Ghostly Cup a reminder of Melbourne’s 2020

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The polite clapping as the gates crashed back, the whirring of the overhead chopper which gradually drowned out the clicking of whips on flesh and thundering of hooves as the field charged towards the post. This was the soundtrack of a Melbourne Cup like no other.

Instead of being welcomed back by a cacophony of cheers from hoards of revellers deep into their own staying test, jockey Jye McNeil and his newly crowned Cup champion Twilight Payment were greeted by whoops from ground staff dutifully waiting for the track to clear to thump the clods back into the turf.

The story of the Cup was befitting of a year in which not much has made sense. The people's race, run before a locked-out crowd due to a pandemic and won by an Irish stayer owned by an Australian tycoon, Lloyd Williams, who tasted victory for the seventh time.

At a time when the Australian border is closed, three international raiders ran the trifecta in the nation's great race, the Irish winner holding off compatriot Tiger Moth and English stayer Prince Of Arran. The first locally-bred runner home was Persan, which broke its maiden in May at Bendigo.

Melbourne's 111-day lockdown officially ended last week but the ghostly atmosphere inside the fabled track was a reminder of the struggles this city has endured. This could have been any Tuesday of the year, not the first in November.

Only a few hundred metres up the road from the top of Flemington's famous straight are several of the public housing towers where months earlier residents were subjected to the most stringent stay-at-home orders in Melbourne's second wave.

The wall of noise that accompanies the day like Cup sweeps and long lunches was replaced by near silence, broken by the gusty northerly, sending the mercury above 30 for the first time since lockdown 1.0 in March.

The whiff of summer would have been another reason to party but the car parks, jam packed with revellers any other year, were used for purpose – racegoers forced instead to mark the day with socially distanced barbecues and pub lunches.

The stands and the betting ring were empty, so too the vast expanses of lawn. The "Happy Cup Week" wishes on the advertising boards were clearly for another audience.

The park overlooking the back straight, where dozens of punters had set up on picnic rugs, was as close as any would get in 2020.

That the Cup was still run at its spiritual home left a "bitter sweet" feeling for VRC chairman Amanda Elliott, in a year where another of the city's iconic events, the AFL grand final, was lost interstate. And McNeil?

"I'm not worried about the [empty] grandstand at all," McNeil said.

This was a race which would have both thrilled and outraged the masses. Sadly, triumph again met tragedy. Irish stayer Anthony Van Dyck, also trained by Aidan O'Brien, became the seventh horse since 2013 to die from injuries sustained in the race.

The winner led from basically go to whoa, setting a furious tempo which had the field so widely strung out the chief health officer would have had few complaints.

As others became jelly legged, Twilight Payment stayed strong, clocking the fourth-fastest time in the race's 160-year history.

It was Irish trainer Joseph O'Brien's second win in the race, the son again bettering the father, master horseman Aidan, whose Tiger Moth ran second, continuing his long wait to take home the three-handled loving cup.

After Makybe Diva won her third Melbourne Cup, Lee Freedman famously said the smallest child on course would be the only person to live long enough to see the feat repeated. In the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic, the sentiment remains.

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