At this time of year, horse racing traditionally makes an abrupt transition from industry to sport as thousands of partygoers who don’t know which end of a thoroughbred uses the feed bag head to the track.
This distinction might not please those hard-core racing enthusiasts who attend those sparsely populated winter meetings where social distancing was in vogue long before COVID-19.
But if racing is some people’s sport of choice, it is also an industry that employs more than 80,000 people and which was granted exemptions that allowed tracks to stay open.
This prompted some murmurings of discontent back in March as other sports and events went into hiatus. The most sceptical wondered if government reliance on betting revenue had swayed decision making.
When it was reported a significant proportion of savings withdrawn from superannuation accounts under special COVID-19 regulations had been used for gambling, those whose only punt floats down a river were further emboldened in their condemnation.
As for the racing itself, the sight of horses plodding along in the fifth at Murtoa on a Thursday afternoon — or even at the most God-forsaken mid-winter city meetings — with only the trainers and strappers cheering from the sidelines was hardly astonishing.
Out-of-season racing was better equipped to handle the absence of crowds than any other sporting event other than the Sheffield Shield.
Indeed, there have been regular discussions about holding meetings in closed tracks purely for the benefit of off-course punters.
Significantly, racing has also kept up its end of its bargain with obliging governments. A handful of positive tests from stablehands have caused temporary shutdowns and fears of wider disruption, while border closures challenged logistics.
But, against the odds, racing at least publicly seems to have applied the same rigorous regulatory standards needed to maintain integrity in imposing its COVID-19 protocols and, in turn, kept its vast workforce active and employed.
Now spring has sprung, crowd restrictions at racecourses are mostly being maintained and it seems likely most of the fascinators and fancy footwear that appears at this time of year will stay in the wardrobe.
Enter Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Pugnacious Pete V’landys, this time in the guise of his alter-ego Punter Pete.
As chief executive of Racing NSW, V’landys has applied for an exemption that would allow a crowd of up to 15,000 to attend Randwick (the current limit is 6,500) for The Everest, the mega-race that has been the key plank in Punter Pete’s cunning plan to cast a shadow the size of the Himalayan peak over Melbourne’s spring carnival.
Last year, 40,912 people watched Yes, Yes, Yes win The Everest, the winner’s name highly appropriate given the orgasmic response of the Sydney media to the event’s success — and, as much, how the Randwick throng eclipsed the Caulfield Cup crowd of 28,000 on the same day.
There is notionally a COVID-19 armistice in the Sydney-Melbourne racing battle given there will be no crowds at Caulfield which, like The Everest, will be held on October 17 — the day before it is hoped Victoria’s strict COVID-19 lockdown restrictions are eased.
But if Punter Pete can get 15,000 socially distanced partygoers into Randwick for his $14 million spring disruption while the Caulfield Cup is run at an empty track, you can expect a few more shots to be fired in the predictable and somewhat tiresome cross-border racing battle.
A crowd-free Caulfield Cup might at least provide an indication of how greatly Melbourne’s spring carnival has depended on the partying on the lawns and in the corporate marquees, as much as the races themselves, to maintain its broader appeal.
Beyond that, the Moonee Valley Racing Club and the Victoria Racing Club are hopeful the likely easing of coronavirus restrictions will allow at least some racegoers to attend their major meetings, the Cox Plate and the four-day Melbourne Cup carnival.
The Cox Plate, however, might suffer more than any other meeting from the other coronavirus-related factor challenging the spring carnival — the unusual imposition of football finals in the October timeslots racing usually has to itself.
Scheduling a first night-time AFL grand final on October 24 will ensure the Cox Plate does not go head-to-head with the match.
But the lead-up to a race that usually shines a light on Australia’s great weight for age champions, be it Kingston Town or Winx, will be vastly overshadowed by the footy.
The VRC is hopeful that if COVID-19 restrictions are eased, up to 15,000 people will be able to attend the Melbourne Cup, an event that relies like few others on huge crowds to underline the significance of a humble two-mile handicap as “the people’s race”.
As likely, the Virus That Stopped the Nation will apply the same test various football codes have about our emotional investment in games played in empty stadiums: Does a sporting event have the same significance when it doesn’t create a (non-computer generated) sound?
Empty marquees might also tax the creativity of new Melbourne Cup rights-holders Network Ten if their starry-eyed hosts can’t pose that eternal race day question: “Who are you wearing?”
Although this spring, there is potentially an even more welcome consequence of major race meetings that are not dominated by C-list celebrities, drunks in Teletubbies costumes rolling around on the lawns and the chest-beating of entitled officials on either side of the Murray.
Perhaps, for once, we’ll fully appreciate the real stars of the show — the horses.