06 November 2007

But for a Sniffle

It's Melbourne Cup Day today, known as the "the race that stops a nation", which isn't really true any more, but Australia does go silly, so what better time for a story?

This one's from me, and it hasn't run anywhere before.

"One must get used to progress," said the ghost of Phar Lap.

Millions of potential champions whinnied in disagreement, but as they had not and weren't likely to ever be born, their voices amounted to nothing in the racing firmament.

"You're stuffed," said a ghost of a horse who could have won a Melbourne Cup.

A few years before –
"If you ask me, they're a bloody nuisance."

The minister was in confidential conference in the billiard room of a member of the Board of the Jockey Club. Or the member was in confidential conference with him. Both felt pressed, and each felt that the other should do something about it. With the Spring Carnival a month away, and a virtual cert to be not runnable, both men were feeling frazzled and in desperate need of something to lift them from their misery.

The member swirled his glass. He'd recently come to that same 'bloody nuisance' conclusion. But you could shoot him and hang him on a wall before he'd ever admit it. Even then I wouldn't.

"This flu," said the minister. "We've just announced a hundred million bailout, but Peter's gonna shit himself if he has to actually give it out. Vicious twit, Peter."

"Problem," said the member sympathetically. They'd gone to each other's several weddings. As to who Peter is, he hadn't a clue.

"Those p.m. women who sell hats are the worst," said the minister.

"They're beginning to cause us trouble, too."

"Those hat p.m.'s," the minister chuckled. "I heard on the radio this morning. They're sure as hell giving you fun about value for money, and what are you there for and--"


The host topped up both glasses, and host and guest played a game of billiards, equally badly. The host topped up their glasses again, and when they'd gotten to the point of talking about how fucked up their families were and commiserating on their 15-year-old sons, he said something that made the minister prick up his ears.

"I don't believe Jonathan is allergic to horses. I think he just hates them."

"Does he? Does he bet?"

"How would I know?"

"Uh." The minister's and his son were on the same terms of incommunication.

"He's always in his room."

The minister nodded.

"Playing games."

"Don't I know!"

"But mine doesn't have to buy his," said the member almost belligerently. They had flattened two bottles of the best single malt.

"Oh?" As a minister he had to be thick-skinned, but he had also lost some of his razor sharpness.

"Jonathan has invented the racing industry. He's got the whole thing. The hats, the clothes, the corporate sponsorships, the horses and their form sheets, and he runs the races."

"Oh?" The minister was wondering if he would rather ask for a top-up or ring for his driver.

The member grabbed his arm. "No horses!"

"Horses," said the minister. "Damn nuisance. Take us. We get the flu and what happens? A few days off for the lucky. As a matter of fact, I've had a stopped up nose all week. Prob'ly have de flu myself." He honked into his handkerchief. "No time off for the wicked, heh heh heh. How about?" He held out his glass.

"You closed down our industry."

This unfriendly reminder forced the minister to reach for his jacket. He wasn't about to be treated like that, by anybody!

"You closed down our industry," the member of the Jockey Club repeated.

"Once is enough." The minister shot his cuffs and opened the door.

"Once is too much."

"Get your fuckin hands off me!"

"Then think of something better than announcing some fake money scheme. We know money disbursements, you know." The member's eyes glinted unpleasantly.

The minister shut the door and subsided into the arms of the distinguished old chesterfield. "You could have a little compassion. How are we to solve what is, after all, the root of your problem, those goddamn beasts." He pulled a Romeo Y Julietta out of its humidor and took his time preparing it, spitting its tip expertly on the carpet.

"If this were a perfect world," he said, "they wouldn't even need quarantine, which can be breached, it seems, with a paper clip. And they couldn't get flu, nor need to be tested for drugs, nor, well, any of the messiness of a real track. We could even use the real estate for a good purpose. Housing, pop star concerts, this Pope gig."

"That's been popular," the member laughed. He handed his old friend an espresso he'd just made.

"Yeah, eh, thanks. You guys whinged like stuck pigs, but who goes to those meets really? Most people just want them to happen theoretically so they can bet on TAB, or meet in the boxes. It could be as staged as the moon landing. And this--" he plonked his feet on the table, "beats any box."

"Wanna see the Melbourne Cup, moon landing style?" said the member.

"Eh?" The minister needed more than an espresso to be razor sharp, but the idea has always been attributed to him.


Squire's Son Ltd., the company that Jonathan's dad set up so that Jonathan's software (nicknamed 'Lucky Country') could be sold to the nation and the entire racing industry transformed, made Jonathan a potentially very rich boy.

In record time the system was installed and implemented in New South Wales, the outbreak state, so the Spring Carnival was run after all. Ladies' hats were big in the nightly news. Society in all its sophistication was on display in the gossip shows and in the pages of Women's Weekly, complete with the usual naughty shots of some company director or advertising man with a girl who must be his daughter. The fact that there was no actual meet was the triumph of the system.

Who wanted, given the choice, an aging race track and hats that you have to actually carry from place to place, not to mention stupidly stand with your hand on because they want to blow away? Hats that are woven and sewed are vicious to hairstyles anyway. Who wants the chance for a camera to take one's picture in the wrong angle, for a sunbeam to highlight a wrinkle or a sweating armpit?

Who wants a race ruined by rain?

And most of all, who wants a racetrack ruined by horses?

Thus, the Carnival was not only the most beautiful ever held, but the most efficient. It made so much money that the Melbourne Cup was a relative failure. Those twits holding onto their hats. All the fuss of horses with their needs, the testing which always interferes.

It was a case of survival of the fittest.

There was a certain amount of fuss kicked up by the women who make hats, but the women who had always bought them and had to put up with wearing them were much the stronger lobby. Now they could look at recordings of themselves as they had always wished to be seen and remembered. The cost was quite reasonable, and they didn't even have to go to some smelly track.

The trainers put up a fuss but they were nowhere near as powerful as the owners of horses. All those bills for upkeep, stabling, their luxurious lifestyles having to be catered to--swimming pools, etc. And after all that, they still went crook.

It started in Sydney but within a season, the money from Dubai to Hong Kong to the capital of US racing, Washington DC, went to the horses that were born in an algorithm and would die there, at their determined time.

The punters never knew the difference.


"Progress," said Phar Lap, "is inevitable."

"They hated us," said the ghost of a hack who had once belonged to a little girl until her parents had bought The Safer Way to Ride.

"They hated us, too," said the ghosts of millions of children's dogs who had not and certainly couldn't now ever be born.

"They hated us, too," said the ghost of a man with a handbag on his belt.

"What are you doing here!" cried all those unborn horse ghosts.

"Let him be," said Phar Lap graciously. "He's got nowhere else to go."

The last human bookie tipped his hat to Phar Lap, in thanks.

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