Going to the pub to watch the Melbourne Cup this year didn’t quite feel the same as previous years. Covid restrictions or not, there wasn’t the same buzz about the ‘Race that Stops the Nation’ as there was before. Is this a general trend or was I simply in the wrong pub?

As I started looking into this, I noticed several articles already published shortly after the race asking a similar question I was, or flat out saying ‘Nup to the Cup’. But is this the general trend? Is the Melbourne Cup slowly on its way out? Or is just wounded from the pandemic?

What I found was that there are a variety of changing attitudes to not just horse racing and the issues related to animal welfare, but to gambling in general as well.

The Changing Attitudes Towards Gambling

We’re a nation of gamblers. We’re so shocking with it that we lose more money on gambling than any other nation in the world. Don’t believe me? The New York Times reported that per capita, our losses to gambling are more than double the U.S’s.

This is changing though. Research led by Nerilee Hing at CQUniversity, has shown that gambling participation is in fact dropping. The report showed that 56.9% of those surveyed had gambled in the last 12 months. Pretty high, right? Yes, but it was at 64.3% in the preceding decade.

Race betting especially has dropped, from 22.4% to 16.8%.

The ABC asked their readers what they thought of the Melbourne Cup in a fascinating article. There were several concerns about the glorification of gambling.

Natasha from NSW said, “It worries me how much a day of gambling is celebrated and revered.”

Hanna from NSW took it further saying, “It’s absolutely disgraceful. This gambling culture is so normalised that even preschools arrange activities on Melbourne Cup day to “engage the children”. It’s no wonder Australia has some of the the highest gambling statistics in the world when we start indoctrinating the kids from such a young age. Then, when parents do not agree and want to protect their children from this industry we are labelled “un-Australian” and kill-joys. It’s an embarrassment.”

So that’s it then? The Melbourne Cup is on its way out because no one is gambling anymore? Not quite.

Despite participation dropping, race betting turnover is continuing to rise. In 2010-11, turnover was at $22.9 billion, by 2018-19, it was $26.9 billion (adjusted for inflation).

In part, this is because of online betting is making it so much easier to access the races but it seems that casual gamblers are simply not engaging like they used to.

Dr. Alex Russell of CQUniversity stated that, “The people who are still betting are betting a tonne. A lot of that is driven by more and more online gambling – it doubled in the past decade.”

People are realising that gambling is not a harmless past time. As Dr. Russell continued, “We’re just seeing more and more people saying ‘I bloody hate gambling’, or ‘I’m sick of all the ads’. The other thing about the Melbourne Cup and horse racing is it comes with the animal cruelty issue.”

The Animal Cruelty Issue

This has become a big talking point that rears its head every year at Melbourne Cup time. ABC readers against the race often cited these issues related to animal crulety as being the main reason for disliking the race.

Suzanne from WA said, “think the Melbourne Cup is just another example of gambling and entertainment based on the exploitation of and cruelty to animals.”

Justin from QLD said, “[It’s] terrible and cruel. I’m 68 and not a veggie eating leftie.”

These were some people who were already adamant against the race, but many others have stated that they were into the race but have since changed their minds.

Linda from WA said, “My grandfather owned and trained racehorses. I used to think it was ‘the sport of kings’. Not anymore. The focus on being ‘the one’ to win the Cup at any cost has seen too many beautiful animals harmed. It makes me feel sick that animal have suffered and died to appease a bunch of drunks some pleasure.”

David from Victoria summed it up quite well, “I am so conflicted. I love horse racing and horses are beautiful animals. The fun and frivolity of dressing up, placing a bet and spending time with friends bonding over the race is incomparable to any other public holiday in Melbourne. And yet, horses are dying every year. What is the cost of our entertainment? So very conflicted.”

These people have a right to feel conflicted too. Seven horses have died on Melbourne Cup Day since 2013. A 2019 report examined stewards’ documents from August 2018 to July 2019, and they found that 122 horses had died on race tracks in Australia.

Racing Victoria have announced that they have implemented new measures to reduce risk to horses. Most of these seem to affect the Melbourne Cup particularly. But this doesn’t help any horses elsewhere in Australia.

Is Viewership Dropping as a Result?

2003 was a high point for the Melbourne Cup with 122,736 attending the track. During the early 2010s, the numbers hovered around 100,000. They took a dive in 2018 with 83,471 and it dropped further in 2019 with 81,408.

We can’t really measure it this year the same way because there was a 10,000-person cap on attendance.

The Age reported that in 2020, 1.86 million people watched the race on TV. It was 1.91 million in 2019. However, the lower numbers, according to Ten, were a result of more people live streaming the event. Ten claims that 144,000 people used live streaming to watch the race in 2020.

However, as you can see from the graph below, the trend is clear.

So if you were thinking that the Melbourne Cup was a little quieter this year, you might be right

What do you think? Should the Melbourne Cup stick around with some of the rules changed to ensure safety of the horses or should it be scrapped completely? Do we gamble too much and is this just another way of glorifying it?