Australia is, for better or worse, a nation of gamblers. In the gambling calendar, there is no bigger event than the Melbourne Cup.
Each year, millions are wagered by Aussies hoping to cash in on the historic race at Flemington, with long lunches and public holidays galore across the country. ‘Sick days’ spike by 25% across the country the following day as 1.2 million people tune in.
Our infatuation with ‘the race that stops the nation’ has however been declining since at least 2015. Attendance at the track has been dropping over the past seven years since it topped 100,000 in 2015. Even before the COVID pandemic put a pause on crowds, just 81,408 people bought tickets in 2019. Viewership is also significantly down, although this could be chalked up to the rise of streaming.
Once associated with all-Aussie sportsmanship, the Cup has come to symbolise a certain type of Australia — the wealthy and white. Increasingly, its become associated with problem gambling, animal abuse, and inequality.
In 2019, celebrities began pulling their support for the race following widespread coverage of the ill-treatment of horses. Recent research, commissioned by the Greens, has found that 54% of Australians thought horses shouldn’t be raced for gambling purposes, and 59% thought that the practice was cruel.
Still, the money continues to roll in for the sport, with the prize pool topping out at $8 million in 2019. Winners this year will take home $4.4 million, although that’s nothing compared to the near three-quarters of a billion wagered on the races across the four-day carnival.
The real winners however are not the horses who place nor the people who backed them but the gambling corporations for whom the Melbourne Cup is serious business.
The TAB, Sportsbet, Bet365, and Ladbrokes are the big four in this space. Combined, they suck up some 93.92% of online traffic to gambling sites during the Cup, according to data from 2021. Internet activity to those sites spiked by a whopping 254% in 2020 during the festival, when lockdown measures were still very much in place, and jumped by a not-insignificant 179% in 2021.
They take a serious slice of the racing pie that’s one of the richest in the world, although the government still takes the lion’s share. Economic return is estimated to be around $447.6 million — a 20% increase since 2014 while government revenue raised from gambling taxation has risen by $ 1 billion in the past decade to $6.5 billion.
Despite losing some $25 billion each year to gambling, we continue to play on.
How Much Australians Gamble on the Melbourne Cup
In 2012, Aussies bet some $150 million on the Melbourne Cup, while in 2021, that figure had grown to $223.8 million. While the gambling industry is not known for its openness, those sums also appear to have peaked and may be somewhat in decline.
The latest figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that while gambling overall is down, with just 35.2% engaging in any kind of a punt in 2018 compared to 39% in 2105, betting on horse races appears to be increasing.
In the same period, 6.2% of the nation bet on horse or dog racing, up by 0.6% since 2015. Monthly expenditure is also up significantly, with the typical gambler wagering $121.9 on horse or dog races in 2015, increasing to $232.5 in 2018.
Analysis by Finder in 2021 found that, on average, Australians bet almost $88 on the Melbourne Cup each, although this is likely blown out by many placing larger bets.
In 2014, figures show that more than $300 million was wagered on the Cup, many of whom are once-a-year gamblers. At the time, TAB boss Craig Nugent told The Sunday Times that “fixed odds betting has just taken off in Australia.”
“We’ve grown from a $42 million business in our first year to $4.2 billion in 16 years.”
By 2019, however, those figures appeared to be on the wane. TAB recorded a 7.8% decline in turnover on the big race from 2018, a decrease of $8.26 million.
“Punting Advocate”, Richard Irvine, told The Sydney Morning Herald at the time that, “The market’s a bit depressed, it didn’t really change for the Melbourne Cup.”
Total expenditure is still vast though. In 2020, Australians bet $221.6 million on the Melbourne Cup’s main run. That’s just part of the $667.3 million spent across the four-day carnival. While the betting on the main race was up by 17% on 2019 figures, overall turnover for the day was down by $24 million on the previous year.
In 2021, those numbers bounced back, with $223.8 million bet on the cup race. $724.1 million was spent across the four days, an increase of 7.6% on 2020.
Related: The Invisible Issue of Melbourne Cup Day
Related: Flemington Racecourse’s Flood Wall Is Everything Wrong With Australia Right Now
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