From bliss to bedlam: What goes into a day at Flemington?

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Hours before fashionistas, socialites and punters arrive by train, before racegoers flock in to be greeted by a bronze statue of racing legend Roy Higgins, the serious business has already begun at Flemington.

The modern-day racetrack, about six kilometres from Melbourne’s city centre, is now much more than just that. It’s part animal sanctuary, part discotheque, catwalk, gourmet restaurant and beer barn. Throw in theatre, social club, betting ring and botanical garden and you’re still only scraping the surface.

Staff get Flemington in top shape for Cup Day.Credit: Justin McManus

At sunrise, it is a place of peace and bliss. But any given afternoon at the height of spring, it can be only described as bedlam.

For more than 160-odd years, literary figures such as Mark Twain and Adam Lindsay Gordon have turned up for the horses, while the rich and famous, such as Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell, have attended for the famed Birdcage. Then there are those who don’t care for either – they’re just here for a good time.

Janet McMillan, from near Kyneton, arrives early to find friends in the Nursery. She’s been coming for more than 20 years.

“I don’t bet, and I rarely see a race, to be honest. It’s just a thing we do with friends, and we have for years. Good food, a bit to drink and good times. The rest of it is all a bit over the top, but I love being here, and I love the flowers,” she says.

Mick Ryan is “the keeper of the roses” at Flemington.Credit: Justin McManus


Janet’s passion will come as music to the ears of Mick Ryan, the senior manager of Flemington’s grounds and gardens, who lives in a caretaker’s cottages within the grounds. A veteran of the place, he’s often referred to as “the keeper of the roses”.

For a place known the world over for 16,000 rose bushes, Ryan’s past few months have been tense. Having had the hottest and driest September on record, he’s been a tad nervous about whether he could get them blooming on time.

“I was sat at the MCG on grand final day and all I could really think about was what this heat would mean,” he said. “I’ve been seeing lots of roses peaking outside the racecourse in various gardens, which made me a bit worried, but thankfully ours have not done the same thing yet. I’m very happy that we have had some colder days lately.”

The silverware is polished in the club stand.Credit: Justin McManus

Ryan grew up across the road from the track at Ascot Vale, turned up at Flemington for work experience in 1989 and was offered an apprenticeship the following year. He couldn’t have dreamed he would still be here 34 years later. He loves his roses, a passion that blossomed as a child helping his mother in the garden, and worries constantly about whether the next generation of rose-lovers will come from.

I ask if it has passed on to the next generation, only to find out son Luke plays for AFL club Fremantle. He’ll be at the Cup, but doesn’t care too much for his dad’s work.

“He loves his horses, but football is obviously his passion. Not so much the roses, but he loves turning up,” he says. “There’s nothing like being along the straight and listening to the thunder of their hooves as they accelerate past you. It gives me goosebumps every time.”


Things come to life at this sporting cathedral at 4am each day. Stable staff tend to the almost 600 horses that have access to eight world-class training tracks totalling over 12km in length and 10 hectares in size. All training tracks and pathways around the stables are manicured by track staff 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The biggest names in training are here: Waller, Godolphin, Waterhouse and Freedman.

Cup runner Lastotchka gets some early work at Flemington in the lead-up to the big race.Credit: Getty Images

Staff prepare breakfast for each horse and empty, clean and fill water buckets. Horses then leave the stables for a morning swim in the equine swimming pool. While the horse is out of the box, the space is cleaned, with fresh bedding of shavings or straw prepared for the horse to relax on during the day.

Lee Jordan, the Victoria Racing Club’s racing manager, is responsible for all the horse areas on the course – from the float carpark to the stables, the horses coming into the mounting yard and the mounting yard operation.

“On Cup Day we have full-time staff, including my operations manager, and we have another person dedicated to looking after the owners and trophy presentations. We also have race day casuals and the track staff report to me, too.

The stands are set up for the bookmakers.Credit: Justin McManus

“I would usually get in at 7.30am and check every area, ensure we have the right race order, coordinate race times and I make sure the trainers are having a good experience. It’s a long day and things can pass by in a blur. You just want everything to go right, but you dread something going wrong.”


Liam O’Keeffe and his team of 25 turf managers, labourers and apprentices have worked 21 days straight, basically around the clock, before the Cup Carnival, and then put in long days during the week, and after. The team is constantly busy, mowing and whipper-snipping, watering, moving running rails, rolling, harrowing, fertilising and repairing the grass with sand and seed. You’ll see them out between races, filling in the divots left after each race.

O’Keeffe stresses most at this time of year about the weather forecast. He can cater for any scenario, but craves some certainty.

Groundskeepers have been working around the clock to get the Flemington track in top shape.Credit: Justin McManus

“Probably the biggest worry is not actually, ‘It’s going to rain’, but if you miss the rain,” he says.

“Because if you bank on getting rain, and it doesn’t come, quite often you can be trying to play catch-up.”

Expect a few curveballs. No day at the track is ever the same. After all, that’s what keeps people coming back.

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