Australia’s Melbourne Cup has long been known as the race that stops a nation. However, research shows that the country’s citizens have divergent views on key issues around the 3200m race at Flemington.
The race, first run in 1861, has become a prominent part of Australian national culture. It is listed with barbecues, football and Anzac Day as a core cultural symbol of Australian identity.
It is also a significant event on the global racing calendar, comparable to the Grand National, Kentucky Derby and the Japan Cup.
In the modern era, it regularly attracts crowds of more than 100,000.
The event contributes an estimated $A350 million to the Victorian state economy. Betting of more than $A105 million on this single race has been recorded, and global television audiences have been estimated at more than 1 billion.
Since the 1960s, the Melbourne Cup has also become intimately associated with fashion and celebrity culture, creating another face of horse-racing with which the public can engage.
Researchers, in a just-published study, note that despite its economic and social benefits, Thoroughbred racing in general, and the Melbourne Cup day in particular, potentially carry significant welfare costs to both horses and people.
In addition to the high-profile deaths of Melbourne Cup runners on track or shortly after (seven horses since 2013), Thoroughbred racing has been in the spotlight over injuries, widespread wastage (horses exiting racing) and other welfare concerns, including increasing public distaste for the use of equipment such as whips and tongue-ties.
Additionally, problem gambling is a widespread financial and mental health issue among Australians.
“These concerns can have significant implications for the Thoroughbred racing industry’s social license to operate,” researchers Bethany Wilson, Kirrilly Thompson and Paul McGreevy observed in their paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.
“Horse racing has been increasingly controversial in Australia over the past decades, mostly in relation to whip use and injury and fatality rates in jumps racing.
“The ethical use of horses demands that we consider the welfare impact that horse-racing has on horses despite the economic and social benefits of horse-racing. The Melbourne Cup, despite (or perhaps because of) its status as a cultural icon, is no exception.”
The trio noted that little is known about how support for or against the Melbourne Cup correlates with age, gender, income, and level of education.
The researchers set out in their study to identify clusters of people with particular views, to provide a more nuanced understanding of attitudes towards the Cup beyond the rudimentary categories of those for or against gambling and horse racing.
The researchers analysed the results of an online survey completed by 1028 respondents, of whom 526 were female and 502 male. Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with six statements about the Melbourne Cup, gambling and horse racing:
- I regularly bet on horse races;
- I rarely bet on horse races but will be watching the Melbourne Cup and placing a bet;
- I will watch the Melbourne Cup but will not place a bet;
- I have never been interested in the Melbourne Cup;
- I have become less interested in the Melbourne Cup over recent years because of my concerns with gambling;
- I have become less interested in the Melbourne Cup because of my concerns about animal cruelty.
The questions were asked as part of a broader range of questions on a variety of topics. Information was also collected on respondents’ gender, age, place of residence, weekly income, employment status, and highest level of education.
The authors found the respondents clustered into six different groupings:
Devotees. This cluster included 313 (30.4%) respondents. These people did not report regular gambling on horse races (99.7% disagree or strongly disagree with “I regularly bet on horses”). Nevertheless, they showed very high interest in the Melbourne Cup and many planned to bet on it. Very few of this group reported reduced interest in the Cup due to gambling or welfare concerns and nearly all disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “I have become less interested in the Melbourne Cup over recent years because of my concerns about animal cruelty.” Women were over-represented among Devotees.
Flaneurs. (A flaneur is a person who strolls around observing.) This cluster included 224 (21.8%) respondents. Flaneurs did not report high rates of regular gambling on horse races (82.6% disagreed or strongly disagreed with “I regularly bet on horses”) and they reported relatively low intentions of watching the Melbourne Cup and placing a bet. They showed relatively low interest in the Melbourne Cup. Few agreed or strongly agreed to having reduced interest in the Melbourne Cup due to concerns about gambling, but more reported reduced interest due to animal welfare concerns (17.9%). Neither women nor men were significantly over-represented but respondents in this cluster were younger than Devotees.
