Odds-on favourite

Owen Thomson  discovers the thrill of the race and fashions off the field at an annual country meet.

The Albury Gold Cup might not be a race that stops the nation but it does manage to bring an entire town to a halt - for half a day, at least.

Regarded by many as regional Australia's greatest annual race day, it's fair to say you'd travel a long way to find a more enticing drawcard for equine aficionados, fashionistas and party lovers.

Half an hour before the first race, I decide there's just enough time to peruse the four-legged talent circling the mounting enclosure, locate the proximity of the nearest bar and regret not having worn a smarter suit. What I know about the sport of kings can be written on the back of a postage stamp in large letters but I'm determined to embrace the occasion like a veteran.

I make my way to the betting ring and scan the line of bookies roasting in the heat. Somehow reminiscent of overgrown schoolboys, they stand resolutely with worn leather track bags over their shoulders, their names embossed in large gold letters on the sides. I pick the friendliest-looking one and do my best to sound like a shrewd operator.

''Five dollars each way on Green Falcon,'' I say with studied nonchalance.

''No worries, that'll be $10,'' says my bookie.

''Oh, right, but I've only got five,'' I respond. Clearly, I have no idea of the basics of betting.

With my betting ticket subsequently altered to accommodate my paltry budget, I'm confident that a financial windfall is just around the corner. After all, if a horse's impressive-sounding name isn't an accurate guide to form, what is?

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''Maybe I'll be seeing you after the race,'' the seasoned moneyman offers as I walk away.

I find a spot to stand near the finishing post, as horses and jockeys form up in the starting gate on the far side of the track. Beyond, a light haze of smoke from a controlled bush burn shrouds the mustard-coloured hills that line the horizon.

At the appointed hour the 11 starters burst from the gates and the caller frantically describes proceedings from the corrugated iron commentary box atop the grandstand. The field rounds the bend and bolts down the main stretch, the rumble of hooves growing in intensity as the horses draw closer. The crowd cheers wildly as they cross the line tightly bunched. The top three is settled. For some reason, Green Falcon isn't among them.

Overheated by excitement and the disappointment of financial loss, I make my way to the bar, settle with a cold beer against a conveniently positioned gum tree and watch the cavalcade of passersby. Champagne-sipping women flutter about in designer dresses and party favourites, their intricately designed hats perhaps configured in the hope of inclusion in a modern-art exhibition. Their men wear suits, ties, trilbies and expensive leather shoes.

I amuse myself by guessing their back stories. For instance, I imagine a certain large gentleman with mullet and bright red shirt is a used-car dealer. The men in black, meanwhile, might be underworld types. Or real estate agents. Among the sensationally made-up women, I'm sure I spot a desperate housewife, a millionaire socialite and a jockey's squeeze.

Undeterred by my earlier bad luck, I pluck up the resolve of a true punter and head back to the betting ring. Using the same flawless methodology of race one, I place my hopes on the enticingly named Prussian Dancer. If it wins, I'll pick up $77.50. But it finishes well back in the field. Likewise my next punt - Back to Zero in the fifth. Resolving to quit while I'm behind, I put away my wallet and opt for the much cheaper option of soaking up the atmosphere instead.

The afternoon of cup day is an official Albury public holiday, so it's no surprise that the crowd seems to grow as the afternoon stretches on. Proceedings take on a party-like tempo; the balance of priorities for the now 20,000-strong crowd seemingly shifts to one part horse race, nine parts B&S Ball.

Oblivious to all but themselves, twentysomething women gather in small groups taking photos of themselves for Facebook pages; others exhibit the classic signs of over-indulgence. Closer to the track, models in award-winning fashions pose for more photos. Somewhere nearby there's a serious horse race in progress. Many don't seem to notice.

I grab another cold one, find a spot of shade and evaluate the day's events. I'm $15 in the red, I have a clutch of useless betting tickets sticking out of my top pocket and I'm suffering from what I suspect is a mild case of sunstroke. Even that can't dampen my enthusiasm.

As I'd suspected, the Albury Gold Cup Carnival is abut more than just horse racing. It's a celebration of country life and rural camaraderie, an excuse to look your best and a chance to back a winner while forgetting about problems such as drought and climate change for a few hours. Dare I say it, not to jump on the back of such an opportunity would be akin to looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Owen Thomson travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Albury is about seven hours' drive from Sydney. Virgin Blue has two direct flights daily from Sydney from $59 one way. Rex flies from $88 one way. The Albury Gold Cup is held on the last Friday of March. Next year's carnival is on March 24-25.

Cup history

The Albury Racing Club's inaugural Albury Gold Cup was run on March 31-April 1, 1881.

A purse of £400 was allotted for the meeting, with the initial race won by a brown mare named Marama.

In 1924, the cup meeting carried prizemoney of $6000, making it the richest racing event in Australia outside the capital cities.

Records indicate that the most prestigious Albury Gold Cup was held in 1926, when it was attended by the then Australian governor-general, Lord Stonehaven.

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