Some of the punters filing into Flemington racecourse were forced to endure a moment’s discomfort on the walk up to the main gates on Tuesday morning.
“Have a good day today,” said an animal rights activist to a group of men in bright-coloured suits. “Hope no horses are put down.”
For racing’s critics, a recent ABC expose into animal cruelty in the industry was supposed to provoke a little handwringing from a general public that largely embraces the day at face value: a day off; a chance to get together; have a drink and a flutter.
By 5pm, when local hope Vow and Declare had claimed the Cup in a dramatic finish and the attendance figures were distributed, it was easy for those critics to claim something was changing.
Despite a glorious Melbourne day, the crowd was, for the fourth year in a row, smaller than the Cup before. The official attendance of 81,400 is the lowest attendance since 1993, cup records show.
Those who have been coming to Flemington for years suspected something was up. “This one is a bit quieter than the other ones,” said Marley Ingram, 34, who has been coming to the Cup with his wife since 2013. “But it’s still a great crowd.”
Still he said the day retained its sense of joy. “I grew up in Melbourne. It has a special place in my heart. I like the day,” he said. “It brings a lot of people out, you’ve got a lot of different races, religions mixing.”
Where recent cup days have been dampened, literally, by poor weather, Melbourne turned up the sunshine on Tuesday. That suggests the low attendance figures are more notable, but also made for a magical day for people like Norma Weekes.
“We’ve never done a cruise, or never done anything [like this] in our lives, so we thought we’d do the Melbourne Cup cruise,” Weekes, 65, of Newcastle said.
Weekes travelled down to Melbourne with her husband. Racing itself means little to her, but the Cup is special. “It’s the only time I bet on a horse,” Weekes said.
Of the recent controversies and allegations of animal cruelty in the industry, Weekes said: “Oh, I don’t know, love … I reckon that’s bullshit.”
Satwinder Singh, 34, came to the Cup with 11 friends. “It means looking at classy people, classy girls, and making new friends,” he said, grinning.
But Singh was not pleased to read about racehorses being sent to slaughter. “From my understanding, maybe I’m wrong, when the horses are not good for the races, they get rid of them,” he said. “That should stop.”
In the lead up to Tuesday, Racing Victoria announced a $25m welfare package. Last year, one Cup runner, Cliffsofmoher was euthanised after the race. By Tuesday evening, there were no recorded deaths, but the Cup runner Rostoprovich was reportedly taken to the equine centre with a suspected crack in his pelvis. He finished 24th.
Outside the racecourse, protesters held their own event, Nup To The Cup. “We think there’s been a huge shift,” Elio Celotto, of the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, told Guardian Australia on Cup morning. “It’s great to see people are taking affirmative action and choosing not to support the Melbourne Cup.”
Their signs carried messages such as “Another Race, Another Victim” while music blared with an ominous voice over. “It’s cruel, barbaric and outdated.”
“I think the point of being here is that there are alternatives,” he said. “Each placard that is held up, we see people driving by, walking by, and sometimes they look and they are obviously thinking about it. We think it does make a difference. I think we need to use every avenue to bring it to the attention of the general public.”
Some things don’t change. On the lawns, the frivolity began soon after the Cup was run and won. The allure of the Cup brought Nicholas Dodd, 35, to Flemington by himself.
Dodd, a New Yorker who is in Australia to study, said all he knew of the Cup was “mostly that people just come out, have a good time, drink a little bit too much”.
As the final race was run, a crowd gathered as a young man attempted some enthusiastic, though not exactly graceful, break dancing. There was a huge thud, and loud cheers, as he hit the turf after a semi-successful backflip. He was then joined by another man, in bare feet, who succeeded at a headstand.
They slapped each other’s bottoms and engaged in some play-fighting. More backflips. Then a shirt came off.
Security moved in, but were discouraged by the loud boos that followed. Later, they returned with police. And the crowd dispersed.
On Tuesday evening, police said six people were arrested at the racetrack.