, Hill got it right when he said: "Give them a cheer Australia." But the phrase also accentuated the hollow feeling.

The tension built as Twilight Payment hung on while Tiger Moth swooped and Prince of Arran placed.

Winning jockey Jye McNeill pumped his fist and clapped his hands as he returned to scale without a distracted crowd watching on while O’Brien sat at home in Ireland a two-time winner at 27.

The Cup had been run and won in virtual silence but, unlike a tree falling in a forest, this noiseless one had been heard around the world.

May there never be one like it again.

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