Off and racing

Author: Michael Harden
Photography: Julian Kingma

If there was ever any question about whether Melbourne likes to party, witnessing Melbourne Cup Day at Flemington offers the definitive answer. Across the entire racecourse, the dial is set firmly on hedonistic good times, from the tightly packed public areas where drinks come in plastic cups and there's the carnival smell of chips and sauce wafting on the breeze, to the rarefied alternative universe that is the celebrity-packed Birdcage enclosure, where white-gloved marquee staff pour an unceasing flow of Champagne.

And as a constant stream of helicopters take off and land in the background and you marvel at the lavishness of the catering, the height of the heels and the world-class horse flesh pounding around the race track followed by the roar of the crowd, it's impossible not to get swept up in the good-natured exuberance of this 100,000-strong party.

They've been turning up to this Flemington festival for 151 years and Cup Day has been a public holiday in Melbourne since 1877. And it's the celebrations and outfits that surround the horse race - which can get lost in the bubbles and feathers - that have established the day as one of the country's major social events.

There's one particular piece of real estate at Flemington that has turbo-charged the food-and-fashion credentials of the Spring Racing Carnival - the lavishly catered, celebrity-riddled exclusive area that is the Birdcage.

Strolling around the streets of this enclave filled with luxurious, often multi-storied tents brimming with famous and familiar faces is truly like entering another dimension, a very privileged one. You might find yourself chatting to cyclist Cadel Evans or Adrian Grenier (of the television series Entourage), Champagne and caviar are bountiful, the spray tans are impossibly even and the entertainment extends to opera singers, pop stars, acrobats, dancers, you name it. Did I really just see Spandau Ballet's Tony Hadley leading a singalong of "Gold" in the Lavazza marquee? And who was that woman in the white leotard dangling by red ribbons from the ceiling of the G.H. Mumm Champagne marquee?

For the corporate hosts behind the 35 marquees in the Birdcage, the outlay is sizeable, with some of the more extravagant spending anywhere up to $1000 a head to entertain their guests. So what's in it for them?

Lavazza business manager Trent Knox says it's "about spreading the passion for an Italian way of life, but also a way to say thank you to our customers for all their support over the year. It's also a really good excuse to let your hair down and have a good time."

This year was Lavazza's ninth in the Birdcage and it has built up a reputation as being one of the more boisterous party tents in the village. The presence of Hadley, Grenier (whose attendance caused the place to be mobbed), a constant dance soundtrack, and a roped-off waiting area only added to the nightclub vibe, which was very much part of the Lavazza plan.

The white marquee with its stage, DJ booth, VIP area (yes, within the marquee) and illuminated bar with back-lit shelves full of wine bottles in the colours of the Italian flag certainly looked the part. Vodka and espresso cocktails in test tubes and a central table laden with antipasti fuelled party goers.

Guy Grossi, who prepared the food, has worked with Lavazza in the past and understands the very specific brief that is catering for a race day marquee. "You have to watch how the day flows," he says. "You start with light elegant things and as the day builds and people have drunk a little more Champagne you start bringing out more substantial snacks such as tortellini. There is always food on the antipasto table so people can eat on demand. People are not here for fine dining, but you still want to make things interesting and fun to eat."

Over in the Emirates marquee, the mood was less exuberant but more extravagant. The space, modelled on the Catherine Palace in St Petersburg, was filled with ornate furniture and massive chandeliers. Waiters dressed as Cossacks handed around trays of blini topped with oscietra caviar and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra's string quartet played in the background. At the centre of the room was an enormous blue Fabergé egg sparkling with 800 glass-cut diamantes, and guests included Russian royalty in the form of Nicoletta Romanoff. A series of double glass doors led to an enormous balcony with great views of the track and the city beyond. As sponsor of the Melbourne Cup - having been a sponsor of the Spring Racing Carnival for the past 14 years - Emirates has earned its Birdcage prime real estate.

When the Melbourne Cup ran just after 3pm, the celebrity quota in the G.H. Mumm marquee crowd cheering on Dunaden was off the scale. And when the French horse came away with a win, the NV pour gave way to the 1999 Cuvée R. Lalou, which sells for about $400 a bottle.

Ministry of Sound DJ Anna Lunoe spun relaxed house music in the red-sashed, red-mirrored and Astro-Turfed G.H. Mumm marquee, while Guillaume Brahimi was in charge of the food, and hands-on during the Carnival. "There has to be enough food for 140 people at all times," he says. His menu started with smoked salmon brioche, steamed Crystal Bay prawns and lobster sandwiches, and then moved to more substantial fare such as a brilliant sticky-tender wagyu beef daube with mashed potatoes and, spot-on for the late-afternoon revellers, fried salt and pepper prawns and mini croque-monsieur. Little wonder that the G.H. Mumm tent had a constant happy hum all day.

You could, as has often been suggested, spend all day at the Birdcage on Melbourne Cup Day and never make a bet, check out the odds, or concern yourself with horses at all. But the running of the Melbourne Cup itself caused a hush to fall over the crowd and every head to turn towards the track (or at least towards a flat-screen television showing the track). Merely seconds after the winner had been announced, the Birdcage party cranked up to even greater levels than before the race, for this crowd knows - as does the rest of the country - that the Melbourne Cup is as much about the celebration as it is the race. It's also the time when Melburnians prove that, yes, they know how to party.

Lavazza marquee

The décor Bright monochrome fit-out, mirrored antipasti bar, massive wine-glass chandelier.
The food Veal and porcini mushroom tortellini, ricotta-filled zucchini flowers, blue swimmer crab meat with chilli, lemon and Italian flatbread.
The drinks Espresso cocktails.
The people Guy Grossi, Tony Hadley, Adrian Grenier, Stephen Curry, Jane Hall, Maria Venuti.
The scene Exuberant party feel, busy, bustling, Spandau Ballet live, Hollywood star in the house.

G.H. Mumm marquee

The décor Understated French glamour inspired by the G.H. Mumm signature red sash. Chic and fun.
The food Jamón Ibérico with sourdough and truffle butter, wagyu beef daube with Paris mash, lobster sandwich with chermoula and eggplant caviar.
The drinks NV G.H. Mumm Cordon Rouge, 1999 G.H. Mumm Cuvée R. Lalou.
The people Xavier Samuel (Twilight star), Neil Perry, Matt Moran, Kate Waterhouse, Erica Packer, Lillian Frank.
The scene Low-key and elegant, sophisticated, friendly; a DJ playing laid-back tunes.

Emirates marquee

The décor St Petersburg's Catherine Palace reborn. Ornate, moneyed, lavish.
The food Oscietra caviar and buckwheat blini, salmon coulibiac, beef stroganoff, white chocolate pashka with warm kulich and black elderberry syrup.
The drinks NV G.H. Mumm Cordon Rouge, Moscow Mule, Cossack Iced Tea.
The people Nicoletta Romanoff (Russian royal), Eddie and Carla McGuire, Martin Sacks, Ted and Robyn Baillieu, Ricki-Lee Coulter, Sonia Kruger.
The scene Rarefied Russian glamour.

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