Disapprovers. This cluster included 163 (15.9%) respondents. Disapprovers did not report regular gambling on horse races. Less than a quarter of this group were planning to watch the Cup. Neither women nor men were significantly over-represented but respondents in this cluster were younger than Devotees. Some Disapprovers revealed views suggesting they had turned away from racing. They reported the greatest loss of interest in the Melbourne Cup due to moral and ethical concerns; 89.0% reported lessened interest due to concerns with gambling, and 74.2% due to concerns with animal cruelty. A reasonable number of respondents in this cluster revealed dissenting views, as 35.6% disagreed or strongly disagreed that they have never been interested in the Melbourne Cup.
Casuals. This cluster included 148 (14.4%) respondents. Like the Devotees, these respondents did not report regular gamblers on horse races. Nonetheless, they did show high interest in the Melbourne Cup, but they do not generally plan to bet on it. About a third of them reported reduced interest in the Cup due to concerns about animal welfare (33.8%) and slightly fewer due to concerns about gambling (31.1%). This cluster was not significantly older or younger than the Devotees and neither women nor men were overrepresented.
Gamblers. This cluster included 126 (12.3%) respondents. Gamblers tended to report high levels of betting on horses in general. They showed high interest in the Melbourne Cup. Few reported less interest in the Melbourne Cup due to concerns with gambling. A little over a fifth reported less interest in the Melbourne Cup due to animal welfare concerns. Men were over-represented among Gamblers and were younger than the Devotees.
Paradoxical-voters. This cluster included 54 (5.3%) respondents. Paradoxical-voters provided contradictory responses throughout the survey, with most agreeing or strongly agreeing with all six statements, despite the contradictions of doing so. Paradoxical-voters were overrepresented by males and were younger than Devotees.
The authors found some significant associations.
“Our results revealed that men showed more agreement with Statement 1 (“I regularly bet on horse races”), thus identifying themselves as regular gamblers on horse-races. In fact, 76% of those who agreed and strongly agreed with this statement were male.
“However, there was no association between gender and Statement 2, with 35.6% female respondents, and a similar 38.2% of male respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing, that despite not regularly gambling on horse-racing, they intended to watch the Melbourne Cup and place a bet.
“These findings suggest that betting behavior around Australia’s most iconic horse race is atypical from racehorse gambling behavior throughout the year and that the novelty of betting on the Melbourne Cup is salient to men and women alike.”
Some gender-related differences were identified in relation to a reported loss of interest in the Melbourne Cup because of concerns around animal cruelty, which was higher amongst female respondents.
“This is consistent with a general trend that women tend to show more concern for animal welfare than men, although across research on this subject there appears to be more variation within than between gender categories.”
There were some indications in the study that interest in the Melbourne Cup was stronger for older age brackets.
“Younger people were more likely to indicate that they had never been interested in the Melbourne Cup, and the Disapprover and the Flaneur clusters were both significantly younger than Devotees.”
The researchers said the Melbourne Cup may be Australia’s most iconic horse race, but it is also one of the most contentious events in Australia’s public arena.
Devotees and Gamblers were the most enthusiastic gamblers on the Melbourne Cup, but at only 43%, they were outweighed by the disinterested Flaneurs, Disapprovers and Casuals, who were unlikely to place a bet, the trio noted.
“Still, the novelty of the Melbourne Cup seemed to inspire 31% of those who would not identify as gamblers to place a bet.
“If the future of Australia’s Melbourne Cup horse race is dependent on the support of punters, findings suggest that whilst support seems solid, it may also be noncommittal and vulnerable to change.
“Indeed, this vulnerability could account for the 2019 Melbourne Cup experiencing a 24-year record low in attendance following the airing of a damning television documentary about the industry’s inability to track levels of ‘wastage’ or ensure animal welfare standards in abattoirs and slaughter houses.
“As this study is based on data collected prior to the documentary, findings provide a foundation for future comparative research into the strength of punter commitment, vulnerability to negative press and the implications for the social license to race and gamble on horses.”
Wilson and McGreevy are with the University of Sydney; Thompson is with the University of South Australia Business School.
Wilson BJ, Thompson KR, McGreevy PD (2021) The race that segments a nation: Findings from a convenience poll of attitudes toward the Melbourne Cup Thoroughbred horse race, gambling and animal cruelty. PLoS ONE 16(3): e0248945. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0248945