Part Met Gala, part royal wedding: how Aussies lure show ponies to the track

Spring has finally sprung and that means one thing for the Australian social calendar: a day at the track watching the show ponies.

Sarah Jessica Parker takes a picture of Liz Hurley with Shane Warne in the chairman’s private box during Oaks Day at Flemington.

Last week I received a media alert informing me the Australian Turf Club (ATC) plans to unveil a new entertainment precinct at Royal Randwick, something billed as Pony Palms, for its Everest Carnival next month.

The setup is apparently inspired by "the retro-glam golden era of Palm Springs" and will be "an exciting new trackside destination featuring a pool, private cabanas, a host of high-profile DJs and marquee for racegoers, promising the perfect oasis for a raceday with a twist."

Cabanas? Swimming pool? Palm Springs retro-glam? What the?

Horse racing is no longer about gloves and fascinators (or even actual horses). It is rather big business in Australia, and that's before you even begin to tally up how much is actually being gambled.

2011 Spring Racing Carnival: Actress Joan Collins in the Swisse marquee on Oaks Day at Flemington.Credit:Paul Rovere

Thanks to years of marketing and billions of dollars in investment, racing has become a uniquely Australian social experience.

It all started with the Victorian Racing Club's spring racing carnival, which comprises several days of big race meetings at Flemington including the iconic Melbourne Cup. This produced $447.6 million in gross economic benefit to Victoria last year – a boost of almost 20 per cent since 2014.

Today Flemington's Birdcage enclosure is crammed with elaborate marquees purpose-built for a week of entertaining. Over the years there have been full-blown nightclubs complete with darkened windows to keep out the daylight, while others have been kitted out with hair salons and massage therapists to keep the punters in tip-top shape. One year the Mumm champagne house even plonked a superyacht in the middle of its marquee.

The economic figures the VRC has crowed about have captured the attention of rival jockey clubs around the country, not least the Australian Turf Club in Sydney. The ATC is now pulling out all stops to put on ever bigger and grander events which increasingly have little to do with thoroughbreds and everything to do with bringing in the punters.

Liza Minnelli in the Myer marquee in 2009.Credit:Rebecca Hallas

This is welcome news for fashion retailers, who generate many hundreds of millions of dollars selling hats, suits, frocks, shoes, ties, handbags and all manner of sartorial splendour to the hundreds of thousands of people who make the pilgrimage to the track. Whether it is the limp $6 feathery fascinators worn by girls leaving the track barefoot, or the $10,000 ensembles for celebs that require a team of stylists to construct, it all adds up to sales for someone.

Then there's the booze sales, the food sales and the after parties … the economic trail goes on and on.

Having covered various major races around the country for decades, I can safely say that there is no other country in the world that embraces horse racing as a social outing quite like we Aussies do.

Ascot is too stitched up and the Kentucky Derby is really just a glorified picnic by comparison.

Indeed, a day inside a VIP marquee at a major Australian race meeting is a sort of mash up of the Met Gala Ball, the Oscars, a couple of royal weddings and a presidential election campaign all rolled into one.

Former Federal Opposition leader Bill Shorten and his wife Chloe at Flemington’s Birdcage in 2014.Credit:AAP

Everyone from Hollywood celebrities (I once held Liza Minelli's ashtray at Flemington as she sucked on a bunger before belting out yet another rendition – albeit somewhat hoarse – of Life Is a Cabaret) to political aspirants (I interviewed Bill Shorten at the men's urinal a couple of years ago) is acutely aware of just how significant racing is in this country when it comes to networking and building one's popularity.

There have certainly been some intriguing moments, like the time poor Gina Rinehart, having dined with Richard Pratt and enjoyed a glass of bubbly, tumbled down the stairs of one marquee in front of a phalanx of photographers, resulting in her lady-in waiting Sophie Mirabella barking at the media to delete all photos (naturally, we ignored her).

Gina Rinehart took a spill down a flight of stairs in the Emirates marquee.Credit:AAP

Or when Geoffrey Edelsten repeatedly got down on one knee to propose to Gabi Grecko because several of the news crews missed it the first time around. '

It should be noted that I have experienced a few moments when I truly questioned my profession, like last year when one marquee amateur clumsily threw herself on me to thwart a photo being taken of Elle Macpherson, who was being paid to smile and pose in the Lexus tent. Dumb move.

Or the year I stood in a queue of reporters to interview Princess Diana's niece, an aspiring model/socialite named Lady Kitty Somethingorother, only to be told, after patiently waiting for 45 minutes, that any questions about her famous family were off-limits. It was a short interview.

And then there was the time I was offered an "exclusive" 15 minutes to discuss Jennifer Hawkins' new hat. Pass.

But the races continue to be a beacon for the rich and famous, providing a social smorgasbord that just doesn't happen anywhere else.

Over the years I've been trackside with Sarah Jessica Parker, Paris and Nicky Hilton, Prince Charles, Snoop Dogg, Priscilla Presley, Joan Collins, James Packer (he flew into a rage when I was invited into his tent and quickly evicted me, but now we're "pals"), Liz Hurley, Shane Warne, Stevie Nicks, Nicole Kidman and even a cardboard cut-out of the Kardashians after they failed to get on their flight for a day at the Melbourne Cup.

Flanked by security guards, actress Sarah Jessica Parker arrives for Ladies Day at Flemington in 2011.

And yes, I'm embarrassed to admit, I've often left the track having not seen a single horse.

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