I headed off to Derby Day with a very clear goal: To take the most garish Spring Racing hat I could get my hands on, and trade up to a horse. Or something equally baller—like getting a helicopter ride home from the members' area, or doing a line off the saddle of Gai Waterhouse's finest stallion.
See, my editor wanted the Spring Racing Carnival version of the iconic "I Bummed a Cigarette at a Festival and Traded Up to Coke." How naïve he was. How naïve I was—to think I could hot glue gun some plastic flowers and ponies onto a cheap hat, and trade it for anything good. Because the races aren't anything like a music festival. There is no goodwill, no shared experience.
There is only grass churned up by high heels, sweat-stained Jack London suits, and a relentless, brutal hunt for cocaine. This is the The Race That Stops the Nation™ (even when it's not a public holiday in your state). Oh wait, that's the Melbourne Cup.
Anyway, I was always destined to fail, and here's why:
I feel like this photo sums up pretty well what it was like to walk into Derby Day. These people corralled my photographer friend and asked for a photo of themselves. The woman knelt down and pretended to give her friends head, and the guy started unzipping his pants. That was their first instinct. People were feral. I doubt they remember this photo.
The other thing I noticed straight away was that there were way more men than women. Although that could've been some sort of optical illusion, because I think I just saw and met the exact same man over and over again. All their names were Mick, they were all white, and all looked around the age of 26. Or maybe 18. I don't know. They really did look the same to me.
The first Mick I met was actually named and he was there on his bucks party. His friends had dressed him up in denim overalls, a Hawaiian shirt, and an awful straw hat. They seemed keen on my homemade pony hat, and even talked about swapping quarter a baggie of cocaine for it. But then they lost interest and changed their minds.
The groom-to-be swapped me my full lighter for four cigarettes. Menthol too. Who the fuck smokes menthol? One of the buck's friends asked me "what else?" I was trading in a very gonorrhoea-y way.
I soon met another group of guys (not to brag—it was genuinely like shooting fish in a barrel). One of them, Pat, had heard of VICE and kept asking me if I was making a documentary for VICE. I explained that I was writing an article. He swapped a menthol ciggie for a three-quarters-full can of pre-mixed Jim Beam and cola. He had a very pretty face and a nose ring and very neat hair. I guess he was the most "alternative" out of his group.
Eventually, the Jim Beam can got warm so I sipped some of it, gagged, and threw it out. Gross.
I met a woman who wanted to try on the hat, but she didn't have anything to trade. At the races, it seems, people are carrying fuck all. All they've brought is their wallet, phone, and that's it.
Security was everywhere, but they didn't seem to care about anyone bringing in drugs. Apparently, no one had any anyway. Heaps of guys were talking about trying to find cocaine, but not one person seemed to have any. They still had a real "coked up" vibe, even without it. Apart from pretty-faced-Pat, most people took great pleasure in telling me they had no idea what VICE was, and that they thought I'd just made up the name of some shitty blog.
I met a guy called Louie and his friends. Louie was keen on the hat and was willing to trade an "It's lit!" enamel pin for it.
I actually felt quite sad handing over my prized piece of craft for a pin. But all's fair in the game of Spring Swapsies. Louie and his friends invited me to a house party after the races and I wrote my number down on one of their hands.
Maybe the biggest surprise about people at the races was just how… normal they were. It's reductionist, I know, but I'd always assumed that the people who go to the races are rich (the same way that I assume anything who goes skiing is also rich.) There were a lot of teachers, and nurses, and one man who told me he was a journalist for Fairfax.
The bougiest people there all seemed to be from overseas: like the pair of Irish backpackers, who scoffed when asked if they'd done any farm work in their time in Australia. Like, I've done farm work. It's a weird job but it's not something to be scoffed at. Then there were the two French guys in blue suits who both had little pins of a special horse each in their lapels. They didn't know which horses they were, they weren't ever planning on wearing the pins again. But neither of them wanted to do a swap with the pins because they were expensive.
Eventually, I met Brindie who was a sunburnt midwife and she wanted to give me a $20 note for the "It's lit!" pin. Which, to be fair, is actually just a transaction rather than a swap. Her friends got suspicious of what I was doing and were annoyed at her for swapping 20 bucks.
I was getting desperate for something big. Time was running out. And despite the fact it seemed like each person had their own bottle of sparkling wine, people weren't as smashed as I thought they'd be. I was seeing reflected back at me the desperation of the people that I was feeling.
The race finished and everyone moved to some shithole called the Park. A tall ginger man named Ben swapped eight hangover tablets for my number, and also some saliva. My saliva, because I made out with him for a bit, but my friend was weeing at the time and didn't get a photo of me snogging on.
Some ladies with Myer shopping bags, named Amanda and Helena, gave me a red Mumm champagne cup. They paid a lot of money for a bottle of Mumm champagne, and the cup came free with the bottle. Out of everyone I met, Amanda and Helena had the look, the names, and the champagne of the people I'd expected to meet at the races.
Another tall man was going to give me a "cheeky bump" in exchange for the cup, hangover tablets, and the $20 bucks. But when I mentioned I won't photograph the exchange he started yelling "No photos! No photos!" and walked off, super pissed.
By 4 PM, things were getting quiet, and weird. Maybe Spring Racing is just super weird. It seems like everyone is horny, but no-one's getting laid. Everyone wants cocaine, but no one has any. I settled for some lone drunk guy called Steve, who swapped the $20 for an empty cigarette tin.
Finally, I met Mick. He was super smashed and wandering around looking lost. He was happy to swap a gross white fedora for a ciggie. His fiancé was yelling at him from about 30 meters away. "Are you coming? Come on!" He was waving at her to calm down, so she walked up to us super angry, threw their hotel swipe card at him and yelled, "Well fuck you, Mick. Get your own way home."
And then, I was alone. Everyone had gone.
So I went and stood with my true people: piles of garbage.
Most of the people who I chatted to were friendly. Although they weren't really too keen on any kind of trading system. I got a fairly suspicious vibe from a lot of people, and no one was willing to join in on my quest to get a horse.
The men that I'd given my number to earlier in the day called me and re-invited me to some house party. "Well are you coming? If you come you gotta bring some alcohol. Bring beer. AND BRING COCAINE!" And hung-up immediately. Oh god, he was probably under age.
What was I doing there? Why was anyone else there? Why was I compelled to be among the trash? What was the point of the Spring Races? Because it so clearly had nothing to do with the horses themselves.
I wish we just did the Olympic Flame run around Australia every year with bets being placed on how long it takes. The Spring Cup has nothing to do with horses, it doesn't have anything to do with anything really at all. It's an exercise in frustration. No sex, no drugs, no wild money shot of me on a horse. Just bags and bags of garbage.